Star Trek and Star Wars have created a popular mindset that realspace exploration is exploring other star systems. However, NASAs new Vision for Space Exploration has been putting the emphasis closer to home.
Raise your hand if you remember the Apollo program- and watched a take-off in black and white. Back then people followed the Space Race kind of like people follow popular prime time television dramas of today; it was a years-long unfolding drama about pushing the limits of technology and human endurance. When the Space Race began, nobody knew if a human could survive in space for any length of time. Now, NASA doesn’t really start to worry until the relief crew for the International Space Station is more than a couple of months late.
Hopefully, with about a quarter of a century having passed since the Berlin Wall came down, all the Cold War rhetoric can be removed from the equation. The Space Race might then be considered as a basic competition, without being overshadowed by military designs on achieving the ultimate higher ground on the Moon. While the military mindset opened American and Russian pocketbooks, it also limited the scope of planning for the exploration of space. In the West, once we reached the Moon, the race was over. In the East, technical difficulties were not overcome, as they had been in the past, after the Americans had landed on the Moon. The world was changing.
At the height of the Space Race, it was an amazing spectacle for those old enough at the time to remember it. Just one generation (two at the most!) before our own, people were born into a world powered mostly by muscle. Industry used steam, and there was no electricity yet in many rural areas. They lived on a farm and worked with animals and marveled at the new gasoline-powered horseless-carriages which were beginning to pass through their village.
Fathers and grandfathers served in World War Two, the first technological war. Everything was different after WW2, the old ways of life were changing if they survived at all. Nearly all of us have heard the old timers talk about present day advances with a sense of wonder- if not disbelief. The attempt to land a man on the moon was the crowning achievement for the World War Two generation, the ultimate technological advance.
Due to the war on terrorism, young people in America are beginning to get a sense of what it was like during the Cold War, when any day could bring news of a horrible war that nobody could win. To think that, at the time, everyone probably subconsciously wished that international competition could be decided on fields other than battlefields. The Olympic games were more popular then, and would continue to be a surrogate form of warfare right up to the 1980s.
The Space Race relieved those tensions as well. The reason that the Moon landings still resonate in America decades later is probably because the race started off poorly for the United States. The Soviets got off to a strong start on April 12, 1961 when they launched the first human into space. His name was Yuri Gagarin, and coming close on the heels of Sputnik, Gagarins single orbit of the Earth solidified the Soviet lead in the Space Race. That really bothered Americans, who spend their spare time racing cars, motorcycles, horses; anything that can move a human faster than their feet is adapted for competition. The race was on!
On May 5, 1961 American astronaut Alan Shepard blasted off in a Mercury capsule. Shepard was the first American in space, second human. It appeared that America could not even keep up with the Soviets, let alone compete in a race with them, since Shepard’s mission consisted of a 15 minute flight into space, no orbit. On February 20, 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. Meanwhile the Soviets orbited the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova, in 1963, and debuted the three-passenger Voskhod space vehicle in 1964.
In the United States, NASAs Gemini program of 10 launches in two years began in 1965. The Gemini was a two person capsule, and it’s my personal choice for coolest-looking design of a real spacecraft and launch vehicle. Gemini still could not carry as many crew as the Soviet Voskhod, and the USSR increased its lead when on March 18, 1965 cosmonaut Alexei Leonov became the first person to leave a space vehicle for a space walk. Three months later Edward White repeated the feat for the United States, on June 3, 1965. The race was close, but the Soviets still had a lead over the Americans.
The Soviets began using the venerable Soyuz series of capsules in 1967. They were in the lead, coming down the home stretch, going for the Moon. The year 1967 started horribly for the Americans. On January 27, 1967, NASA suffered the tragic loss of three astronauts: Virgil Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee. The three men died in a flash fire inside their capsule, while training for NASAs next project, named Apollo. It appeared that the prize of reaching the Moon first belonged to the Soviet Union.
The Saturn series of boosters was going to be the deciding factor in the Space Race. The Saturn was powerful enough to lift the payload of crew, supplies, and lander for a Moon mission. The Soviet Union ran into technical issues with their booster system design, and there was a controversy within the Soviet space program over the choice of engines and fuel. The USSR was unable to design a booster quickly enough. The effort was not in vain, since Russia currently operates the most powerful space lifting system in the world, the Proton, which was originally planned to launch cosmonauts to the moon. No Saturn has been assembled in America since the 1970s, even though the Moon prize went to the United States.
The Saturn series of rockets and the Apollo program started flying in October, 1968. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first humans to set foot on the Moon.Most Americans sat in front of the family television and watched this triumph of the World War Two generation, his generation.
Anything was possible. Mars was next, and everybody knew that we would have a base on the Moon by the 1980s. Television chipped in on the subject with Space 1999, when the Moon could be thrown from Earth orbit and the base there would have enough with them to survive on their own. Dont forget Arthur C. Clark’s 2001, a Space Odyssey, and Stanley Kubrick’s movie of the same name. It all made Star Treks space aliens and laser beams seem silly by comparison.
Looking back now, don’t we all have to ask: What happened? Where’s the Moonbase? Where’s the human exploration of Jupiter? It all seemed possible back then, even probable. In fact, momentum carried both the Soviet and American space programs into the 1980s. The Soviet Unions human space flight program concentrated on endurance and began a series of manned space stations, making many wonderful breakthroughs and setting records for time spent in space by their cosmonauts. To me, they really won the Space Race, because they never really changed the direction of their space program.
During the 70s, America was beginning to show signs of glamour and glitz in its space program. Science fiction had popularized the notion of reusable spacecraft, able to come and go in a planets gravity at will. Making that a reality was going to be harder to achieve than it looks in Hollywood. Thus the Space Shuttle. The first one was named Enterprise after an outcry from Star Trek fans that the first space shuttle be named after the fictional starship.
The American public was loosing interest in the space program, in the cynical wake of Watergate. Still, some kids skipped school to watch the test glides of the Enterprise, and the first launch of Columbia on April 12, 1981, but there was no drama to it really. Science fiction nuts were awed at the reusable space shuttle, and the beautiful pictures of it landing in the desert. It was really cool, but nobody quite realized that America’s return to the Moon and a visit to Mars had been mortgaged to produce the technological wonder of the space shuttle.
So here we are almost 35 years later. No moon colony, no flying car.
The obvious question is, with all the problems in the world, can we afford a trip to Mars? Some people in Americas government think so, as evidenced by NASAs Vision for Space Exploration, but others are more skeptical. The space program is more than just a thrill ride or projection of stereotypical male drives for pride or dominance. A country’s space program is an advanced research project more than anything else, and leads to breakthroughs in everything from consumer electronics to medicine and safety.
Since more than half of all Americans living today were born after the Moon landings, it may be useful to recount some of the common things of everyday life which came from the space program. Smoke detector technology was developed for NASAs Skylab space station, and there are now laws mandating they be installed in every home. This alone has saved countless lives. Do you have a comfortable bed? Might be a result of foam technology designed to counter the force of gravity during a space launch. The material from the Viking Mars landers parachute shroud was adapted for use in tires, increasing their life by 10,000 miles. Do you have a water filter in your home? That technology was developed for the Apollo program. Cordless power tools are a result of a need for such a device in space, and even golf balls have been improved by NASAs aerodynamic research.
In the field of medicine, technology developed for the Hubble space telescope has resulted in non-surgical breast biopsies for the diagnosis of breast cancer, and research is ongoing to adapt NASA technology used to study Earths atmosphere for faster and easier mammograms. Technology from the Mars Pathfinder mission was developed to create 3-D ultrasounds.
Artificial heart devices and pacemaker implants have also benefited from NASAs technology. This is not a complete list of technology developed from space research, but it should be evident that much of our modern world is a result of NASAs space program.
What breakthroughs await us as we develop the technology to travel to Mars? And what about colonization? NASA has recently undertook a project to develop plants which can live in the current conditions on Mars, now that we know that there is ice and maybe even liquid water on Mars. One day Mars may become the Green Planet, not the Red Planet, in our night sky. Exploring Mars is a bold venture, with unimaginable outcomes. Will the attempt to have a permanent presence on the Moon and Mars lead to genetically altered plants and animals for space farms? Might this lead to some kind of super-crop, able to thrive in the harsh conditions of Africa, and maybe even put an end to famine there? Will humans also be altered in some way to better cope with low gravity conditions and different atmospheric gasses and pressures?
Humans are taking the reigns of their evolutionary path and embarking on this journey to their future. We are the first creatures on Earth to evolve the capability of forcing changes to our physiology to adapt to the environment, rather than the environment forcing change upon us. If we are committed to permanent settlements on the Moon and Mars, science will almost certainly step in to force the adaptations necessary for our new environment. This might result in future Earthbound thrill-seekers having themselves modified to breathe normally on mountaintops. Scandals in professional sports might be the result of genetic tampering in the future. Maybe new sports will evolve for genetically engineered competitors.
More than 500 people have been in space since Yuri Gagarin left Earth in 1961. Currently, there is serious talk of orbiting solar power stations transmitting microwave energy down to Earth. An American company is planning to put into orbit the first commercial space station, for space tourism. Astronaut Michael Foale recently said that in 10 to 15 years there will be both professional opportunities in space, and tourism. We may be witnessing the dawn of a golden age of space flight and human exploration; and about time too.