atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,
atomic_fungus
atomic_fungus

#4295: It's been 45 years since then.

On July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 launched from Cape Canaveral. As Dave in Texas says over at AoSHQ, it took Man 66 years from the day the Wright brothers first demonstrated controllable human flight in a heavier-than-air powered vehicle to the day men first left Earth with the intention of landing on the moon.

And now it's been 45 years since that day, two-thirds of the time it took us to get to interplanetary rocket ships from rickety box kites. And what have we done since?

Nothing. Big, fat zero. In fact, you can argue that we've done less than nothing because "nothing" would imply that we could still get to the moon. But we can't; no one in the world has the capability to send people to the moon because the United States voluntarily gave up doing it and failed to preserve the techniques required.

We are less capable than we were in 1972. The last functioning moon rocket was turned into a lawn ornament, and since then we've done nothing but employ government engineers and bureaucrats to send people into orbit, something we figured out how to do in the 1960s.

That was 58 years after the Wright brothers flew, by the way. Eight years after Yuri Gagarin made orbit, Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon. It was eleven years from the first man in orbit to the last man leaving the moon.

Now we have people who tell us that we couldn't get back to the moon in less than a decade and a half, and I don't know what to believe. Are they right? If there were some hard, pressing reason for us to get to the moon, could we get there in eight years? Or would it take ten, or twenty, or thirty?

If it did, it would take that time because of government standing in the way, not because it's such an impossible feat.

In a prior entry I talked about the machinery that the Apollo engineers had available to them in the 1960s. The launch computer in the Saturn V weighed eighty pounds; these days we could fit the thing on a single circuit board and run it off a 9V battery, saving some 79.5 pounds over the original configuration. Multiply that across all the electronics in the whole damned spacecraft and you're saving tons of liftoff weight, which can be used either to extend the range and capacity of the ship, or to increase its payload.

We have better materials available to us these days, too; they had to invent Teflon but we have things that are better than Teflon, now. We have composite materials that are lighter and stronger than anything available--at any price--in the 1960s.

We have robots that can make parts for us, the same way, every time, all day and all night. In the 1960s they didn't have CNC machines, not like we have now, and everything had to be assembled by people; that's not so now.

Given the budget, we could build a booster that was better than the Saturn V, and we could do it in half the time it took them in the 1960s.

Given the budget.

That's where it all falls down, of course. No one is interested in space exploration any more. The same congresscritters that will argue and push and demand for more social spending, and tell us that we can't afford not to pay people to be unemployed, and claim that we absolutely must spend another trillion dollars on transfer payments, these same people will tell you in the next breath that we don't have the money to give NASA an extra $10 billion next year, because we're out of money.

There are no voters in space, after all.

This is the thing that really gets my goat, and gets it on a continuing basis: we need a frontier. As a species, I mean; it's part of how we were made, and we cannot do without it. Most individuals have no use for it, but it must be there, and people must be exploring it. To do otherwise is to stagnate, and stagnation inevitably leads to collapse.

The Space Shuttle represented a retrenchment, a retreat. Having gone to the moon, unable to spur any interest in going farther, NASA came up with a way to keep their bailiwick, their bureaucratic raison d'etre, intact, and the Space Shuttle and the space station were it. "We want to build a space station, so we need the space shuttle to build and service it." Why do you need the space station? "To give us a destination in orbit." Circular logic.

And a complete waste of time. And given the space shuttle, NASA then fapped around and didn't spend any time thinking about its replacement until it was in its last few years of service life, at which point they started trying to build an entirely new spacecraft instead of ginning up something with off-the-shelf parts, only to have that program canceled by a President who cares more about himself than anything else in the world.

Result: we can't even get to orbit any longer. We have to buy launches from the Russians.

Or elsewhere.

Look at that web page. Now look at this one.

That is what NASA ought to be doing. That is what NASA should have been doing from 1973 onward. Given the chance, that is what they might have done, but after Apollo was canceled it was too late for NASA to be anything other than a government agency.

Government wants nothing but control over its populace. From that perspective opening a new frontier is bad, because if people have an option they might leave and take their productivity with them. If we had continued down the road we began traveling on this day in 1969, by now--forty-five years later--we'd have all kinds of things going on out there in space, where it would be nearly impossible for government to keep control. Heck; the astronauts on Skylab IV had a minor mutiny when they decided they were tired of being cogs in a machine, at a time when NASA was the only game in town. (...and I do not believe that it was a coincidence that Skylab IV was the last mission on that platform.)

Given the ability to establish outposts on the frontier, we will do it. It's as inevitable as the tides; I would prefer that the United States be the country that makes it happen, but if we don't someone else will come along and do it.

I used to think it would be the Chinese, but if it is, it won't be in this century. Communism has ruined their shot at this, the same way it ruined the Russians' shot at it. I don't know who else has the desire and the ability, but when I look at the world today I don't see a lot of likely answers floating to the top.

The Russians have the heavy-lift boosters. We still (for the time being) have the money. No one has ay interest in going, though, but for a minor fraction of people.

So when will we get back to the moon? 2069? Will we commemorate the first moon landing at its centenary by finally getting off our adipose backsides and clawing our way back to another world? Or will it take even longer than that?

Because it's there is probably the most important reason we should go and stay--not just to the moon, but to Mars, and the moons of Jupiter, and the moons of Saturn, and as far as we can possibly go. Farther, always pushing the envelope.

We can do it. We're just not, right now, and that's the most frustrating part.
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