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Article Specs

Article ID: 5422

VoxAcct: 7

Section: words

Age Group: Adult

Days Up: 4,195

Times Read: 5,855

On Space

Author: Darragh Nagle [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: February 2nd. 2003
Times Viewed: 5,855

Back in 1969, the Apollo program landed the first people on the moon.

Everyone who witnessed those times measures history by that day, where were you when they landed on the moon?

I was on a Greek ocean liner, coming into the island of Mikonos. A fellow traveler, who spoke little English, after ascertaining that I was an American, pointed at the moon above us in the sky and proclaimed "America!"

I knew he was acknowledging our achievement, with enthusiasm, and it was really an achievement for all man and woman-kind, all over the world.

Before the Apollo program was the Gemini program. This consisted of two-person capsules, and with these vehicles the first in-orbit rendezvous was accomplished, a necessary first step before the Apollo mission could be attempted, because the Apollo command capsule and module had to mate with the lunar excursion module in earth orbit before departing for the moon. There was one technical problem with the Gemini target module on one flight, a shroud that would not open on the target, and the target module was named "the alligator", due to its appearance, with only one of the two halves of the tip end of the module opening. Multiple Gemini missions were a success, and Apollo could later proceed.

Before the Gemini missions were the Mercury missions, with a one-person capsule. The first of these was Alan Shepard's sub-orbital flight, followed later by John Glenn, an American hero as the first American in orbit, (The Russians had a cosmonaut in orbit first) now a senator, and who flew on a shuttle mission in recent years, providing medical data on senior citizens in orbit, as well as a welcome re-visit to orbit by an American hero from the 50's/60's.

Before the Mercury missions, there was the Russian satellite "sputnik", which took America by surprise, when the USSR placed a vehicle in orbit while the USA was still working with the X15 airplane, missiles, and jet planes. The USA responded with a massive scientific push to catch up, and we called it "the space race" in those days. The first launch attempts by our country exploded in the first few seconds after launch, and were called "poofnik" in the press. We employed the talents of Wernher van Braun and his team of German scientists, who came to the US at the end of World War two. At the same time, other German rocket scientists were recovered from Germany by the Soviet Union. Yet, in time, the United States technology prevailed. Our technology grew in strength and depth, and the "race for the moon" was launched by President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, in a famous address to the nation, in 1961:

"Finally, if we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take... I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshaled the national resources required for such leadership... I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon, and returning him safely to the earth." President John F. Kennedy, 1961

Sadly, due to his assassination in 1963, President John Kennedy never witnessed the lunar landing in 1969, and President Richard Nixon was the one to give congratulatory messages by radio to the astronauts on the moon, and to the United States, and to the world. As Neil Armstrong, commander of the Apollo 11 mission, put it, as he climbed down the ladder and placed the first human footprint on the moon, "That's one small step for man, and one giant leap for mankind."

The world was awed, and clearly the lunar landings, and scientific explorations of the moon, and the return of lunar soil and rocks to the earth, was one of the greatest achievements of the history of life on earth. Greater perhaps, than the seven wonders of the world, including the pyramids of Egypt. I for one am pleased to have visited the Kennedy Space Center, and to have touched the sliver of moon-rock on display there for the public.

In the usual nature of things, there were naysayers, and a Hollywood movie appeared that portrayed the entire set of lunar missions as a hoax. Indeed, some people took up this cause, claiming that the missions were a hoax. Their cries were easily disproved, however, by astronomers, and by certain technology left on the moon by the Apollo astronauts. A device was left on the lunar surface, a corner-reflector mirror device, developed by physicist Julius Tabin, which can return light directly to its source, without regard to the incoming angle. This device, on the lunar surface, has enabled us to use lasers to measure the distance between the Earth and moon to within inches, by timing the time it takes for the journey of the beam. The moon is about 2-light-seconds away.

The Apollo missions went on, and we were all on edge with the Apollo 13 mission, which thankfully ended with the safe return of our astronauts after a harrowing visit to lunar orbit and return to earth, by a spacecraft that suffered quadruple failures and required repairs to ensure the survival of the astronauts. Many an engineer at NASA spent sleepless days and nights, computing return paths and environmental survival techniques, sometimes using the brand-new handheld calculator technology, to achieve their safe return.

Eventually, the United States became complacent and even bored with the Apollo missions, comparable as they were to the Egyptian pyramids and the seven wonders of the world, and a senator in congress criticized the expenditures for the moon missions, saying that our astronauts were "playing golf on the moon", while poor people in America awaited relief. Indeed, the astronauts did enact a golf playing moment on the moon, but the use by the senator of this event was a clear case of interest in acquiring funding for one's own constituency, inspired by the plight of some struggling citizens. While citizens do struggle, it is clear that the space program has provided more benefits per dollar expended than any other program in the history of our country. We have microchip computers, teflon, medical advances, manufacturing advances, and technological design and engineering advances that have no precedent, thanks to our space program. The space program has provided more benefit to our society and to the world, than any other endeavor in history.

We lost some heroes along the way. In the Apollo command module fire on the launch pad, we lost three astronauts. In the shuttle Challenger explosion, we lost seven astronauts. In a Russian re-entry, we lost three cosmonauts. Now, with the loss of the Columbia, we have lost seven more heroes. The world community is sending blessings for the loss of Columbia, her crew, their families, the nations, and the world communities that supported this mission.

It is time to fund the next-generation shuttle technology. NASA has been put in the position in the last few years, of supporting our aging shuttle fleet, while developing the next-generation shuttle fleet at the same time. Unfortunately, our congress has been unwilling to fund both the continued operation of our current shuttles and the development of a replacement technology.

It was President Jimmy Carter's presidential commission, in the late 1970's and early 1980's, that was chartered to investigate why the space shuttle program had so many delays, and had not successfully achieved our nation's goals for launching the shuttle program. President Carter's commission returned their report, and it said that the U.S. Congress had slashed the space shuttle's development budget, not once, but seven times, forcing the engineers to resort to more and more extreme measures to achieve a shuttle program with less and less funding. The whole concept of the thermal protection tiles, now implicated possibly in the destruction of Columbia, was introduced in response to these budget cuts by congress.

Therefore, our congress, and we as a nation, may have made an error in reducing the budget of the shuttle under construction, and in recent years. In 2001 Senator Bill Nelson, D-FLa, said "We're starving NASA's budget -- and thus greatly increasing the chance of a catastrophic loss." Our astronauts who perished with Columbia, after the left wing, possibly damaged by insulating foam from the main fuel tank fell off during liftoff, which may have damaged some of those thermal insulation tiles, lost hydraulic temperature data, then lost left tire pressure data, and then was subjected to extreme heat, from NASA data according to news reports on CNN.com. If the structure of the shuttle's left wing was compromised by heat, at Mach18, 18 times the speed of sound, and at 38 miles of altitude, there was no hope of survival. The congressional budget cuts of the late 1960s and early 1970s in the shuttle development program would therefore be clearly to blame.

As in the Challenger explosion, in which the US appointed the Manhattan-project and world renowned physicist Richard Feynmann to investigate, we found that the engineers at Morton-Thiokol, who manufacture the solid rocket boosters, had spoken out against the launch in 49 degree temperatures, and had engineering data that said that the flight was unsafe in those conditions, with rubber O-rings in the boosters which would allow hot gasses to pass at those low temperatures, compromising the booster and ultimately exploding the main fuel tank, yet they were faced with the political environment of corporate management and government bureaucracy, in a time when NASA lacked the independent safety-assurance arm, later appointed as a result of the Challenger explosion, and NASA at that time requested that Morton-Thiokol stop impeding progress, and approve the launch despite the concerns of the engineers. The management of Morton-Thiokol, thinking of the importance of profits and good business and government relations, disregarded the advice of their engineers and gave NASA the go-ahead they requested, with tragic results. President Ronald Reagan needed some good press at the time, and there was tension in the news, as television scenes of icicles hanging from the shuttle's wings were shown in the hours before launch, and no-one knew if a shuttle could fly in these temperatures, and yes, the engineers' concerns were stated in the news before the launch. With a state-of-the-union address coming up, there was an attitude of, "come on, you know it can do it, it has been working for years, don't give us any static. The president needs a good report for the state-of-the-union address."

It was a balance. It was a judgment call. We judged wrong. We paid the price, with the lives of those astronauts. We learned the lessons. We are still learning the lessons.

We have asked NASA to support the current shuttle fleet and the next-generation development effort, with only the money for one of those projects. This must change. NASA should receive full funding for the development of the next generation of spacecraft, independently of the funding to support continued safe operation of our current shuttle fleet, now 23 years old.

In the last few years, the Venture-Star new shuttle prototype program, announced by then Vice President Al Gore during the Clinton administration, has been canceled, due to problems with the composite-structured fuel tank which blistered during fueling with liquid hydrogen. An attempt to retrofit with current aluminum tank technology did not work. There has been a prominent lack of news regarding the choice of a new shuttle technology program, and the funding by the congress and the American people of such a program.

Also in recent years, the private sector has been growing in importance for the commercialization of the space business, and the migration of space operations from the government to the private sector. The X2 prize has been offered to the first persons to fly to 65 miles altitude, with a repeat flight within two weeks, with no major component replacement on the spacecraft. Many companies are responding with new technology that promises to be much less expensive for access to space. One British design is a hybrid jet/rocket craft, similar in size to a business jet, that could take off from conventional airports, fly over the equator eastbound at high altitude, taking advantage of the earth's rotation, and then rocket boost into space.

The time has come. Our first shuttle fleet was and is an outstanding success, of benefit to all people in this world, and, we should fund and develop the next new generation shuttle.

Darragh Nagle
Central Staff - The Witches' Voice
Saturday, February, 1st.., 2003

Email: Witchvox Staff




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