atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,

#3722: I can't get the theme for "Salvage One" out of my head

That's the old TV series--it started as a miniseries--where Andy Griffith plays a junk dealer who decides he's going to go to the Moon, pick up all the stuff NASA left behind, bring it back to Earth, and sell it.

The guy builds a rocket out of surplus rocket parts. It's totally reusable and the "capsule" is made from a cement mixer barrel (*whimper*).

Andy Griffith means to go himself, but learns that he can't. I don't remember if it was because his heart wouldn't take the acceleration, or what, but he ends up staying behind while the ex-astronaut he hired as a pilot, and this cute young woman (relationship forgotten--maybe his daughter?) go.

One detail I remember was how they had to hack into a NASA mainframe to run orbit calculations. This was in the mid-1970s (Carter era); Hollywood didn't know about desktop computers and everyone believed that computers had to be big expensive machines in air-conditioned rooms, so the eponymous rocket didn't have an on-board flight computer.

(Your cell phone contains more computing power than the best desktop computer available in, say, 1978. Many times over. But the guidance computer in the Apollo capsules would be far eclipsed by a Commodore 64; I have a fair amount of confidence that even an Apple I would outperform an Apollo guidance computer.)

Anyway, their "hacking" involved knowing which phone number to call. NASA wasn't using the machine, since they were out of the manned space business until the Space Shuttle could be built. And then after Salvage One went to the moon, a NASA tech wiped the computer because it contained obsolete programs.

Here's how you can tell the show is from the Carter era: once apprised of this situation, NASA offers to help, and says, "If you'd just asked us we would have let you use it...."

So--spoiler!--the astronauts make it back to Earth with a load of space-junk, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Contrast that with the real world, then.

...cement mixer? If a frickin' cement mixer barrel isn't made from at least 1/4" thick steel I'd be greatly surprised, and I'm probably underestimating. Steel is heavy and you wouldn't use it in a freakin' rocket unless you had absolutely no other choice.

It could be done, yes, but not with NASA surplus rocket engines--not even a lot of them. No. Especially not in a completely reusable single-stage-to-orbit platform in 1978. NASA didn't build the Saturn V as a multistage vehicle because they like littering; it was the cold laws of engineering that demanded such a configuration.

We couldn't even do that now. The state-of-the-art in rocket technology has not advanced all that much since the salad days of the Moon missions.

Also, just try to imagine the shit fit NASA would throw if someone actually went to the Moon and recovered all that junk up there. Holy shit--anyone who did that would be arrested the instant he got off the ship, even assuming he left alone the scientific instruments NASA is still using. Whoever did something like this, he'd have a long, long court fight if he wanted to keep that junk and sell it.

NASA has no plans to recover that junk, nor does it have the capacity; a really smart, well-funded lawyer could probably argue successfully that the maritime salvage laws can reasonably be extended to space operations, and that the stuff on the Moon was abandoned by NASA and therefore fell under those self-same salvage laws.

But it would be a long, expensive slog through the courts. NASA would, of course, confiscate the stuff, so Andy Griffith would be fighting to get it back from them. In all probability, instead of getting to sell the junk, at most he'd get a check from NASA which wouldn't be much more than a pittance.

And probably there'd be a permanent injunction against Salvage One ever flying again.


* * *

This was supposed to be a humorous post, not a rant about how free we used to be. But 35 years later the story is still impossible, albeit for different reasons. These days it's all about government regulations, and if you want to do something like put a person into orbit you can't do it without going to a handful of alphabet soup agencies and begging for permission.

It used to be that if someone wanted to risk his fool neck on a maniac stunt, he could do it, and no one would try to stop him. These days, you couldn't get past the planning stage before some government lawyer would come running up with an injunction "for your own good".

The same thing, now that I think of it, goes for Heinlein's Rocket Ship Galileo. A nuclear physicist and three teenaged boys build a nuclear-powered rocket ship to take a trip to the Moon? Holy shit there's so much in there to make a big government liberal's head asplode you could use it as a weapon of mass destruction.

(Actually, they modify a chemical-powered cargo rocket to be nuclear-powered, and the boys are all 18. Still.)

I mean, there's nothing like an adult man taking three teenaged boys on an unprecedented trip to the Moon in a barely-tested rocket that spews radioactive zinc into the atmosphere, right? (Even better: they would have used mercury as their reaction mass if they hadn't been doing the trip on a shoestring. Radioactive mercury vapor dumped into the atmosphere, and the liberals' heads go BOOM!)

No, that wouldn't fly, either, no matter how well-respected the physicist was.

* * *

I do believe I has successfully resisted the urge to end that bit with "And that's terrible."

And that's--damnit.

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