Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Apollo – The greatest generation’s greatest failure.

After basking in the glow of the 40th anniversary of the moon landing all weekend and especially Monday, I knew today would come and I dreaded it.  Why?  Because the Apollo program stands as a huge living testament to the greatest failure of the greatest generation.  Yes, I know, I am committing blasphemy, since the greatest generation is a sacred cow and not to be derided at any cost.  I’m sorry, but the failure stares us all in the face and you cannot shrink from it.  (Luckily, there is a faction that believes Apollo doesn’t belong solely to the greatest generation, so I may not go straight to hell... I might get the scenic route.)

Before I go any further, let me just say that I blame no one at all, nor do I mean any of this to paint anyone or anything with a derision.  What the men and women of NASA did will always stand as a phenomenal achievement.  To get to the moon and back, 6 times, with less computing power than my iphone or your average blackberry is amazing.  They did all this in 8 years, with slide rules and nothing more than an unflagging dedication to the truth.  After the events of Apollo 1 on the launch pad, the refocus and dedication to the cause was amazing.  The accomplishment alone stands the test of history as first among the great feats of mankind.  Bringing President Kennedy’s vision to fruition was a mighty endeavor, the kind only trusted to giants.

And all I can think is “Damn Kennedy’s speechwriter to hell!!”

Yep... you heard that right... damn him to hell, whoever he was. (metaphorically, of course, I really hope he has/had a great life with all he ever wanted.)  But with three little words he screwed over generations and set us on the path to not seeing space again for a very long time.

Three little words... “in this decade.”

Most people think that NASA sprang from the ground after Pres. Kennedy made his famous speech.  In reality, they had been going for a few years (since ‘58) and actually were working on things like the moon.  After all, the russkies had spanked us all over space and it was starting to hurt.  There were folks in NASA who were formulating plans to develop a low earth orbit station that could be manned.  (Defense guys loved this since those guys could have bombs to drop on them Russkies.)  From there, we would use disposable rockets and re-entry vehicles to get men and equipment to the station.  There, they would build a lunar spacecraft that would then make all kinds of round trips to the moon and back.  (Keep in mind that Dr. Robert Goddard wanted to go to Mars and not the moon, but he knew he couldn’t get funding for that...)

Then Pres. Kennedy makes his timely speech (May 25, 1961), a political one, to be sure, since the russkies were winning the space race.  Then he has the nerve to get himself killed.  Next thing you know Johnson is latching onto that desire for the moon and telling NASA to DO it.  Don’t think about it, DO IT.  (Remember, Johnson was an absolute space nut, moreso even than Kennedy.)

So instead of an orderly, paced and scientific methodology to get to the moon and back, and then the planets, we got Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.  Crash test programs designed to get us there “firstest with the mostest.”  Lest you think I blame our political leaders for it, I tell you that Werner von Braun had more to do with convincing Johnson (who then convinced Kennedy) than anyone else.

What we did next was a marvel.  From nothing at all, we built a rocketry/guidance/environmental/control and telemetry project that could, and did, take us all the way to the moon and back.  Average men and women moved mountains, thought the unthinkable and truly dreamed the impossible dream, made it a reality and we all basked in the glory of it all.

And then the luster faded.  The glory subsided.  We did what Kennedy wanted, didn’t we?  ANd what was all this getting us anyhow?  Some rocks from the moon.... whooopie.  After building the impossible, we did the unthinkable.  We terminated the program before it even finished.  NASA learned the age old axiom about being careful what you wish for...

And now what do we have?  An aging shuttle that is a poor substitute for a space program and an international space station whose heavy contributions to science are now things like seeing if the hair on mice are sensitive to weightlessness...

It makes a geek/nerd wanna cry.  I have a collection of Slide Rules, not because I know how to use them, mind you, but because I saw the guys at NASA (my heroes) use them to send guys to the moon.  I met Buzz Aldrin once and was moved to tears by his recount of the trip.

WHERE IS MY GENERATION’S APOLLO????  I wanna go to space damnit!  I want my jetpack and I wanna work at Spacely Sprockets!

Mercury, Gemini, Apollo...  They got us there, but like some other great projects, nobody thought enough about what we do when we make it.

Soon, the Shuttle will stop running.  They have to, they’re falling apart and cannot be maintained.  There is nothing waiting in the wings.  Without another massive effort we’re not going back to the moon for a long time.  Pres. Obama was very obvious on Monday that he is not going to put any more money into “A silly bunch of egghead crap”, no President before him has either.  Congress won’t fund them, there are no kickbacks in NASA funding bills.  We’ll see the Chinese flag, the Japanese flag and European flags on the moon long before the stars and stripes.

It’s not just the moon either.  We need to be looking into space, but we don’t have the sight, we lack vision.

Will someone please come forward, have a great vision for space and then get shot?

It seems like thats the only way...

P.S.  There is a great history article over at NASA that talks about how the decision was made for Apollo.  Very interesting reading and has some things that not alot of people know or realize. You can CLICK HERE TO GO TO IT