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Some Like It Hot

The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must

by Robert Zubrin
Free Press, 328 pp., $25.00

Imagined Worlds: The Jerusalem-Harvard Lectures

by Freeman Dyson
Harvard University Press, 216 pp., $22.00


In the sky at dusk some midsummer evenings one could see two lights that evoked distinct lines of thought about the American space program and its uncertain future—Mars, rust-red and unblinking, suspended low in the southwest, and the Mir space station, a white dot that could be seen gliding overhead before disappearing into Earth’s shadow.

Aboard Mir, two Russian cosmonauts and an American astronaut were pretty much fighting for their lives. As the astronaut Jerry Linenger remarked, after he returned from his own recent tour of duty aboard Mir, the cries of alarm one least wants to hear on a space station are “Fire!” and “Depressurization!” and yet Mir suffered both within a matter of months. This pair of emergencies, set against a sobering series of ongoing breakdowns and mishaps—an estimated 1500 of them since Mir was launched, in 1986—had frayed the nerves of the spacefarers to an unsettling degree. After a collision with an automated supply vessel depressurized part of the station, the Mir commander, Vasily Tsibliev, radioed to Earth, “We are alive, thank God.” These are not heartening words, though they do attest to Tsibliev’s penchant for blurting out what’s actually on his mind—a tendency that led to his being blamed, briefly, for Mir’s mishaps, until a replacement crew promptly began running into problems of their own.

Meanwhile, in sharp contrast to Mir, the Pathfinder lander was engaged in its spectacularly successful exploration of a ruddy, rock-strewn wadi at the mouth of Ares Vallis, Mars. Data and photographs from the vehicle and its appealing little rover were being studied by scientists who hoped to find clues to what the Red Planet was like in balmier days, during its first millennium, when there were rivers and lakes there, and a thicker, warmer blanketing atmosphere. The mission attracted enormous public interest, generating one hundred million “hits” on the mission’s Internet website in a single day. That’s an astonishing number, larger than the combined audiences of the nightly news broadcasts on the three major commercial television networks, and one that challenges the common wisdom that people care about space exploration only if astronauts’ lives are on the line.

For decades, it has been assumed in Congress and elsewhere that public support of NASA programs depends on the drama of manned spaceflight. But this was never more than an article of faith, and it began to sound dated once astronauts no longer ventured to the moon, and automated spacecraft like Viking, Voyager, and the Russian Venera Venus landers were sending back evocative images of worlds millions of miles away. Now that the Internet has created a new medium in which the public is much more free to make its own choices, the vote seems to be going the other way. Millions of Internet users are finding that 3-D pictures and virtual reality landscapes of Mars and other planets, called up at their pleasure on their computer screens, create a sense of being there that compares favorably to the experience of watching astronauts float around in space.

Adding to the challenge posed to the manned program are its staggering costs, compared to unmanned spaceflight, and serious doubts about the relative merits of its mission. Manned spaceflight is inherently expensive. The cost of putting the Pathfinder robot on Mars—$250 million, all options included—is dwarfed by that of operating the space shuttle, which runs to half a billion dollars or more per mission, and by the $400 million that the US is paying Russia to fly astronauts on Mir. For the price of a few shuttle missions, we could be launching the modern equivalent of ambitious robotic missions—like Voyager, which sent two probes to the outer solar system, obtaining thousands of images of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and their many satellites, and which cost something over a billion dollars over the course of a flight that started in the 1970s and is still ongoing, as the craft explore space billions of miles from the sun.

Spending billions on manned spaceflight might well be justified if the missions made good sense, but it is precisely on this point that Mir and the shuttle are most vulnerable. The problem, simply put, is that nobody seems to know what they’re for. The shuttle was designed to ferry astronauts and supplies to and from a permanent space station, but after decades of planning and billions of dollars spent on seemingly endless rounds of drawing and revising blueprints, the “International Space Station,” as it’s now called, has not been built. Nor has any clear reason emerged for why it should be—unless one reverts to arguments about preserving America’s technological infrastructure in the aerospace industry, a laudable goal but one which could be accomplished in many other ways.

Meanwhile, with the exception of a few efficacious moments—most notably in servicing and repairing the Hubble Space Telescope, a spectacular but almost unique instance of symbiosis between the manned and unmanned programs—shuttle astronauts have been relegated to performing unimposing “microgravity” experiments and satellite-launching chores so uninspiring that at one point they took to styling themselves a “trucking company.” Nor is the shuttle much of a trailblazer. Unmanned spacecraft are probing space to unprecedented depths (radio signals from Voyager take almost eight hours, traveling at the velocity of light, to reach Earth) but the shuttle orbits at an altitude of under 250 miles—an excursion that, to paraphrase the late Isaac Asimov, is what the family car could do in a day’s drive if it could drive straight up. One of the safety concerns of shuttle mission directors is to make sure the shuttle doesn’t run into one of the thousands of satellites already up there. Presumably it is in part because the public has begun to understand just how low the shuttle flies, and how little it really does, that interest in the program has waned. While the Pathfinder website was reeling under the impact of all those hits, how many people had the slightest idea what seven astronauts were doing, “almost unnoticed,” in the words of one television commentator, as they spent the Fourth of July on shuttle Columbia?

The space station still looms on the horizon, as it has for decades, and journalists who ask why astronauts are risking their lives aboard Mir and the shuttle are told that through such efforts we can “learn more” about living and working in space. But such a rationale can be used to justify almost any activity, no matter how pointless. It is as if an inquiring fifth-century reporter asked Saint Simeon Stylites why he spent decades sitting atop a pillar and was told that Saint Simeon wanted to “learn more” about pillar-sitting. The International Space Station is a multibillion-dollar exercise in pillar-sitting. The danger is not that it won’t ever be built but that it will, and that the endless effort to keep it staffed and shipshape will swallow up not just its $20 billion projected cost but much more of NASA’s budget besides, thus reversing the hard-won gains in unmanned space funding that made possible a series of cost-effective missions, like Pathfinder, that are rekindling public excitement about nature beyond Earth.

In essence, the eddying-out of the American manned space effort is a lingering result of the end of the space race. It was thanks to the tonic effect of Soviet attainments in space, notably Sputnik in October 1957 and the orbiting of Yuri Gagarin in 1961, that John F. Kennedy was emboldened—on May 25, 1961, just six weeks after Gagarin’s flight—to declare to Congress that the United States “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.” The Apollo project that ensued amounted to a singularly marvelous party for the newly minted National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which had only been established in 1958 but which, by the time Neil Armstrong set foot on the Sea of Tranquility eleven years later, was spending nearly 2 percent of the federal budget. With the moon race won, there ensued a morning-after hangover of epic dimensions, as NASA officials tried to figure out what to do next.

Imagination being harder to stockpile than rocket fuel, NASA reverted to the world’s best-known space exploration strategy, one that had been set forth nearly twenty years earlier by Wernher von Braun and his colleagues—whose expertise had given rise to the post-Sputnik joke that the Soviets were ahead in the space race because “their German rocket scientists are smarter than our German rocket scientists.”1 Von Braun had outlined his plan in several popular books published in the early 1950s, some of them illustrated by the redoubtable technology artist Chesley Bonestell.2 It envisioned astronauts aboard space shuttles constructing a gigantic space station in Earth orbit, from which base humankind would explore first the moon and then Mars.

The Apollo program had jumped that schedule by going straight to the moon, but now, with Apollo at an end, NASA went back to planning for a space station and a shuttle fleet. This seemed a bit quixotic—rather as if Columbus, after making four voyages to the New World, had proposed that Spain build huge cities on Madeira and the Azores, from which to dispatch aircraft carriers to Cuba—and in any event by the 1970s the public was losing its taste for grandiose space projects. The Vietnam War had stained the once-gleaming aerospace technology with blood, and the moon mission, carried out by military jet pilots and presented largely in the language of engineers (who disdain the unexpected), had come to be widely regarded as something of a bore.

Faced with such apathy and with the mounting cost of the war, President Nixon considered abandoning manned space exploration entirely. Its back to the wall, NASA responded with a series of steps that led it into boglands of deception. First, it compromised the design of the space shuttle to make it capable of a military mission—a wacky scheme in which the shuttle, in times of national emergency, would be launched and make a quick orbit or two for surveillance purposes, then return to its base. Few in the Air Force believed that in a time of crisis the generals would bother with launching a shuttle, but the Defense Department went along for the ride, with aberrant results that culminated in the construction of a shuttle pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, an instant ruin that never launched anything.

Additionally, to reinforce its hollow warning that without a shuttle it would lack any means of sending heavy payloads into space, NASA scrapped the remaining specimens of its flagship heavy-lift rocket, the Saturn, a five-million-pound booster that had sent Apollo astronauts to the moon without a single failure. (The Saturn on display in front of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, gaped at by tourists like a Roman ruin in medieval times, is not a model but a real moon rocket; NASA simply threw it away.) To clinch the deal, NASA promoted the shuttle as an economical way to put satellites into orbit. This was patently absurd, as the shuttle in action was soon to illustrate in terms too dramatic to be disguised by any amount of clever bookkeeping. The space shuttle system weighs 4.5 million pounds at launch; its orbiter, which weighs a quarter of a million pounds when separated from its launching rocket, can release a payload of up to about 48,000 pounds—a fifth of the weight the Saturn booster could deliver to orbit. Although NASA told Congress that the shuttle would put satellites into orbit at a quarter of Saturn’s price, the real cost turned out to be five times more than the Saturn booster it replaced. Whatever its other merits, launching a satellite with the space shuttle is about as cost-effective as mailing a postcard after first sealing it in a cast-iron safe.

  1. 1

    Actually the Russians had no German rocket scientists, all of whom elected to surrender to US troops—because, as one put it, “We despise the French, we are afraid of the Russians, we do not believe the British can afford us, so that leaves the Americans.” Von Braun was a towering figure in American rocketry. He played a central role in the response to Sputnik that resulted in the launch of the first American satellite, and was influential in Kennedy’s decision to commit to a manned lunar mission. Having led the team whose V-2 rocket killed 3,000 people in London, he was also a symbol of the moral ambiguities of high technology. The comedian Mort Sahl suggested that an adoring Hollywood movie about von Braun, I Aim at the Stars, should be subtitled “But Sometimes I Hit London.”

  2. 2

    See, e.g., Wernher von Braun, Fred L. Whipple, and Willy Ley, Conquest of the Moon, illustrated by Chesley Bonestell, Fred Freeman, and Rolf Klep, and edited by Cornelius Ryan (Viking Press, 1953) and Wernher von Braun, The Mars Project (University of Illinois Press, 1953).

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