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Archive for the ‘Space’ Category

Is the Sky Our New Limit?

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 17, 2009

I was at our pool club the other day when I heard a man of about 40 say those immortal words to an unruly child– “Back when I was a kid, we wouldn’t have dreamed of disobeying our parents!”. After my kids and his were out of earshot, I conspiratorially mentioned to him that back in my day I wouldn’t have dreamed of obeying my parents if I thought there was any chance of getting away with it, giving us both a chuckle at being the newest members of the I’ve Become My Father Club.

We often get lost and wallow in nostalgia when things aren’t quite the way we want them to be in the present; it’s probably our most commonly used emotional crutch and one we’ve all been indoctrinated in by the universal “back in my day…” musings of our forebears. Generally the facts don’t hold true to the sentiments– things weren’t really so peachy under Reagan or Kennedy or Roosevelt or Wilson when you get right down to it, no more or less so than they are in whatever present their names and eras were invoked.

There is at least one realm, however, where I can’t escape the belief that things were oh so much better in the early 60’s, and that is the sense of man’s unlimited potential. Watch this video and tell me if you can recapture that spirit right now if you lived through these events, or if you can even imagine it if , like me, you didn’t.

Billions of words have been spilt upon the 60’s, of course, and so I’ll limit mine to remarking how amazing the changes embodied in those 10 years were, from the unbridled hope and dreams of the early years to the tumult and despair of the ending years.

Space exploration seems the perfect metaphor for the dialing back of our dreams that happened during those years. The Kennedy proclamation that we were going to do the extremely difficult, that we were going to the moon within the decade, is the kind of proclamation that today would be immediately obliterated under the weight of words from the blogosphere, from the media and from the Congress. The discussion of going to Mars hasn’t captured the popular imagination– in fact, it isn’t something that most kids would even know was on the table.

The problem seems to be that we’ve become enamored of the incremental rather than the revolutionary. Kennedy proposed something that skipped so many steps as to be breathtaking– he didn’t get lost in the ephemera of cost benefit analysis or the reality of the many steps between the speech and the landing– he boldly declared an endgame and demanded a  process that would get us there rather than implementing a process that could someday find its way beyond our gravitational pull. In this instance Kennedy wasn’t a man invested in escaping the bonds of gravity, he was  a man who simply didn’t care to be bound.

Since July 20, 1969 we have been gripped by what we think of as reality but which might be more reasonably classified as a miasma of doubt. The day that Armstrong and Aldrin stepped upon the fine powder of a world beyond Terra was the day that an instantly fossilized footprint was laid in the lunar sand, not the day that our first bold steps towards the galaxy were laid. They were the high water mark of an era of hope which receded with the liftoff of the LEM back to the lunar orbiter, an era which, to be fair, had ended years before Apollo 11 ever lifted off. In the resounding roar of the engines of that Saturn V were the echoes of the post war ear of dreams, sounding across the Florida swamps and triggering not the vague stirrings of nostalgia for a distantly remembered past but the desperate grasp for one tantalizingly just out of reach, a ledge grabbed for an instant after the teeter became the fall.

The fall ended in a vat of goo that softened the landing but has clung to us and restrained our reach. The space program sank into the sludge that the rest of our country was submerged in as lunar landings became passe and the next great adventure, Skylab, never really became anything but a punchline. What started to pass for leaps forward weren’t manned strides out into the solar system but hobbled paces like the robotic probes and then the Space Shuttle. Each of those could have been important steps if they were indeed steps towards a goal, but in truth they weren’t. As dramatic as reaching out and landing on Mars for the first time could have been, Viking was an anti-climax– a robot that took a few pictures and died, fulfilling its limited design specs. Even the Space Shuttle was an anti-climax, literally a space truck that delivered satellite cargo into low orbit and landed to be refit for its next cargo delivery. At least it looked like a space ship, to an extent. It couldn’t go to the moon, it couldn’t take us to Mars, but at least it wasn’t just a conical tin can atop a rocket. It was something but, honestly, was never a huge reach. It led to the construction of a failed orbital station that has proven to be not even the modest next step it was supposed to be, a breakthrough-possible lab and perhaps construction station for extra-terran missions, but rather an expensive, orbiting Edsel that holds a very few people in orbit for a few months at a time.

To my mind the one bright spot, the one glimpse in my lifetime of the possibility of man as embodied by the reach into the sky beyond our own, was Hubble. Hubble allowed us not so much to dream as to wonder why we suddenly weren’t, a glimpse into the heavens and perhaps literally into Heaven, a Heaven of unsuspected and unimagined delicacy and grace where even the greatest celestial furnaces burning with a heat beyond the imagination of Dante were objects of breathtaking beauty. Hubble made us ask once more what was out there and reawakened in some of us a desire to find out, even if that quest led beyond our lifespan and into a dreamed future. It literally made the nebulous tangible.

Perhaps as important was the fact that we were able to service and improve Hubble over the years, demonstrating that space wasn’t outside of human reach but was in fact a place we could work, a realm in which we could do what we as humans fundamentally do– manipulate our environment. Four times we reached out to service and improve Hubble, recognizing the fundamental worth to mankind of dreams. Our waking eyes saw the costs and limits of space, but in the never-ending night of orbital space our dream continued to project its images into our lives.

That we had to debate the mission that extended the life of Hubble earlier this spring epitomizes the battle between those two existences, that of our budget conscious day and our limitless night. The bright lights of night won out, with caution and pessimism thrown to the wind and the mission, one of extraordinary difficulty and more than what some considered acceptable risk, executed perfectly. That the mission happened proves that the dreams live and that their value has won a column in the often seemingly heartless spreadsheet of our existence.

We have not overcome our incremental and limited existence, either in space or in our national life. The replacement for the Shuttle is a return to the conical tin can atop the rocket, a huge disappointment for most who love space and see a role for man in it, but one which may yet surprise and take us to a place where we touch the dream instead of merely glimpsing it on the fringes of consciousness. Private space travel seems to be becoming a reality, even if the suborbital flights of the Rutans of the world are a return to the days of Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepherd. It must be recalled that we went from Kitty Hawk to space in a span of 58 years; who knows how little time it might take the visionaries of the private sector to catch and exceed the realities of NASA, the ESA, the Russians and the other governmental space players even starting from the notional point of the 1961 push into space.

I refuse to consider the sky our new limit. I can only hope that others will, too.

Posted in American History, Cultural Phenomena, History, Space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Things History Forgets

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 8, 2009

There is an amazing story running at Wired Magazine today ( detailing what may be the greatest story of the Space Race era– one that I’d never heard before.

The Space Race is one of the most detailed chronicles in modern history, both in the popular culture realm (The Right Stuff comes immediately to mind) and in countless tomes of historical works. We know all about Sputnik and Explorer, about Laika the Soviet space dog and Able and Baker the American space monkeys, about Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard. The early years of the race were tit for tat, an exchange of feats and breakthroughs that pitted the US & Soviets in a tight race for the ultimate high ground. When John Kennedy announced that America would go to the moon within ten years the race actually ratcheted up even as it went a bit more covert, especially on the Soviet side of things. I don’t need to tell you these things, though– you know them, and that’s the point. We all know just about all there is to know about the drama of the early years of space exploration.

Oh, except for the fact that the Soviets tried to upstage the Apollo 11 moon landing by putting their own unmanned lander on the lunar surface first while Apollo 11 was in lunar orbit and then again while Armstrong and Aldrin were on the surface, with the Soviet lander ultimately crashing close to the Tranquility Base site that our own lander was sitting on.

According to the story (and the accompanying original audio recordings) astronomers at a British observatory were monitoring transmissions from the moon when they discovered that a Soviet orbiter, Luna 15, had dramatically changed its orbit while Apollo 11 was in orbit and then, after the landing, had made a radical change to get very close to the lander. Apparently that day a “reliable rumor” emerged from Moscow that Luna 15 would land, retrieve lunar rock samples, and return to Earth, demonstrating not only that the Sovs were the equals of the Americans but that they were far ahead in robotics and, presumably, in humanity as they could do what we did without putting lives at risk. It all went awry, however, on July 21st with panicked broadcasts from a Soviet mission control center that Luna was landing but was coming in much too fast, according to Wired & the recording. Luna smashed into the lunar surface and was obliterated, ending what could have been the most dramatic chapter in the competition.

As fascinating as the story of Apollo 11-Luna 15 is, what interests me even more is how this story was lost to history for 40 years. The recordings of the events, monitored at Jordell Bank Observatory in the UK, were put in the ever-popular drawer and lost. There was no problem of classified materials, no effort to obscure the facts, no cover-up. History, in this case, was simply misplaced and stumbled upon 40 years later when someone was doing research for a tribute to the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, a story that could have been radically different.

When a story that we know so well, that was so well documented can have an unsuspected component of the magnitude of this one you have to question all events in human history and accept the concept that even the best known history may not accurately reflect the facts in their totality. The temptation to question the history of events that would have shown a strategic benefit to obscure– the story of FDR knowing that Pearl Harbor was coming would be a good example– gets new life in light of something like this, and the saw that victors write the history gains emphasis. That history, especially military and security history, can be intentionally obscured, distorted, or had false emphasis placed upon aspects of it is no secret; that benign history can be so greatly impacted by simply tossing something hugely important in a drawer and forgetting about it for decades is breathtaking if not, perhaps, surprising to the historian.

The Race to the Moon almost had a dramatically different– and largely unsuspected– outcome. It has often been said that history is a guide, but it is also an area as worthy of reasearch as science and mathematics; just as man has confronted in the past unique and challenging situations, so to do we now and shall we do again. Knowing how we actually met those situations informs how we can do so the next time we are faced with one, and that is a road map worth having.

Posted in American History, History, NASA, Space | 1 Comment »

Orbital Bumper Cars or A Message Sent Via Communications Satellite?

Posted by Bob Kohm on February 12, 2009

The New York Times is reporting that for the first time two large satellites have collided in orbit, an American Iridium sat-phone orbiter and what has been described as an “inoperatve Russian communications satellite”. The debris from the collision of the two spacecraft is a potential disaster for other spacecraft; indeed the International Space Station and its crew is already in danger from the debris field, which is expanding through not only its orbit but also through that of hundreds of other birds.

This mess is reminiscent of the January 11, 2007 Chinese intercept of a satellite in a demonstration of their ability to take out militarily significant sats. The Chinese came under fire from all quarters for the irresponsible test/poke in the eye which resulted in a gigantic cloud of orbital debris in an already crowded orbital path. Satellites, despite the rough journey they follow to get into orbit, are extraordinarily delicate instruments and can be easily damaged by tiny, high velocity mini-meteors and bits of space junk; huge chunks of defunct satellite are not, thus, a good thing. Worse, the bits of debris need to be tracked as their orbits change due to the initial energy of the impact and then either settle into an orbit or, more likely, degrade across many other orbits. Think about that– take two 1200+ pound plus machines loaded with ceramics and metals, smash them into each other at 17,000+ mph and then consider how many pieces they will break into. Now track the larger parts that can be resolved on radar for weeks, months, and years as they first expand their orbital paths and then plunge back through the orbital paths of thousands of other spacecraft on their way to burning up in the atmosphere sometime over the next few weeks to years. It is, to simplify, not good.

There are larger issues here. The first is that orbital space is getting very, very crowded as redundant sats are launched to do jobs that satellites of competitors are already doing while other satellites fail and replacements are launched, with new birds going up all the while for new purposes. Some say these collisions will become inevitable, although to this point only three smaller accidental collisions have been recorded. Sooner or later, either satellite design is going to have to dramatically change to deal with collisions (most likely an impossibility) or satellite losses are going to become more frequent, a problem that will grow exponentially as the failure by destruction of one satellite will lead to a debris field which in turn may well destroy others. It’s quite a mess.

The other concern here is that since these were an American and Russian satellite and the collision happened over Siberia that we have a Chinese test redux happening here. There have been rumors in the past that the US was covering some of its intelligence satellites as Iridium constellation birds, an exchange that was allegedly worked out as the US government bolstered the technologically brilliant but fiscally disastrous early Iridium days. Additionally, the US military and intelligence agencies make extensive use of the Iridium satellite phone system, and the satellite destroyed was, coincidentally, the one that would handle transmissions from a swath of Central Asia, already the arena of US-Russian competition in the previous few weeks as the Russians have sought to hamper our Afghan War effort by shutting down the Kyrgyz Manas air base to us.  Could this have actually been a Russian demonstration of their capacity to intercept an American satellite? There is some logic to it when you consider the belligerence of the Putin-Medvedyev regime as well as the “Test Obama” ethos that our rivals can be expected to adopt and indeed some have, especially the Russians. It’s also hard to imagine that this collision came as a surprise, given how closely satellites are tracked in orbit– it suggests that one of those satellites was actively maneuvering to get close o the other, otherwise this collision would likely have been seen coming in advance. I’ll be keeping an eye on Aviation Week (aka AvLeak) over the next few weeks amongst other sources to see what buzz pops up.

Either way, accident or attack, this is a nasty situation and one we will likely be visiting and revisiting in the future as space not only continues to fill up but also as its strategic importance is magnified.

Posted in Foreign Affairs, Intelligence (and lack thereof), NASA, Russia, Space, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Apparently These Weren’t Built in Detroit

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 3, 2009

meralogoWord from NASA that our two rovers on Mars, Spirit and Opportunity, are still functioning and doing good science at the approach of their fifth anniversaries on Mars.

My Ford Explorer didn’t make it five years in the city that funds NASA. Can we swing just a bit of bailout money, say a billion or three, to the folks who put together the ultimate r/c cars, shot them across the solar system to a frigid, dusty world, and managed to keep them running for five+ years with the nearest Jiffy Lube 120,000,000 miles away? Let them build the damned Chevy Volt, they may even get it right.

Of course, if Congress bitched about the Big Three CEOs showing up in Gulfstream jets, they may not take kindly to these guys popping over to the Hill on the Virgin Atlantic Spaceship 2

Posted in Detroit, Economy, NASA, Space | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

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