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The Allure of Manned Space Flight

I almost missed the launch; I didn't remembered until only minutes before the Shuttle was to lift-off. I ran into the living room, turned the television on, and called to my two-year old son. Turning away from his play, he saw the Space Shuttle on the screen, and he came running to my lap. Rockets are the new thing in his world. He had seen Rocket, a spaceship in the Little Einsteins cartoon series, every morning. He played with an old balsa wood and cardboard rocket—the first of the many Estes rockets I built as a child. He had seen the day before the launch a photograph of the Pioneer spacecraft lifting from its launch pad in a book of Hubble Space Telescope photos. But he had never seen a live launch. We sat before the television with just two minutes to lift-off.

I have since seen that August 10th launch several dozen times. Each day my boy climbs into my lap and demands to watch the launch replays. We go to the NASA video web site and watch the engines ignite, the Shuttle rise on a column of fire and smoke, the solid rockets fall away, and the Shuttle lift off the external fuel tank. My son is entranced, leaning closer to the screen to see the details better, occasionally making simple remarks: “the boosters fell off.” But the image of a thundering rocket rising on a column of fire holds his attention most firmly. Rockets are now a part of his life, a part of his play, and as important to him as his cars and trains.

I don't know precisely when my own fascination with space began; it began early—the inevitable result of having an aerospace engineer for a father. Manned space flight of my childhood was the X-15 rocket plane and the Mercury-Redstone rockets, which I built as models. The space program eventually became more real when my family moved from the aircraft hub of San Diego to the rocketry hub of Huntsville, Alabama. Living ten miles from the rocket test stands, we could feel the ground shake and see the column of smoke from the frequent tests of the Saturn 5, the booster for the Apollo Moon rocket. Shortly after my twelfth birthday, man walked on the Moon.

The NASA of my youth was at the technological forefront. Manned space flight married aerospace engineering with computer science, and promised to fulfill the dream of breaking Earth's bonds. NASA represented the new and revolutionary, the natural heir of the Wright brothers. NASA represented daring, as its astronauts risked their lives in their pursuit of space travel.

This intrepid image of NASA, which NASA itself always promoted, finds its kinship in the heroic industrial propaganda of the defunct Soviet Union. The Soviet Union used images of workers operating large machinery to project an image of power and industrial advancement. Pictures of cargo ships under construction and long lines of harvesters sweeping across the Russian steppe and drawings of workers in heroic poses, holding instruments or tools that defined their work, graced the magazines, books, and posters coming out of the Soviet Union in the 1960s. NASA, born in the Cold War as a showcase of American technology, displayed its own heroic images of power. The images of manned space flight, with its emphasis on invention and discovery, is a better fit to America's pioneer history than are the images of heavy industry. The irony is that NASA, despite the image it projects of itself, is not the embodiment of America's soul. Despite an origin as a showcase for American technology, NASA is more a showcase of US socialism, and as is inevitable in any socialist enterprise, NASA has become a showcase of American bureaucratic sclerosis.

To see the soul of America, look to the free market. In contrast to Ayn Rand's amusing but simplistic image of American capitalism—portrayed in the Soviet Realism of Atlas Shrugged as brilliant chief executives of giant industrial companies orderly running the railroads, mines, and factories—the free market is a chaotic and free-spirited populace of large and small, rigid and nimble, companies. Our economy does match our optimistic pioneering history.

The contrast between the NASA technology and free-market technology is startling. Unlike the aerospace technology of NASA, the technology of the free market is unassuming. It shrinks in size and hides from sight at every opportunity. Commercial aircraft become quieter and more efficient. Computers, once a giant gray boxes filling refrigerated rooms, are today thin and stylish panels sitting on desktops. Computer cables snaking across the floor have passed away in favor of wireless ethernet. Medicines and new imaging technology replace the scalpel. This is dramatic technology that makes itself mundane and uninspiring.

But the manned space program, with its advances, erstwhile torrid, now glacial, still has a visceral allure. We are drawn by the individual daring of those who travel into space, just as we are drawn to the stories of antarctic explorers or climbers reaching the peak of Mount Everest. These achievements are kin to achievements in sports: they elicit our admiration, but they produce no lasting impact on how we live our lives. The technology of rockets today has not advanced dramatically from the technology of the 1970s. The technology of rockets is more and more resemble the technology of steam locomotives; steam locomotives hung on into the diesel locomotive era because of the disruption of World War 2, and the older rocket technologies hang on because of the absence of political will to develop something truly revolutionary. But the massive manned rockets, like the old steam locomotives, thrill us with their beautiful, powerful physique.

My father was pleased when I told him of my son's interest in rockets. My father, in his 70s, is busy researching plasma rocket engines for NASA. For him, rockets and aircraft, his life's passion, remain the pinnacle of technology. In his adult life, rockets became a means of travel, and with him the dream of traveling away from Earth is alive. In his grandson he no doubt sees the same passions and hopes for a renaissance in a technology that time is passing by. Perhaps by the time my son is old enough to chose a career, NASA will again be a hotbed of advanced technology.

Jim Brainerd

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