Thursday, July 21, 2005

Yugo to Mars
Thirty-six years ago this week, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. Upon the astronauts' return, President Nixon called it "the greatest week since the Creation." While that's an exaggeration, it's not an especially large one, if you consider that for eons, every earthbound creature could only look up at the moon. Actually getting a few of us there has to rank with our greatest technological accomplishments.

The American space program, from its paleolithic beginnings in the 1950s through JFK's challenge to reach the moon and up through the Apollo program itself, was always characterized by a relentless can-do spirit. Think Gary Sinise in the movie Apollo 13, dumping out a pile of everything onboard the crippled orbiter in hopes of figuring out a way to patch it up and get it home. While there were setbacks along the way, few people doubted that the United States would succeed in reaching the moon.

Thirty-six years removed from the space program's greatest triumph, NASA is trying to get the space shuttle off the ground for the first time in 2 1/2 years--and they're having a hell of a time. It's a malfunctioning fuel gauge this time, but it's been other stuff in the past--faulty heat-shield tiles, leaky fuel tanks, buggy computer programs. While the can-do ethos might be alive among those working on the program, from the outside, it looks like they're bumbling along, keeping their fingers crossed, and hoping for the best. Just like you do when your car is on its last legs and you're trying to keep it alive.

That car analogy is actually a pretty good one. During the 1960s, astronauts and other NASA personnel joked about flying in equipment that was built by the lowest bidder, but when it came time for the equipment to perform, it nearly always did. Good old American know-how, even at the most inexpensive level, was always going to be enough. However, even when the shuttles were relatively new, they seemed more like Yugos than reliable American cars--and now, in addition to that, they're ancient. Discovery, the one they're trying to get off the ground next week, was first launched in 1984. When Columbia was lost in 2003, it was 22 years old. Do you know anybody who still has a Yugo--and if so, is it reliable? Although the shuttle systems have been continuously updated, the basic concept was devised while Apollo flights were still going to the moon.

In the 1960s, critics charged that it was frivolous to waste money on the space program while so many crying needs went unmet on Earth. We don't talk that way anymore--ignoring crying needs to spend money on frivolities is part of our lifestyle now. You can argue that the shuttle program is a lot more useful than the Apollo program was--launching satellites, doing scientific experiments, and so on. But you can also argue that if there's one place where privatization really is appropriate, space exploration is it.

The real failure of the shuttle program is, for old-time space geeks, the utter lack of adventure in it. Part of what attracts people to stories of explorers, from Leif Erickson and Marco Polo to Robert Peary and Neil Armstrong, is the spectacle of people testing human limits to do what no one else has ever done. There's not much of that in trucking satellites to geosynchronous orbit. When Bush floated his Mars exploration trial balloon last year, the one thing I could find to recommend it was the possibility of reviving that sense of adventure. Those of us who followed the exploits of the Apollo crews can well imagine how it would be to follow the exploits of humans trying to land on Mars. Yet that sense of adventure has a short shelf-life: Once we reached the moon in 1969, later Apollo missions were greeted by yawns. For all my vivid memories of the early 1970s, apart from the near-disaster of Apollo 13, I can scarcely remember the other missions. Five other Apollo missions reached the moon. Three scheduled flights were actually canceled, and the program ended in December 1972 with Apollo 17.

Whether it's for the adventure in it, or if we find a reason for going that's as motivational as beating the Russians to the moon, I am guessing that it's unlikely that we'll do any more significant space exploration in our lifetimes. In fact, I'd put the odds that we'll do any significant space exploration in the next couple of centuries at 10-to-1 against. We're going to have to figure out how to live when the oil supply runs out, and that will take a good long time. Only after that, if any of us are left, will we have the luxury of looking up at the moon and the stars and making plans to go there.

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