A half century of manned space exploration

By Phil Plait | April 12, 2011 11:45 am

Today is the 50th anniversary of one of the most important events in human history: the day when a human being left the confines of Earth and entered space.

On this date, April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin was the first such person. He would not be the last.

Last year on this date I posted my thoughts on this. Reading it again this morning, I found most of my thinking is still the same, so I have reposted the essay below. However, one or two things have changed a little since it originally went up, and I have edited it lightly to reflect them. The original still exists at the link above.


40 years later, failure is still not an option

This week marks three related anniversaries.

April 12, 1961: Yuri Gagarin becomes the first man in space. That was 49 years ago today.

April 14, 1970: An oxygen tank disrupts on Apollo 13, causing a series of catastrophic malfunctions that nearly leads to the deaths of the three astronauts. That was 40 years ago this week.

April 12, 1981: The first Space Shuttle, Columbia, launches into space. That was 29 years ago today.

I wasn’t yet born when Gagarin flew, and I was still too young to appreciate what was happening on board Apollo as it flew helplessly around the Moon instead of landing on it. But I do remember breathlessly awaiting the Shuttle launch, and I remember thinking it would be the next phase in our exploration of space. I was still pretty young, and hadn’t thought it through, but I’m sure had you asked me I’d have said that this would lead to cheap, easy, and fast access to space, and by the time the 21st century rolled around we’d have space stations, more missions to the Moon, and maybe even to Mars.

Yeah, I hadn’t thought it through. Of all these anniversaries, that one is the least of the three we should celebrate.

Don’t get me wrong; the Shuttle is a magnificent machine. But it’s also a symbol of a political disaster for NASA. It was claimed that it would be cheap way to get payloads to space, and could launch every couple of weeks. Instead, it became frightfully expensive and couldn’t launch more than a few times a year.

This was a political problem. Once it became clear that NASA was building the Shuttle Transport System, it became a feeding trough. It never had a chance to be the lean space machine it should’ve been, and instead became bloated, weighted down with administrative bureaucracy and red tape.

More than that, though, to me it symbolizes a radical shift in the vision of NASA. We had gone to the Moon six times — seven, if you include Apollo 13 — and even before the launch of Apollo 17 that grand adventure had been canceled by Congress, with NASA being forced to look to the Shuttle. Ever since then, since December 1972, we’ve gone around in circles.

Now, there’s a lot to be said for low Earth orbit. It is a fantastic resource for science, and I strongly think we should be exploiting it even more. But it’s not the goal. It’s like walking halfway up a staircase, standing on your tiptoes, and admiring the view of the top landing.

We need to keep walking up those stairs. In 1961, the effects of space travel were largely unknown, but Yuri Gagarin took that chance. He was followed by many others in rapid succession. Extrapolating from his travels, by now there should be a business making money selling tours of the mountain chains around Oceanus Procellarum by now. Of the three anniversaries, looking at it now, Gagarin’s is bittersweet.

In 1970 Apollo 13 became our nation’s "successful failure". A simple error had led to a near tragedy, saved only by the experience, training, guts, and clever thinking on their feet of a few dozen engineers. They turned catastrophe into triumph, and now, four decades later, we can’t repeat what they did. Think on this: when the disaster struck their ship, the crew of Apollo 13 were over 300,000 kilometers from Earth. Apollo 13 may have been a successful failure, but it’s a failure we can’t even repeat today if we tried.

I’ve written quite a bit about NASA’s future, including my support of Obama’s decision to cancel Constellation, the program that includes the next series of big rockets to take people into space. That may seem contradictory on its surface, but I support the decision because, in my opinion, Constellation was over budget, behind schedule, and had no clear purpose — and private space companies are positioned to do it better, cheaper, and faster. The idea of going back to the Moon is one I very much strongly support, but I get the impression that the plan itself is not well-thought out by NASA. The engineering, sure, but not the political side of it. And it’s the politics that will always and forever be NASA’s burden.

It was a political decision to cancel Apollo. It was a political decision to turn the Shuttle from a space plane to the top-heavy system it is. It was a political decision to cancel the Shuttle with no replacement planned at all (that was done before Obama took office, I’ll note). It was a political decision that turned the space station from a scientific lab capable of teaching us how to live and explore space into the hugely expensive and bloated construction it is now.

NASA needs a clear vision, and it needs one that is sturdy enough to resist the changing gusts of political winds. I’m hoping that Obama’s plan will streamline NASA, giving away the expensive and "routine" duties it needs not do so that private industry can pick them up. The added money to go to science, again in my hopes, will spur more innovation in engineering.

And NASA needs a goal. It needs to put its foot down and say "This is our next giant step." And this has to be done hand in hand with the politics. I understand that is almost impossible given today’s political climate, where statesmanship and compromise has turned into small-minded meanness and childish name-calling on the Congress floor. Not to mention plans for drastic and in many cases crippling budget cuts across the board by Congress.

But I’m old enough to remember when NASA could do the impossible. That was practically their motto. Beating the Soviets was impossible. Landing on the Moon was impossible. Getting Apollo 13 back safely was impossible.

Of the three anniversaries, Apollo 13 is the one we should be celebrating. I’ll gently correct what Gene Kranz said that day:

Failure is always an option. But it is not an acceptable one.

Right now, at this very moment, those feats are all impossible once again. But for a time, they were not only possible, we made them happen.

It’s time to do the impossible once again.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Politics, Space, Top Post

Comments (84)

  1. Great points.

    Isn’t it incredible that we went from no people in space in 1961 to people on the moon in 1969? And now we just have a bunch of seemingly stalled initiatives and no clear direction. If we can do “the impossible” in 8 years, there’s no reason that we can’t do it again and have people on Mars in a decade.

    The only real reason we can’t is politics.

  2. gamercow

    NASA needs to celebrate the amazing accomplishments of their Mars rovers more, and head more in that direction. I understand that there are certain things that are difficult, at best, to do remotely via a robot, but the costs involved with putting a robot somewhere are magnitudes smaller than putting a person/people somewhere.

    That said, getting someone to the moon shouldn’t be that hard, relatively speaking, and with today’s technology, you could have some amazing tie-ins, like helmet-mounted cameras that stream (near) real-time back to Earth. Let people get the feeling of BEING there, then they’ll want to go themselves, and push for more advances in that direction.

  3. April 12, 1981: The first Space Shuttle, Columbia, launches into space. That was 29 years ago today.

    Would that I could say that is correct and I am turning 28 today, but alas, I was born in ’82 and turn 29 today. Still a very cool birthday to have. Such a weird collection of people: Letterman, Claire Danes, Al Bundy, the Civil War, Tiny Tim, John Hagee. But we’re, all of us, Aries (or is it Pisces now?), which means that we all have similar lives and personalities!

  4. Fred Cai

    In all technicality, I’m pretty sure Gene Kranz has stated he said nothing like that during the Apollo 13 mission, but he is a big fan of the quote (which is why he named his autobiography with it). I completely agree though. Failure is always an option that will haunt engineers, and we must do our best to stay one step ahead of it. Failure will also happen, and we can’t let that hold us back. We need to begin pushing boundaries again. Lives will be risked, but that is the nature of spaceflight. Yuri and every cosmonaut and astronaut knew that, but they have pushed forward and we as a people must as well.

    Also, watching “First Orbit” is an excellent way to commemorate this occasion: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJuIO6kp5jY It is beautiful so far.

  5. theNaturalist

    Expand the current half-hearted robotic exploration of the solar system with many rovers exploring the surfaces of the moon and mars, beaming back 3D real-time (at least at the source) images. Make the experience immersive for people here on Earth and tap into the excitement young people have for virtual interaction with each other and with external agents. Bring up this awareness that the moon and mars are real places where you get your suit dirty and climb up a slope to view the valley you’re exploring.

    One key idea we have lost is that the solar system is a place not just an idea.

  6. I had insomnia last night and watched 2001: A Space Odyssey for about the thousandth time. Two things struck me. All the infrastructure was run by private companies with governments as the customer, and it would take several times the gross economic product of the whole world to pay to lift all that stuff off the earth.

  7. Brian

    And – It was a political decision to not put a retired shuttle in Houston.

    This makes me both angry and sad.

  8. “We had gone to the Moon six times — seven, if you include Apollo 13-”

    If you’re going to include Apollo 13 as a manned missions to the moon, you should really also include Apollo 8 & 10 (even though they had no intention of landing) for a total of 9 manned moon missions.

    Much like supersonic flight is still not routine despite earlier predictions, I wonder whether tours of the moon will ever be possible for anyone but the very wealthy. It takes a certain minimum amount of energy to lift a mass into orbit, and even more energy to get that mass to the moon. Until we come up with a cheap and abundant energy source, it’s always going to be very expensive to get to the moon. I believe it’s correct that there could be gold bricks stacked on the surface of the moon just waiting for us, and we couldn’t profitably afford to go to the moon and retrieve them.

  9. TerryS.

    NASA has become an scientific joke. Everything they do is overburdoned with bureaucracy and politics. While attempting to be perfect, 17 astronauts have died, all in accidents that could have been prevented. We need to look at companies like SpaceX for the future of space exploration. NASA is no longer relevant.

  10. Andrew W

    “It takes a certain minimum amount of energy to lift a mass into orbit, and even more energy to get that mass to the moon. ”

    for a 100kg man about 1000 bucks of energy to the moon at 30% energy efficiency and 20c/kWhr

  11. Josie

    “Apollo 13 may have been a successful failure, but it’s a failure we can’t even repeat today if we tried.”

    Can someone explain this? I have heard it mentioned a few times that “we couldn’t even go to the moon now if we wanted to”

    Is it because we don’t have a powerful enough rocket ready to go? did we burn the blueprints to the Saturn V? Did we execute our rocket scientists a-la-spy movies so they couldn’t turn coat and give our secrets to the other side?

  12. Greg

    Who is old enough to remember the movie 2001 when it first came out? I remember thinking ‘we’ll do that BEFORE 2001′. What a huge disappointment. Lets hand it all over to private industry with some regulation and go for it again.

  13. Rhett

    I think the next breakthrough that needs to occur is a cost effective delivery system. If NASA could make the “space elevator” happen, they’d never have budget problems again.

  14. Michael B-T

    The success of the Apollo program was fueled by competition between the Cold War super-powers. Perhaps the catalyst required to sync politics with space ambitions would be a 21st century space race triggered by say a Chinese moon landing.

  15. David Mills

    Let’s not forget the success of the many unmanned missions since Apollo: Viking, Pioneer, Voyager and Galileo to name just a few. Many of these may never have happened if NASA had been too focused on manned missions beyond LEO.

  16. w_nightshade

    Yuri Gagarin was the subject of one of my college entrance essays. The bravery he and his crew exhibited is almost immeasurable. To break free from Earth’s atmosphere for the very first time, orbiting in space, must have been utterly terrifying. For me that step, more than most, embodies the true breadth of we humans’ capabilities. Hats off, Yuri!

  17. Mike

    Phil, you wrote that Gagarin’s flight was 49 years ago. It was 50.

  18. Phil, now I’m curious. What makes the Shuttle bloated and top heavy? What would be the ideal space plane for the 80’s?

  19. “for a 100kg man about 1000 bucks of energy to the moon at 30% energy efficiency and 20c/kWhr”

    How much for a 100kg woman?

    If we could send just a 100 kg person without a spacecraft with life support systems, engines, fuel, etc, the energy costs might not be so prohibitive.

    To send a person of 100kg mass to the moon requires lifting off and sending a good deal more than just 100kg of mass to the moon. The fuel itself is a major portion of the mass that you have to get off the launch pad. Catch 22: If you didn’t have to carry the mass of the fuel, you wouldn’t need as much fuel.

  20. @Karl Withakay: Needs moar space cannons!

  21. At no point has NASA – or any other agency, for that matter – made any serious attempt to do any of the things that would be either necessary or highly useful for creating a future for human beings in space.

    We only sent actual scientists to the Moon on our last mission there, and they didn’t get to do anything of real interest. The overwhelming majority of scientific knowledge resulting from the space program has come from probes, despite their receiving only a tiny fraction of NASA’s budget. When you get right down to it, the manned space program is only a welfare system for the aerospace industry, and was never intended to be anything but. (Well, scoring political points against the Soviet Union and temporarily satiating awe junkies were side benefits, I guess.)

    If we want science to be done in space, to learn more about the universe in which we live, we should abandon manned spaceflight. We’ve done nothing to further that path, have no plans to do any of the things that would further it, and can see no real benefits for trying to do them.

    Invest our time and resources in more sophisticated probes and robotic drones, possibly combined with telepresence technologies. Then send them to the Moon to perform extensive geological (well, selenological) surveys. If we want to have any meaningful presence in space, we need to know how to utilize its available resources.

    Sending humans to Mars, the Moon, or even space stations is a pointless dead end. We’ll get far more science accomplished by sending dozens or even hundreds of probes with the resources that would be used on keeping humans alive in the very hostile environments.

  22. there’s no reason that we can’t do it again and have people on Mars in a decade.

    Yes, but why would we want to put people on Mars? We accomplished nothing by putting humans on the Moon that couldn’t have been done cheaper, quicker, and better by probes. What exactly would we get out of putting people on Mars?

  23. Electro

    @Mike#17 Phil re-printed his essay from last years anniversary.

    @Josie#11 The manufacturing and support chain for a Saturn V or equivalent requires tens of billions of dollars in infrastructure and many thousands of full time personnel
    ( I believe Apollo had over 400,000 folks involved through the sixties ).

    Pulling those people together and building facilities would require a funding level that could not pass today.

    By not maintaining that capability, we are now in a position of having to build it again from scratch.

    And scratch is about the amount of funding congress would approve now.

  24. Electro

    @Caledonian#22

    “What exactly would we get out of putting people on Mars?”

    3.2 billion years of evolution have built us into a supremely curious and adaptive species….its what we do.

    The robots can only blaze the trail.
    If we don’t intend to go there, the public appetite for investment will shrivel in short order.

  25. @Caledonian (#21): There is more to being human than just gathering the data. We’re a quirky species that way. :D

    @Josie (#11): We basically got rid of all the infrastructure and manufacturing capability. It would cost more to set up production, than it would to actually build a Saturn V at this point. And let’s face it, the technology in the Saturn V is quite antique now. The amount of engineering required just to get it up to last decade’s technology would be nearly a complete redesign anyway.

    EDIT: I see people have already said what I typed… That’s what I get for having tabbed browsers open and getting distracted…

  26. @20. Naked Bunny with a Whip,

    I almost added that a Super-H.A.R.P. artillery shell would certainly reduce weight requirements, but I sure don’t want to be sitting in any artillery shell shot at the moon, as the G forces experienced would be deadly.

    A ground laser super heating the air below a specially constructed vehicle might eliminate much of the fuel mass penalty and possibly get you into orbit, but you probably still need more conventional propulsion & fuel to get the rest of the way to and back from the moon.

  27. Tim G

    Well, there’s hope for new frontiers in human space exploration. During the announcement of SpaceX’ 53 tonne-to-LEO, Falcon Heavy, CEO Elon Musk spoke of plans to follow up with a 150 tonne-to-LEO rocket within the next few years. Such a booster is what we need for crewed missions to Mars. It could also be used for other projects such as large space telescopes.

  28. Gary Ansorge

    19. Karl Withakay

    “The fuel itself is a major portion of the mass that you have to get off the launch pad. Catch 22: If you didn’t have to carry the mass of the fuel, you wouldn’t need as much fuel.”

    Which is the major reason for building a space elevator, or a balloon supported mass driver, or a nuclear thruster or a laser launch system. These are four systems that can potentially reduce space access to dollars per lb, rather than 10s of thousands. Three of them don’t even have to carry reaction mass to orbit at all. The nuc thruster could have a 35% payload capacity vs the 5 % that is possible with chemically fueled rockets(a vast improvement in cost effectiveness) and all the hardware is reusable.

    A totally reusable craft, single stage to orbit, is the next step to significantly reduced cost. Throwing away a 747 after every flight(as we did before the shuttle) would make intercontinental travel prohibitively expensive. (Even though the shuttle is retrieved, 90 % of the mass of a shuttle launch assembly(which includes the fuel) is discarded).

    Gary 7

    Gary 7

  29. Electro

    @Larian#25 I was afraid the same thing was going to happen to me…it always seems to.

  30. > It’s time to do the impossible once again.

    Personally, I don’t think so.
    At the moment, we face a much bigger issue, namely we are running out of energy. If there’s a challenge humanity has to face right now is how to get energy to power our civilization.
    That is our impossible today.

  31. Gary Ansorge,

    Yes, there are very interesting potential systems to reduce the mass of a spacecraft to get to orbit, though most of them won’t get you to the moon and back, but even if you could just get an Apollo service module, capsule and “moon transit thruster” into orbit without the rest of the SaturnV, that would still be a huge improvement.

    Nuclear reactor propulsion still requires a somewhat massive cooling system and propellant mass, and people tend to get nervous when proposing launching reactors.

    I’ve wondered about the feasibility of single stage to orbit. I remember being very fascinated by it when McDonnell Douglas was working on it back when, but now it occurs to me that one seeming advantage to a multistage system is the ability to shed weight as you go along. single stage would seem to mean you’re stuck with your initial vehicle weight the whole trip. I’ll have to read up on single stage to orbit to learn more about it.

  32. Electro

    Sci-Fi writers refer to LEO as “half way to anywhere”….here’s the main reason why

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Specific_impulse

  33. Mike Mullen

    BBC4 had a ‘space night’ on Sunday which included a history of the shuttle using clips from various documentaries the BBC has made about it over the years. When it reached Challenger I practically wanted to throw things at the screen. The sheer complacency and anxiety about PR that drove that launch forward made it very clear that the organization that put men on the moon was long dead, reduced to just another arm of government bureaucracy. I don’t see any signs it has gotten one bit better in the following 25 years.

  34. Joseph G

    As long as we’re talking about ways forward to the future, I’m disappointed that we have yet to test the feasibility (actually test it, not just do calculations) of centrifugal “gravity” for long-term space habitation. You wouldn’t need to build a big extravagant ring, or anything, just a sky-lab-sized living module with cables and a counterweight at the other end.
    From there you can ramp things up a bit – put up some very large solar arrays, and you’ve got tether propulsion for stationkeeping. You could even use the station to give LEO packages a boost up to a higher orbit, with the tether propulsion letting you gain back any velocity you’ve lost in the process. I know this stuff has been talked about many times before, but why has it never been tested, even on a small scale? Again, I’m not talking about a Clarke cylinder here, just the sort of thing that could be put up with a single heavy-lift launch.

    edit: It just occurred to me that docking with a rotating target is not something the Shuttle could do (its docking collar isn’t anywhere near the center of gravity). But a plain ol’ Soyuz capsule could do it.

  35. Sam H

    Thanks for remembering my comment Phil!! :)
    Anyway, the old debates over the reuse of the Saturn V, the usefulness of Constellation and every classic hard-SF concept are popping up yet again. But the fact is (which I’ve now come to accept, sadly) is that soon NASA will NEVER lead space exploration again. Bold endeavours are not only politically unviable, they are financially unsustainable, rendering all potential missions to total non-options in light of America’s $55 trillion debt. NASA is kept alive merely as an object of national pride and a source of scientific research that can do nothing to solve the country’s economic problems. And given that the rhetoric in Washington almost forced a total government shutdown, it is clear that NASA is least of federal priorities at this time. For me (a young Canadian high schooler with a knack for space and global issues), it is only another sign of the steadily accelerating decline of the United States of America – a decline that may end with a very dramatic crash.
    Don’t get me wrong, If I had all the money in the world I’d build a space elevator and send humans to Mars, the Moon, asteroids and every star in the sky, but the pipe dreams of Zubrin and others I now realize are just that – pipe dreams that can never happen – in America, at least. The best hope for space exploration now is not only in the private corporations, but China and the Asian juggernaut – if they wanted to send a human to Mars in 15 years, they could do it. And that’s what I believe they should aim for, before there own economy declines as yours is.

  36. #4 Fred Cai:
    Correct – Gene Kranz never actually said “Failure is not an option”; it was made up by the scriptwriters of the film Apollo 13. But he liked the line so much, that he later said he wished he had said it; hence he used it as the title of his autobiography.

  37. Electro

    @Sam#35
    For me ( an old ex-Canadian High schooler ), the realpolitik of the situation is that the US military-industrial complex has access to SCADS of cash and NASA realized long ago that getting into bed with them earned a space at the trough. As long as things were done their way.

    The optimist in me says that emerging Asian economies will invest more in space, with an eye to science.

    The pessimist in me says they are only interested (at this point) in propaganda,communication technologies and weaponization.

    The realist in me is sadly jaded.

  38. Kaleberg

    It isn’t so much a matter of the public sector versus the private sector, it’s the quality of the engineering and the level of corruption that allowed that engineering to get done. Even back in the 50s and 60s, private companies were building the rockets, capsules, electronics and life support systems for the space program. That’s still happening now, but the engineers who made the space program work back then had the political pull to get things done. When the contractors screwed up in the 60s, NASA could lean on them in ways inconceivable now. (Who hires the more expensive lobbyists, NASA or the contractors?) I’m sure there are a lot great engineers still working at NASA, but it must be awfully frustrating.

    In the mid-70s, I remember talking about the shuttle to a friend who was working with SAS-C, the first space based X ray telescope. I was quite keen on the shuttle, but he was against it. “All we’ll be able to afford is to launch bricks.” He argued that the shuttle had changed from a lightweight carrier for passengers into a bloated space truck for handling freight, and it would hinder space exploration by the sheer high cost that having a single launch vehicle would entail. He wasn’t completely right, but he made some good points.

  39. db26

    Those events are all well and good, but it was 20 years ago today, that Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play…

  40. Ben

    Uh, Phil, guys, STS-1 was 30 years ago today not 29!

  41. 25. Larian LeQuella Says: “And let’s face it, the technology in the Saturn V is quite antique now. The amount of engineering required just to get it up to last decade’s technology would be nearly a complete redesign anyway.”

    There’s nothing wrong with well-developed old technology. Keeping with the theme of this post, the Russians are still lofting people to orbit using the exact same booster (with evolutionary improvements) as put Gagarin into orbit. Originally developed by Sergei Korolev as the R7 ICBM (NATO code name “Sapwood”), it became operational in 1955. It was adapted to launch the first orbiting satellite (Sputnik), and every manned Soviet and Russian launch since.

    – Jack

  42. Messier Tidy Upper

    Well said BA.

    Although I think we should celebrate and commemorate all three.

    Gagarin’s achievement was one for all Humanity -a Human First as well as just a Soviet one that would goad the West – & esp. USA – into flight.

    The Shuttle for its its failings and not quote libving up expectations was a magnificent and highly successful spaceplane that did a lot of good (I think & yeah, I know others mileage varies on this) took more people into orbit than any other spacecraft.

    Apollo 13 – well what the BA said – in many ways I’d agree it was NASA’s finest hour and the gretaest space adventure story ever told.

    Incidentally, this year marks the anniversaries of Apollo 14 (Shepherd, Mitchell, Roosa) and 15 ( (Scott, Irwin, Worden) plus the launch of the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory too.

  43. Pete UK

    W_nightshade #16

    What crew?! He was on his own – which makes his bravery perhaps even more remarkable. I remember a trip to the science museum in London a few years later to see THE ACTUAL capsule in which John Glenn, America’s first man in space, orbited the earth. Quite apart from awe, Even as a six- or seven-year old I remember being amazed at how tiny it was. He went round the earth in THAT?

  44. Messier Tidy Upper

    @40. Ben : Uh, Phil, guys, STS-1 was 30 years ago today not 29!

    Yep, looks like he forgot to update this list from last year’s version. ;-)

    Three more anniversaries of note to add to that list :

    I. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the first asteroid-spaceprobe close encounter with Galileo flying past 951 Gaspra on 29 October 1991.

    II. The year 2011 is the tenth anniversary of the Mars Odyssey spaceprobe’s launch (April 7th) & arrival at Mars (October 24th) in 2001 – and, yes, it apparently was named for the Arthur C. Clarke novel & Stanley Kubrick film. ;-)

    III. One that’s dear to my heart – 2011 is the 230th anniversary of the third and final version of “comet ferret” Charles Messier’s deep sky catalogue being published back in 1781.

    Among other things including

    – 5o years since Alan Shepherd and Gus Grissom’s sub-orbital spaceflights the first for the Mercuryprogram.

    – Fifty years since JFK gave his famous directionsetting “We choose to go to the Moon – before this decade is out” speech on the 25th May 1961.

    – Ten years since the discovery of the first resonant exoplanetary system around Gliese 876 with the discovery of Gl876 c and its 1:2 orbital relationship with the inner exoplanet. This was only the second Laplace resonance ever observed – the first being the Galilean moons.

    – A decade on from a bunch of 11 Jovian moonlets & 1 Uranian moonlet being discovered : Autonoe, Thyone, Hermippe, Eurydome, Sponde, Pasithee, Euanthe, Kale, Orthosie, Euporie & Aitne around Jupiter – and Trinculo around Uranus. All small, retrograde, moonlets in highly inclined orbits -Trinculo is named for a drunken jester from a Shakespearean play.

    – Also ten years since the Russian Mir spacestation was de-orbited on March 2nd 2001.

    & I could keep going with plenty more examples for ages – I’m actually giving a talk onthis topic next month! ;-)

    *****************************

    “Curiousity and a drive to understand the cosmos have characterised humanity for as long as we can tell. Our telescopes and space probes are simply the most recent steps in a journey that began many thousands of years before Stonehenge.”
    – Robert Burnham, page 43, “Glorious Universe” in ‘Astronomy ‘ magazine, October 1991.

  45. Buzz Parsec

    SpaceX announced last week that the Falcon 9-Heavy (basically a triple-barreled Falcon 9, much like the triple-barreled Delta 4-Heavy) will test-fly next year and will cost about 1/6 as much per pound to orbit as the current Delta 4 and Atlas 5 rockets. Amazingly enough, the D4 and A5 are not much cheaper than the shuttle. What is wrong with this picture? Ouch.

    P.S. Phil, it was great meeting you at NECSS.

  46. UmTutSut

    Buzz Parsec said: “SpaceX announced last week that the Falcon 9-Heavy…will test-fly next year and will cost about 1/6 as much per pound to orbit as the current Delta 4 and Atlas 5 rockets.”

    Well, I hope it does, and the launch vehicle meets that economic forecast. Announcements are easy, flying actual hardware can sometimes hold surprises. Remember, the Falcon 9 has only two successful launches to its credit to date. As I said in response to a previous BA thread, it amazes me that when Elon Musk speaks, healthy skepticism seems nowhere to be found. I imagine most of us wish Space-X and other space entrepreneurs success…but success is earned by accomplishment, not announcements.

  47. fernando

    not bad for 50 years i think… 50 years from now?

  48. Nigel Depledge

    Josie (11) said:

    “Apollo 13 may have been a successful failure, but it’s a failure we can’t even repeat today if we tried.”

    Can someone explain this? I have heard it mentioned a few times that “we couldn’t even go to the moon now if we wanted to”

    Is it because we don’t have a powerful enough rocket ready to go? did we burn the blueprints to the Saturn V? Did we execute our rocket scientists a-la-spy movies so they couldn’t turn coat and give our secrets to the other side?

    The short answer is: it’s complicated.

    In my understanding, it’s a combination of:
    1. Blueprints and drawings are not everything.
    2. The scientists and engineers who developed the Saturn rockets (especially the F1 engine) are either no longer with us or old, and you’d be asking them to remember technical details of something they worked on 40+ years ago.
    3. Safety standards are different now.
    4. We no longer have engineers who are familiar with the kind of engineering involved in the Saturn V (the easiest bits would probably be the mechanical and hydraulic components) – it’s all rocket science, but it’s a different kind of rocket science.

    I think what I’m trying to say is that it would be easier to start again from scratch than to use the old Saturn V design. Although I hope the F-1 engine design will be used in some capacity or other if ever we do build a massive great rocket again.

  49. #1 “The only real reason we can’t is politics.”

    The only reason ‘we’ could was politics.

  50. Nigel Depledge

    Ben (40) said:

    Uh, Phil, guys, STS-1 was 30 years ago today not 29!

    Did you miss the part where Phil states that this is a re-post of last year’s article?

  51. Wait… Wouldn’t that be the 30th anniversary of Columbia’s first flight? I’m seeing news articles here and there saying thirty. But I also imagine I could be losing my mind and all ability to do math because it’s been one of those weeks. :)

  52. kwoolf

    As I recall no astronauts died in Apollo 13 Phil. I believe you are referring to Apollo 1.

  53. Peter Davey

    As Robert A Heinlein said: “The Earth is now simply too small and fragile a basket for the human race to continue to keep all of its eggs in”.

    As Konstantin Tsiolkovsky said: “The Earth is the cradle of Mankind, but no-one stays in the cradle forever.”

    Arthur C Clarke once suggested that the emergence of Man into space would have long-term effects as profound as that of the emergence of Life from the sea onto dry land.

    I believe that those comments say all that needs to be said concerning the importance of the continuance of a manned space programme.

  54. Nigel Depledge

    Lewis (52) said:

    Wait… Wouldn’t that be the 30th anniversary of Columbia’s first flight? I’m seeing news articles here and there saying thirty. But I also imagine I could be losing my mind and all ability to do math because it’s been one of those weeks.

    Did you miss the part where Phil states that this is a re-post of last year’s article?

  55. Nigel Depledge

    Kwoolf (53) said:

    As I recall no astronauts died in Apollo 13 Phil. I believe you are referring to Apollo 1.

    Eh? Where does Phil say anyone died in the Apollo 13 mission?

  56. KC

    Although it may be time for NASA to pass the torch onto private companies…don’t pretend that the private sector’s s#*t doesn’t stink. Just ask Union Carbide, Exxon, BP or TEPCO.

  57. Messier Tidy Upper

    @54. Peter Davey : I completely agree – well said, well quoted and seconded by me. :-)

  58. RM

    Not only am I lucky enough to have experienced the space program from Mercury to the Space Shuttle, I was fortunate to have been involved in the Department of Defense’s space program. When we raced to the moon we started out with what was a “lean and mean” organizational structure. This kept the engineers involved in all aspects of the program, and insured a level of personal accountability. As NASA became a behemoth organization the layers of B*%% Sh#@ got added on, those responsible for making critical design decisions got further separated from the operational reality of the program. That’s how you end up with not one but two needless shuttle disasters.

    When NASA committed to the shuttle program the only way they could find the funding that was needed was for the politicians to strip it out of the various DoD and intelligence community space based initiatives. We were ordered to convert all programs to a size and format that would fit in the shuttle. Be thankful that the “iron curtain” rusted through not too long after this because it seriously limited some of our capabilities. Probably the most damaging thing it did was stop all ongoing production and research on rocket systems. Had this not happened I’m certain that private industry would have continued to develop ever more advanced boosters over the last 25+ years, and we would be better positioned to return man to the moon or send advanced robotics off to explore the cosmos. Even more importantly it would have continued to foster a need for educated professionals capable of thinking “outside the box”. People that can see beyond the present, and turn dreams into reality. Now, we’re stuck in the situation of starting over from scratch … but without any driving force to focus the attention of individuals and corporations beyond today and out onto what could be.

  59. vrk

    Do you want an impossible mission? Stop climate change! Frankly, while space exploration is super cool and has big impact on technological progress, we need to get the planet sorted out first, or there won’t be even a possibility of space exploration in a couple more decades. Sort out the transition to 100% renewable clean energy first if you want a technological challenge as well as a political one.

  60. Jeff

    I remember Gargarin and Shepard’s first flights well. Very halcyon days, those.

    “I’m sure had you asked me I’d have said that this would lead to cheap, easy, and fast access to space, and by the time the 21st century rolled around we’d have space stations, more missions to the Moon, and maybe even to Mars.”

    Which is why I for one was very mad when they cut Apollo and started the shuttle. But I will say, the shuttle must have grown a little on me, because I’m not as happy to see its demise as I thought. Too bad two ships went down. That speech by Reagan about Challenger really was moving. One lady said they might rotate shuttles into museums like the one in Dayton, that one would have free admittance for public, I certainly hope so.

  61. Electro

    @VRK#60
    Our current level of knowledge regarding global warming would not be possible without analysis from orbit.

    Also, our study of other planets teaches us a great deal about our own, observations of Venus gave us a first hand look at a runaway greenhouse effect and set us wondering if it could happen here.

  62. @#24: “3.2 billion years of evolution have built us into a supremely curious and adaptive species….its what we do.”

    So in other words, there is no benefit from doing what you propose.

    “The robots can only blaze the trail. If we don’t intend to go there, the public appetite for investment will shrivel in short order.”

    What is the point of funding NASA if all NASA does is publicity material to ensure its funding?

  63. Electro

    Caledonian

    See my post at #62 regarding just a fraction of the benefits we get from planetary exploration and NASA in general…Hell, we’ll throw in weather and communication satellites too.

    Science for science’s sake has a track record longer than recorded history of paying for itself many times over.

    “What is the point of funding NASA if all NASA does is publicity material to ensure its funding?”
    If you believe thats all NASA does, then I am not going to waste my time writing out their CV of accomplishments for you here. But mebbe a little research on your part might be in order.

  64. josie

    thank you for the answers to my ‘moon shot’ question :)

  65. Joseph G

    Wow, I just found out that during Gemini 11, they actually did perform a centrifugal gravity experiment, in which they tethered the capsule to an Agena target vehicle and rotated them (slowly). At first they were trying for passive tidal stabilization, but I guess the tether wasn’t long enough (or the spacecraft heavy enough).
    Apparently, though, they were pretty darn stingy with the thrusters: they produced a whopping 0.00015 Gs :)

  66. Joseph G

    @44 MTU: I’m actually giving a talk onthis topic next month!

    Cool!! Might I ask where? I’m so there (if I’m fortunate enough to live within about 100 miles) :D

  67. Gunnar

    #60VRK

    As much as I admire the accomplishments we have had so far in space and the people who accomplished them, I agree that nothing should have higher priority at this time than ameliorating the effects of human caused climate change and converting as soon as humanly possible to renewable and sustainable energy sources. Even if there were no actual danger from AGW, it would be nearly insane of us to not wean ourselves as soon as possible from nearly exclusive dependence on fossil fuels for a whole host of reasons not directly related to climate change concerns.

    #62. Electro

    I agree that what we have learned from the space program (especially from LEO) has contributed greatly to our understanding of the potential climatic crisis that faces us. I think that for the near term, however, our space program priorities should concentrate mostly on those aspects of it that can improve our understanding of what we are doing to our planet and how best to minimize or reverse the worst consequences of what we are doing and have already done. When we have solved that problem (if we still can), then maybe we will have the resources to continue the great adventure of exploring and learning about the “final frontier.”

  68. vrk

    @#62: I didn’t say past space exploration was bad or useless, but I question current priorities. We already have pretty darn good evidence that climate change is occurring, and our fossil fuel dependent civilisation is not going to survive more than modest warming. There’s plenty of science and impossible challenges in mitigation and adaptation without diverting a great deal of funds to manned or robotic Mars missions.

    Given the choice between celebrating, in 2050, the 20th anniversary of ending global carbon emissions, or the 20th anniversary of first man on Mars but +4 degrees of warming and increasing, I’d rather choose the former. It is no less glorious, and still allows us to man a mission to Mars later in the century.

  69. Peter Davey

    There is no way to stabilise the Earth’s climate so completely as to remove the possibility of severe climate change, or other non-man-made disasters.

    You may have seen the BBC series “Catastrophes”, shown a few years ago, and outlining some of the more alarming events life on this planet has experienced over the past few millions years.

    One of those events was “Snowball Earth” – the Earth covered with great ice sheets – life hanging desperately on in few crevices, awaiting warmer days, or extinction.

    A scientist interviewed for that episode suggested that mankind could as soon live on the surface of Mars as on Earth, as it was then.

    Hopefully, should such a situation ever recur, that option would actually be open to us.

    As the writer Larry Niven once put it: sometimes the only defence against something is to be somewhere else when it happens.

    Those who learn nothing from history may not get the choice.

  70. @#64:

    Neither weather satellites nor examination of Venus require manned missions. They have nothing to do with sending humans into space, in fact.

    You also miss the further point. If the only justification of manned missions is to ensure funding for NASA, cancel them and give a fraction of their cost to NASA’s unmanned projects… which have already given us more scientific information than all of our manned missions at a fraction of the cost.

  71. Matt B.

    Mythbusters (which happens to share my initials) agrees–Failure Is Always An Option.

    I happened to see the first shuttle launch on TV when I stopped at my friend’s house during the half-mile walk to kindergarten (yes, small children roamed the streets unchaperoned then). I think that was when I got informed of and interested in space travel. So that’s the anniversary I would have celebrated (if I had gotten caught up enough on the Discover blogs to know it was coming up).

  72. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Matt B. : As a little kid I recall that I stayed up wa-aay past my bedtime to see the firts ever Space Shuttle launch attempt – and that after lots of talk and build up it was aborted with a computer glitch.

    @ 71. Caledonian :

    If the only justification of manned missions is to ensure funding for NASA..” [Emphasis added.]

    Well that’s NOT the only justification.

    There are a great many others – methinks, ultimately perhaps the biggest being that we either have a future in space or we don’t have a future at all.

    I urge you to read some of what Carl Sagan has written on this – he puts it far better than I ever could.

    @67. Joseph G Says:

    @44 MTU: I’m actually giving a talk on this topic next month!
    Cool!! Might I ask where? I’m so there (if I’m fortunate enough to live within about 100 miles)

    At the Kerr-Grant lecture theatre, Physics Building, University of Adelaide, South Australia.

    8 pm, Weds. 4th May 2011 – a yearly astronomical anniversaries talk is becoming a bit of a tradition for me. :-)

    Thanks. I’d love to see you there! :-)

  73. Joseph G

    @73 MTU: Rats, I forgot you were in Oz! It’s a few thousand miles too far out of my way, I’m afraid :)

    I’ve been using the intertubes since before anyone knew what a web browser was, and I still get awestruck now and then about how tiny it makes the world seem :)

  74. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Joseph G : No worries, I thought that might be the case. ;-)

    Oh & me too when it comes to be awed at the internet’s power and being able to do things like watch a shuttle launch or spaceprobe fly-by live on the other side of the planet just as good as on TV while sitting at home in front of my computer screen. :-)

  75. Messier Tidy Upper

    @69. vrk Says:

    Given the choice between celebrating, in 2050, the 20th anniversary of ending global carbon emissions, or the 20th anniversary of first man on Mars but +4 degrees of warming and increasing, I’d rather choose the former. It is no less glorious, and still allows us to man a mission to Mars later in the century.

    Three points here :

    I. We won’t be given that choice. :-(

    Most likely we’ll get the warming – there’s a timelag factor already at play where we’re probably already committed to some major warming unless technology can fix it. Moreover, few nations are doing enough to make a difference, and its going to take a major international action to get anywhere – I wish I could be more optimistic but I fear AGW~wise it’s going to be a case of too little too late. I also fear we won’t be going to Mars anytime soon either the way things are looking. Wish I could say otherwise but realistically, well, the space companies had better do an awful lot, awfully quickly.

    II. That’s a false dichotomy – a logical fallacy.

    It isn’t a zero-sum choice. We can do both those things – or neither of them as well as just one or the other. I’d prefer we do both – and I think these are complementary goals to some extent. Both goals require us to develop science and technology, to come up with some impressive feats on a very large scale. Our Science and technology got us into the AGW crisis – and its realistically the only thing that can dig us out methinks.

    III. Our Earth is vulnerable to Death from the Skies!

    It’s going to do us no good if we fix our climate and turn our planet into a eco-friendly paradise only to find some looming rock or iceball or massive solar flare is going to wipe us out – and we’re unable to stop it or flee elsewhere.

    Ultimately, if Humanity wishes to expand and survive then we have to go into space. It has to be a high priority. Period.

    Other priorities matter too and we can talk and chew gum, work on being eco-friendly and flying to Mars and beyond, both. But if we wish to have a future, we need manned spaceflight & we need to put scientific progress first – that’s the situation as I see it.

    @70. Peter Davey : Or, IOW, what you said – agreed & seconded. :-)

  76. Nigel Depledge

    RM (59) said:

    When NASA committed to the shuttle program the only way they could find the funding that was needed was for the politicians to strip it out of the various DoD and intelligence community space based initiatives.

    This is ironic, given that NASA found a need to turn to the USAF for advice and expertise while designing Shuttle.

    We were ordered to convert all programs to a size and format that would fit in the shuttle.

    This seems to be the opposite of what I had heard and read previously. Because NASA needed the USAF involved, Shuttle had to be large enough to accommodate the USAF’s large spy satellites.

    Be thankful that the “iron curtain” rusted through not too long after this because it seriously limited some of our capabilities. Probably the most damaging thing it did was stop all ongoing production and research on rocket systems.

    I can see how a commitment to Shuttle would halt the development of new engines.

    However, at least one previous commenter has pointed out that the DoD stopped using Shuttle for launches after the first 10 years or so.

  77. Nigel Depledge

    Jeff (61) said:

    I for one was very mad when they cut Apollo and started the shuttle

    Unfortunately, because the media had portrayed the Apollo programme as a race to beat the Soviets to the moon (and I think NASA did little to disabuse anyone of that notion), once Apollos 11 & 12 had succeeded, most of the American public lost interest, and started to wonder where else that money could be spent.

    The fact that Apollo was at its most expensive around 1964 – 66 did not seem to get much of an airing in 1970. Similarly, the fact that in 1970 Apollo was getting peanuts compared to the war in Vietnam (or, indeed, compared with most other government spending programmes) was largely ignored, especially given that NASA was still launching the largest rockets ever built. In some ways, NASA had become too public for its own good. IIUC, by the time Apollo 13 launched, Apollos 19 & 20 had already been cancelled.

  78. Nigel Depledge

    Caledonian (71) said:

    You also miss the further point. If the only justification of manned missions is to ensure funding for NASA, cancel them and give a fraction of their cost to NASA’s unmanned projects

    But it isn’t a zero-sum game.

    If manned exploration increases NASA’s funding, then the absence of a manned programme might actually mean there is less money available for unmanned exploration. Come to think of it, would NASA continue to exist at all if it has no manned space programme?

    Manned space exploration (and I mean exploration, rather than simply sitting in LEO) captures the public imagination in a way that robotic craft cannot compete with. Consider what Spirit and Opportunity have achieved on Mars. Would not there be vastly more public interest if some of those pictures included atronauts?

  79. Nigel Depledge

    MTU (76) said:

    III. Our Earth is vulnerable to Death from the Skies!

    What would be really helpful would be if some intelligent and erudite astronomer could write a book about this kind of stuff.

    ;-)

  80. john the old guy

    I’m old enough to remember a sky empty of mankind’s technology. We (those who thought of it at all) waited and hoped to see any sort of space exploration become reality and (some) we cheared when the USSR first made it happen. But, NASA is run by a ban of idiots, idiots who STILL believe they are supposed to be doing test flights, not exploration! The only defense I’d make for NASA is that congress, and the occasional president, have the vision of a flowering plant.

    They will never see a need again until they feel the US is challenged again as we were in the 1950’s. THEN the money will flow, the programs will pop up everywhere, and space exploration will again become a priority.

    Too late though, I think. Give private business a chance, which they have now, and any government run program is left at the gate. Especially when they begin to realize that any earth-bound restrictions don’t apply off the planet. Even congress won’t have jurisdiction there!

    It was a good time, followed by a very bad couple of decades, followed I hope by a burst of new exploration by industry unfettered by government.

  81. tony sturges

    I was hoping that you would conclude that the manned space flight program is an extremely poor investment in science, in stark contrast to those two geologist robots we sent to Mars. I do not know of any genuine scientific accomplishments from putting humans in space that would not have been much easier to do without humans. Putting humans in the payload increases the cost and complexity by a very large factor.
    tony

  82. Mike B

    Gagarin was a true hero for all mankind. It’s a pity that geopolitics got in the way of celebrating what he and the other cosmonauts achieved. I’m a teacher and most kids haven’t heard of Gagarin whilst they have almost all heard of Armstrong. Unfortunately, they think Armstrong was the first man in space! Hats of to Yuri, Alan, Neil, Konstantin et al.

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