Forty years ago, the moon landing made The Future seem present. How do we get back?
In April of 1968, Stanley Kubrick released “2001: A Space Odyssey,” his exquisitely crafted cinematic mix of fantasy, science fiction and extrapolated scientific fact of the day. The film was both a vision of a possible future and conjecture on what such a future might do to the beings who created it.
Fifteen months later, some part of that vision — maybe only in the most general sense, but some part — became reality when a Saturn V rocket lifted off pad 39A at Cape Kennedy on July 16, 1969. The Apollo 11 crew of three sat on top of that fire-breathing, cetaceous, undeniably phallic machine — 363 feet tall, the first stage alone burning 4.5 million pounds of propellant in just two and a half minutes. Two of those three, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, would land a spidery, unearthly looking craft on the moon four days later, July 20. Michael Collins would remain in lunar orbit during that feat.
I witnessed that launch on the banks of the Indian River on a clear Florida morning, watching that white-and-black-and-red USA thing rise in motion so slow it didn’t match time. But that’s how Newton’s third law happens to millions of pounds of rocket and fuel.
Huge troughs of water below the launch tower cooled the flames from the five F1 engines of the main stage. Billowing clouds of condensation rolled out and up from those troughs, the first visual indicator of Go. Only seconds later did the controlled explosions out of those rocket engines give a report as broken thunder rolled over us.
I was 15, and as I looked through my binoculars I trembled — not at all from fear, but with excited anticipation, for surely this moment was the start of a new human epoch that would see a politically born space age evolve into an age of space for us all.
I was wrong, of course. Naïve and unwise to the ways of the adult world in general and politics in particular, I was wrong. Funding for Apollo had already been cut. When Apollo 13 launched, Apollo 18, 19 and 20 were being cancelled, even with much of the flight hardware already built.
The real 2001 would not find me vacationing on the moon, a future I fully expected in 1969. The real 2001 would hold unimagined terrorism for Americans, and across the planet the proliferation of tribalism and of religious nut jobs in positions of power and authority.
On this 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing, then, we might ask what happened to Kubrick’s vision. Was it just celluloid daydreaming, some sort of latter day Fabergé egg for geeks? Or was this enigmatic genius onto something? How much of “2001” could there have been in 2001?
More than you think, probably. Let me show you.
“2001: A Space Odyssey” has four parts: the world of prehistoric hominids, journey to Earth orbit and from Earth orbit to the moon, journey to Jupiter, and finally Jupiter and beyond.
The first and fourth parts are complete fantasy. The third is very solid science fiction. The second, though, is something distinctly more than sci fi, being a considered extrapolation of scientific facts, theories and hypotheses of the day, not to mention a fair amount of serious back-of-the-envelope sketches. In it the workaday world of space is exhibited in the travels of Dr. Heywood Floyd. He will be our focus, but let’s first check out the reality of the time.
On Christmas Eve of 1968 — a year of assassination, war and rioting that, for many, couldn’t be over soon enough — the astronauts of Apollo 8 sent a message to Earth. Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders had become true spacefarers by being the first humans caught in the gravitational field of another heavenly body. In lunar orbit, they ended their Christmas greeting with “… good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you — all of you on the good Earth.” Their distant signal carried an intense, utterly ecumenical nugget of hope. It was sort of like the message in a bottle reversed — not come rescue me but let us rescue you.
Anne Vouga is assistant rector at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. That Christmas she was 7 and living south of Houston in the astronaut village of Nassau Bay, Texas. Her father, Dr. Richard Downs, began at NASA in 1963. Astronauts were her neighbors, their children her schoolmates; but like a kid in Hollywood with parents in the biz she wasn’t so aware of what was happening around her.
“They had tour buses that came down our street,” she remembers. “People would pay to take a tour and they’d point out where all the astronauts lived. And I remember thinking that was so silly.”
Downs helped investigate the Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts, and the Apollo 13 in-flight explosion. That disaster aborted the third lunar landing and nearly cost the crew, but their improvised survival and safe return made the flight another sort of success.
“He wasn’t supposed to talk about it to the news media,” Vouga recalls about Apollo 13, “but nobody told me that. A reporter called the house and I answered the phone. I must have been about 8 years old. They were asking me questions about what my father did. I don’t think I was old enough to tell them anything, but my parents were really freaked out.”
A chemist involved in fire retardation and the analysis of lunar samples, Downs also helped design the flag for the first landing. The trick was to extend the flag in a windless world, and the answer was essentially an umbrella with a single spline. Despite the straightforward design, “he was very concerned it wasn’t going to work,” Vouga says. “We were watching the landing on TV in Austin. He was sitting there biting his nails, wondering if the thing was going to open. I remember him joking if it doesn’t, well, then, we’re just not going home.”
Not until Vouga moved to Europe in 1982 would she fully realize people like her father — who died in 1993 — had accomplished something more than a routine government project. “I would tell people my father had worked for NASA and they would fall down at my feet and say, ‘Oh my God, that is so cool!’”
Vouga’s mother was less interested.
“I was sort of a typical housewife and mother,” Anne Downs remembers, “and not too excited about the moon and NASA. At times when I was cross I would tell him ‘they’re never going to send people to be on the moon.’”
Nassau Bay “was a friendly place to be. On Halloween all the doors were open to the kids. It was very cozy and friendly.” Mrs. Downs was particularly close to Claire Schweickart, wife of astronaut Rusty Schweickart of Apollo 9. The two women taught their children to canoe while their husbands pursued their heavenward work.
But Nassau Bay was 25 miles from Houston, and Mrs. Downs missed living in Houston. She became exasperated at times with her husband’s long hours, which, as with so many working on Apollo, were not demanded so much as given eagerly.
The disinterest of a small girl and the domestic disillusion of her mother were part of 1968 reality, and were emblematic of a weary and divided nation. Even before the first lunar landing the popular support and political will for Apollo had peaked, and Vietnam was sapping the treasury. By the time “2001” was released the real space adventure was old news.
Still, we did have Kubrick’s vision of 21st-century living. This vision included leaving Earth in a space plane capable of rendezvous in orbit, reentry and runway landing; an orbiting space station with artificial gravity; a transport craft to the moon; and extensive living and working facilities on the moon. And considering the Howard Johnson’s restaurant and the Hilton front desk we see on the station, let’s also assume orbital tourists, who perhaps might have purchased T-shirts that read The Last Time I Was This High I Was At Woodstock.
So, when the year 2001 did arrive, how far would Dr. Floyd have gotten in a journey to the moon?
The space shuttle (official name Space Transportation System) is, aerodynamically, a lifting body, meaning the whole craft acts as a single wing during reentry. The concept dates from the mid 1920s.
In “2001” the Pan Am spaceliner “Orion” looks like a lifting body. With a little fritzing of trailing wing edges and of the fore and aft fuselage, “Orion” and STS look remarkably similar, especially from above. A pressurized passenger module in the STS cargo bay could have carried at least 10, so in 2001 people could have reached orbit en masse.
In that year there was also a destination, the International Space Station (ISS). While in no way approaching the scale of the revolving space station in the film, and without artificial gravity, the ISS would have provided basic facilities and some comfort, and could have been a transfer station for moon flights.
With Dr. Floyd safely bunked in the ISS, his journey ends, in reality, because there was no lunar craft to which he could have transferred for a flight to the moon. That’s as far as we had come in 2001.
Eight years later it’s still as far as we’ve come, so let’s do a little gedankenexperimenting, which costs nothing, and continue with this question: In 2001, given three decades of research, development, funding and commercialization, could Dr. Floyd’s journey have been made — somewhat routinely, relatively safely and in some comfort? Forget the luxury, and banality, we see in the film — our question assumes a system much closer to the bone. In 2001, could Dr. Floyd have said I’m going to the moon with the same certainty anyone today, with enough money, can say I’m going to Antarctica? Could anyone with the price of a ticket, however expensive, have gone as a tourist, had the vision of 1968 continued?
The actual lunar astronauts achieved Earth orbit first, then headed for the moon. In the physics of space flight there’s no difference between leaving an orbital point and leaving a physical site like the ISS, and having a lunar space craft docked at the ISS would have utilized only known technology. In 2001, then, the means for Dr. Floyd to go to the moon, land, lift off, return to the ISS and then back to Earth on the STS could have been in place.
The actual facilities on the moon in 2001 would have been the shabbiest part of our equation. The left-behind hardware, in an odd mix of irony and melancholy, had become an accidental museum offering no quarter. In terms of accommodations, lunar visitors in 2001 would have found only moon flotsam. Or is it jetsam?
From the point of view of early 1960s enthusiasm, commercial space flight was to follow the developmental model of commercial aviation. The difficulty would have been orders of magnitude greater, but the transition was possible. Pan American World Airways (Pan Am), to give just one step-by-step example from history, pioneered trans-Pacific flights in 1935 by establishing refueling stations on islands. But after the Apollo program achieved a Manhattan Project status, that potential continuity was gone. What still might have been was going to be NASA-based.
Besides, Kubrick’s lunar base in “2001” was ridiculously optimistic, as even Arthur C. Clarke — who wrote the novel on which the film is based — would later agree. Still, like the known-technology spacecraft that could have been part of the ISS, it is technologically feasible that some kind of lunar base could have been in place in 2001. But the political reality for NASA, brewing since before the end of Apollo, invades even the wishful thinking of our gedankenexperiment. In reality, the final destination of Dr. Floyd, even in the world of what might have been, would have been bare regolith, his shelter only that of his own lander, the same sort of shelter the last real lunar explorers had used almost 30 years earlier.
Had there been a more applicable technology to transfer to civilian use in the early 1970s, it’s possible, and somewhat probable, that space tourism would have been a reality in 2001. Not as lavish as “Orion,” as noted, and almost certainly only for the solidly rich. But not a fantasy. This was America, after all, and 30 years of continuous research, development and funding could have yielded a pedestrian space age. Consider that from the Wright brothers’ first wobbly flight measured in yards to accessible civilian aviation was just 20 years or so.
A decade before the first landing, though, the vision had been far different from the Apollo program that would emerge, and the whittled compromise that would saddle the post-Apollo years.
The idea of going to the moon had been pursued seriously, if only conceptually, since the late 1930s. In the early 1930s and the late 1920s, respectively, the British Interplanetary Society, of which Arthur C. Clarke was a member, and the Verein fur Raumschiffarht (Spaceflight Society), which had predominant rocket engineer Wernher von Braun as a member, began to promote astronautics and engage in practical experimentation, if only against a backdrop of political disinterest and nonexistent technologies. By 1960 in the United States, however, the perceived political necessity to pursue extreme altitudes coincided with the technological ability to reach them.
There’s little doubt that during those early years NASA expected continuing and increasing funding. The Nova, a rocket even bigger than the Saturn V, was proposed. Plans for lunar bases and environmental systems were drawn. A manned Mars mission was penciled in for the 1980s.
Pan Am had preliminary plans for a spaceliner, and in 1968 the company even began accepting reservations in the First Moon Flights Club. A publicity gimmick, yes, but also something more: It reflected the vision of a bold company and the logical extension of that vision. The reservations were a token of the space age, permission of sorts to ponder The Future. This is what Kubrick saw, in both government and private enterprise, as he and Clarke first considered their film in 1964.
In 1960 von Braun’s long-held method of moon trekking involved building an Earth-orbiting platform, at which the actual moon spacecraft would be constructed. The whole craft would then go to the moon, land, take off and return to the platform. Von Braun figured this might happen in 1975.
But by 1962 von Braun’s vision was being replaced by an essentially disposable system, the only way to meet the goal of a manned lunar landing by the end of 1969, set by President Kennedy in a May 1961 speech to Congress. This system, although quite elegant, was too specialized for civilian application, a transfer that had happened with airplanes, and later jet propulsion. (Don’t blame Kennedy for this short circuit. Without his deadline it is highly unlikely a moon-landing project would have survived politically to 1975.)
Still, the hope of having NASA astronauts in permanent orbital and lunar presences, then trekking on to Mars, lived on for almost another decade. Both von Braun and NASA chief Thomas Pain presented ambitious but doable long-term plans to President Nixon in 1971.
But manned space flight — past, present or future — had never interested Richard Nixon, and by 1971 it held no political currency for him whatsoever. This disinterest, lack of vision and lack of imagination was hardly partisan, nor limited to Capitol Hill. The last Apollo flight — December of 1972 — was the most ambitious and scientifically advanced of the missions, but in the culture at large the flight didn’t even rate dedicated TV coverage. Just four short years after the Apollo 8 crew gave us their radio Christmas ornament, Apollo 17 wasn’t news.
The only surviving component of the long-term plans was the STS, but in 1971 Nixon seriously considered canceling all manned projects. The president agreed begrudgingly to STS funding only after Caspar Weinberger, at the time the Republican budget advisor, suggested that a lack of American presence in space might tarnish Nixon’s legacy. Even so the funding was meager, and the STS we have is nearly an imitation of the craft originally proposed. Ironically, every lunar landing and its requisite prestige took place during the first Nixon administration.
Sadly, even as Apollo was happening few appreciated the scope of the accomplishment, the odds overcome and the sheer serendipity that emerged time and again. The Saturn V, from top to bottom, was a system of systems, the efforts of 400,000 people who produced 10 million parts that had to perform correctly and in sequence. Some statisticians claimed such an ongoing conjunction of machination just couldn’t happen. In the early years NASA itself had prepared for a Saturn failure rate as high as 50 percent.
In trying to explain Apollo and what happened to the vision, it’s helpful to compare the project with Hollywood.
We know the faces and names of those on the multiplex screen because they are on the screen. But that larger-than-life realm is possible only by the work of tens of thousands behind the cameras — directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, sound crews, set and costume designers, film editors and on and on.
Likewise, in the ’60s a handful or two of astronauts were well known, some as genuine celebrities. We knew their names because of the missions they flew, and because of the phenomenal success of those missions. Paralleling Hollywood, those missions happened by the work of not tens of thousands, but the hundreds of thousands who remained on Earth — engineers, designers, craftsmen, scientists and particularly astute managers, in both NASA and industry.
In Hollywood every movie has two perceptions. One is held by those who actually make the movie, working long days and weeks to craft an artistic vision, however meager or noble.
The other perception is held by the studio suits, who see the production as a device to make money. If the movie turns a profit, the suits are happy. And if some kind of artistic statement happens, well, that’s OK, too.
Likewise, there were two perceptions of Apollo. One was held by those who worked their butts off for almost nine years to foster this new epoch for humanity, a vision quest held widely across NASA and the aerospace industry, and not without reason at first.
The other perception came from the points of view of Congress and the Nixon administration. To wit: We’ve just got to beat those godless commies to the moon. But now when we do, well, goodness gracious let’s forget all this nonsense. If we don’t, we just might end up with a culture fundamentally different from the last 5,000 years, and we can’t have that.
Politically, and for the most part culturally, that version of Apollo prevailed.
Because we tend to hold a compartmentalized view of the ’60s we often miss the larger whole. In many ways The Future came knocking back then, and we said no thanks. Not interested. Not just in the human exploration of the universe beyond our apple skin atmosphere, but also in an evolving claim to human rights for all everywhere, in a similar evolution of energy sources and environmentalism, and in a healthy questioning of the culture extant.
And so here we are, in 2009: so very many of us still in love with warrantless authority. So very many of us cloistering ourselves in reactionary theology. Thirty-five years to figure out ways beyond coal and oil have been mostly squandered. We still won’t educate our kids with excitement, with life-affirming teaching. Slavery and piracy have reemerged. And I don’t have my timeshare with a view of the Sea of Tranquility.
Rocco Petrone was a senior Apollo Program manager, a key recurring name in Apollo history. In the unsurpassed book of the Apollo story, “Apollo: Race to the Moon,” the authors quote him: “We’ve had a lot of reporting of how big the rocket is, how much noise it makes, pictures of guys on the moon. But what was the real meaning of Apollo? What did it symbolize? What were we after? For a few short years Apollo was almost like a Renaissance, but nobody wants to confront that sort of possibility now.”
Just when Petrone gave that take isn’t clear. Judging by the tense maybe the mid-1970s. When Petrone died in 1996 he would likely have remained discouraged about the state of manned space flight. Since the last Apollo flight NASA had not sent a human being farther out than the driving distance from Louisville to Atlanta, also known as low earth orbit. The Soviets had never exceeded an altitude beyond low orbit in manned flight. There had been talk now and then about private ventures into space, but little more.
Petrone might be more encouraged today, at least by the private sector. Grand plans for NASA — a return to the moon, a legitimate lunar base — are trotted out from time to time, mostly as political theater that delivers only scant will and unlikely funding. It’s rather foolish to think the outlook will improve in the foreseeable economic future. What Petrone didn’t live to see, however, was billions of dot com and other entrepreneurial dollars in private hands coinciding with a materials and design evolution, making private space flight not just feasible, but inevitable.
Maybe the best-known space tourism outfit is Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. Branson teamed with genius aircraft designer Burt Rutan to produce SpaceshipOne and win the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004. The prize, based on the $25,000 Orteig Prize that Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic to win, was awarded to the first private company to launch a reusable spacecraft twice in two weeks. Virgin Galactic will offer sub-orbital flights for around $200,000.
Other companies, such as XCOR Aerospace and Blue Origin, started by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, will offer similar flights. XCOR’s flight will reach a somewhat lower altitude and, because the participant will be strapped in next to the pilot, have a limited zero-G experience. But check the price — only $95,000, and the passenger will ride shotgun, which will offer quite a different, “Right Stuff” perspective. Typically, expect flights to reach 62 miles (100 kilometers).
Bigelow Aerospace plans to launch the first space hotel within a few years. With a room rate of $8 million per week, this is actually a bargain compared with the $20 million per week a stay in the ISS runs. However, that stay, brokered by Space Adventures, is available now.
Space Adventures, founded in 1998, is today the most comprehensive private space flight outfit. The company has sent six people to the ISS, will soon offer sub-orbital flights for $102,000 and continues to offer orbital flights in partnership with the Russian Space Agency. Believe it or not, serious negotiations are ongoing with the Russians to offer a flight to the moon, which will loop around the far side but will not land. $100 million per person.
All companies are taking reservations. No company seems to be giving definite flight dates, which is an indicator that safety is paramount, but the buzz is sooner rather than later.
This second chapter of manned space flight has caught the imagination of many in post-Apollo generations, including Rachel Connolly. Two years ago Connolly, 35, came from the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium in Manhattan to direct the Gheens Science Hall and Rauch Planetarium at the University of Louisville. She is committed to turning the dome into a digital immersive visualization laboratory that will not only expand astronomy, but will also include disciplines such as microbiology and archaeology. As a result the planetarium is under the direction of the College of Education and Human Development. U of L was the first institution to take this step and leads the way in this all-encompassing approach.
In the dome I take the mouse. I can barely believe the experience as I fly to the edge of our solar system and beyond. And as Connolly stresses, what I am seeing is not an imagined simulation, but representations based on hard data.
Connolly can’t remember not wanting to be an astronomer. She focused on physics in high school, received her B.S. in physics and astronomy from Denison, taught high school in the Bronx, was recruited by NASA, did graduate work in astrophysics at Columbia as a NASA Fellow, and will earn her Ph.D. in science education from the Columbia University Teachers College. She never applied to be an astronaut, though, understanding that she would likely train for years but never fly; her devotion to education overrode the remoteness of that personal trek.
When I ask if she would fly on a private flight she says yes — immediately. “But you know what,” she reconsiders, “I think it would be greater to have kids go. To be able to capture it for kids.”
It is in this second chapter that a freewheeling, decentralized adventure beyond Earth might happen, populated by people who have had, or will have, a fire lit within by the Rachel Connollys of planet Earth. It is in this second chapter that a hipper, more YEE-HA! realization of Kubrick’s take on the 21st century could unfold.
Part of what Rocco Petrone mourned at the de facto end of the first chapter were the dashed goals and triumphs that would have been achieved by America as a people, and what our nation might have been in 2001 as a result. Still, Petrone’s Renaissance might happen yet, however less nobly, or however more.
But then that’s history’s scheme, both subtle and coarse as it seems often enough to mock our very imagination. After all, we remember and celebrate the quirky accidents at least as often as the realized plans. Without the brashness of a young American president, to name but one visionary of many, we might still be wondering as a species about poking our heads above the highest clouds.
Why poke our heads beyond the last molecules of our atmosphere, then farther still? Or anywhere? Just to see what’s there, really. That has always been our roundabout way of conquering our fears.