Houston, we have a problem: The end of the Manned Spaceflight Program

15 Jul

The recent liftoff of the last NASA Space Shuttle flight and knowing that our country’s manned spaceflight program is going into limbo has had me kind of speechless.  Anyone that knew me when I was a kid knows that I was flat space-crazy.  And well, I am having trouble believing that the age of Mission Control, “Houston”, “your ‘GO’ for …”, Tang, Velcro, inertial navigation, orbital mechanics and all that way cool stuff, at least from a governmental-sponsored viewpoint is going away.  I feel like it is a sad day for America.  I’m not going to riff on the politics here, though.  As I’m just not sure about that.  The issue is – the astronauts, the engineers and all from NASA were my heroes growing up.  Other kids idolized athletes.  I idolized astronauts.  Still do.

<<< That’s Alan Shepherd right there.  The Icy Commander.  A Steely-Eyed Missile Man.  America’s first man in space.  Part of the Mercury program.  I’ve read numerous books about the space program, and my favorite is still We Seven about the seven original US Astronauts in Mercury.  These guys had cojones like no one else.  All in their mid-30s to early 40s when they flew, all test pilots, most were family men, and all put their asses on the line for our country to crawl into a space capsule that was SMALLER than the driver’s seat cockpit area of a Smart Car (think about that), at the top of a barely-proven and fairly unstable Redstone or Atlas ballistic missile, strapped in and with a “we’re Go for launch” were fired into space at the insane speed of 17,000 miles per hour.  NASA had no computers in those days – hell they didn’t even have calculators.  All of the incredibly complex differential calculus equations that are used to figure out how to make a rocket send a spacecraft into that delicately defined balancing act called “orbit” were done on SLIDE RULES.  Riddle me that for a moment … we carry bloody computers in our pockets now.  I can still name them all from memory without even Googling it:  Alan Shepherd (Mercury 1 and Apollo 14), Gus Grissom (Mercury 2 – killed in the capsule of Apollo 1 on the pad), John Glenn (Mercury 3 – our first orbital flight, and a Shuttle flight when he was 78 years old), Scott Carpenter (flew once – Mercury 4), Deke Slayton (had an inner ear problem that kept him from flying until the Apollo-Soyuz joint mission), Wally Shirra (Mercury 5, Gemini 6, Apollo 7 – an interesting numerological sequence), Gordon Cooper (Mercury 6 and Gemini 5).

After the Mercury program – there was Gemini – a “two-seater sports car” of a spacecraft.  The interior of this thing wasn’t much bigger than the interior of a modern Corvette.  Imagine spending 2 weeks there.  Eating.  Sleeping.  Working. Peeing. Pooping (yes, astronauts do poop), etc.  Again, brass balls.  At least in Mercury and Apollo they had an abort system – a rocket attached to the top of the capsule that if all went bad, would pull the capsule away from the “BFRC” (Big F’ing Red Cloud – as the engineers liked to call an exploding missile).  On Gemini, these guys had EJECTION SEATS – can you imagine that decision being made?  “Umm, Gemini 6, your rocket is blowing up – we recommend you abort.  Your altitude is 70 miles and your velocity is 23,000 feet per second.   Good luck with that.”  And still NO COMPUTERS. (Interesting sidebar:  Neil Armstrong was the commander of the only American space mission to truly go out of control and still have  people live to tell about it – on his Gemini flight.  Steely-eyed missile man!)

Apollo is where most of America and I’d guess most of you picked up the story – and what a story it was.  When President Kennedy, in 1962 made his promise that America would put a man on the moon and return him safely from space, it was an absolute, biggest brass balls promise of the highest order.  One that would never be repeated and most certainly cannot now in this era of “you are from the other side, therefore everything you say or do is a bad idea.”  Again, no politics though.

The scale of an Apollo mission is just mindblowing – the program was going along so fast that astronaut crews had as little as four or five months to prepare.  They made the decision that sent Apollo 8, our first ever mission to leave the Earth’s gravitation field and fly to the moon, on its journey just five months before launch – it was originally supposed to be an earth-orbit flight to wring out the lunar lander – but the supplier of the Lunar Module, Grumman Aerospace, wasn’t going to deliver their product on time.  So with just five months planning, they decided to fly around the moon. One little problem:  they weren’t quite sure how to do it.  But they did.  Hundreds of engineers crunched the numbers on their slide rules and figured it out. Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders crewed that, and brought us that memorable moment when the Astronauts read from the book of Genesis, from near the moon on Christmas Eve, 1968.    From that moment to the middle of the next summer, it was literally a rocket ride – they flew Apollos 9, 10 and 11 – the first moon landing, within six months.

Apollo DID have computers, but I recently read an interesting stat – an iPad has more computer power in it than ALL of Mission Control did at the time we flew Apollo 11.  Crazy, huh?

Most of us of that generation can tell you exactly where we were on July 20th, 1969, the day Apollo 11 landed on the moon and later that evening, Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon.  We were driving for our annual vacation to my Grandparents in New Jersey, and we stopped somewhere in Western Pennsylvania overnight.  We listened to the landing on the car radio in the afternoon as we drove through the Cleveland area, and then that evening were in some Holiday Inn, watching the first man step on the moon.  I was 7 years old and I remember it like it was yesterday.  America was space crazy – everywhere you went it was Apollo-this and Moon-that.  We stopped to gas up the car at a Gulf oil station and their promotion was a Lunar Module made out of paper that you could assemble origami-style into a 3D model.  Well had to have THAT!  That item was on a shelf in my bedroom until after I graduated college.  Wonder where it went?

Watching an Apollo Saturn V lift off had to be one of the most spectacular things ever.  To this day, nothing has ever been bigger, louder, heavier, taller, etc. and still flown.   It had a takeoff thrust of 7.8 MILLION pounds – which was good because the fully-fueled monster weighed 6.5 MILLION pounds.  Some of the stats about a Saturn V are just crazy – the F1 engines on the first stage had fuel pumps that were powered by 24,000 horsepower turboshaft engines (basically jet engines) and pumped fuel at a rate of 24,000 gallons per minute – that’s enough liquid flow to fill a backyard pool in 45 seconds.  It was the loudest thing ever measured – something like 185 decibels at 500 yards away – which means next to it, it was something like 300 decibels.  A jet engine at full takeoff thrust, measured from 100 feet away is only 130 decibels.  The only night launch, Apollo 17,  the exhaust flames were so incandescent that from Atlanta to Miami it was like the sun came out – so bright in Orlando, 100 miles away, that the street lights on their dusk/dawn sensors switched off.  The rocket could be seen from as far away as Washington DC.  It is hard to imagine.

The Apollo astronauts were all heroes of course, but I found a new hero, as an adult, when I started using NASA’s problem solving skills and books about them as a study in how to solve business problems.  I knew about the brilliant engineers of Mission Control, and even knew a few names, but I really began to call Gene Kranz a hero after reading a book written by one of my “in law” relatives, Catherine Bly Cox and her husband Charles Murray – simply titled Apollo.  Apollo is a book about the people behind the mission – the engineers and planners, who made the flights possible and sweated and calculated.  Again these were YOUNG men – late 20s to late 30s – maybe about 40.  Gene Kranz is the Ed Harris character in the movie Apollo 13 – he’s a brilliant mind and he’s taught me the value of “don’t make things worse by guessin'”, and “work the problem, people” and Tiger Teams and a bunch of other brilliant management concepts.  At 38 years old, Gene Kranz was the mastermind behind bringing home the astronauts of Apollo 13 – even though every odd was against them doing so.  Now that’s a hero.

Which brings me to my primary point – the space program and moon race and NASA supplied major national heroes for our country – something we are truly lacking now.  No matter how excited we are about our favorite politicians, our President or whatever – let’s face it – these folks aren’t the brass balled, Icy-Commander, steely-eyed missile men of our youth.  They are not heroes. Important, influential, even perhaps inspiring, but not heroes.  Heroes are something we could use about now. In our pop-culture, 24×7 media-fueled culture we mistake entertainers for heroes.  We have several generations of people now in our society who don’t have any national heroes. And we really need heroes. THAT, my friends, is what we lose with the end of the space program.

As you were.

Stew

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4 Responses to “Houston, we have a problem: The end of the Manned Spaceflight Program”

  1. Bill E July 15, 2011 at 10:56 pm #

    Do I remember? Stew, like you, I idolized…and still do … those brave souls. As you put it, nothing says “brass balls” like strapping a rocket to your rear!

    I also remember
    … gathering in classrooms in school to watch launch or recovery
    … sitting in my mini-rocking chair in my parents room as we stepped on the moon for the first time
    … how many of us had the Revell Apollo / Lunar Module model? I think I went thru about 5 of them
    … how about the GIJoe capsule? Didnt we all have (or want) one?
    … Saw Gene Kranz speak at a conference a couple years ago – was mesmerized
    …growing up in Texas I visited the Johnson Space Center several times
    …been to KSC in Port Canveral twice – ok, the Vehicle Assembly building is freakin HUGE
    …actuall sent an application to NASA a few years ago – just to get the official “thanks, but no” note from NASA

    • Stew's Brew July 16, 2011 at 1:22 pm #

      Bill – these are great … some of mine:
      – Saving up to buy that giant Revell Saturn V rocket model that was more than 4 feet tall (which, I’m told, is still in my mom’s attic – I should pull it out.)
      – Same as you – watching the launches and recoveries in school on TV
      – My grandfather bought me a globe of the moon, and we marked down every landing site after they landed, in red pencil. When Apollo 13 went up, I happened to be at their house that weekend (it launched on a Saturday as I recall) and had my globe with me. My grandfather pulled out his pencil to mark the site, and I said “wait – they didn’t land yet” … wooooooo clairvoyant!
      – Building several Saturn V model rockets – you know, beautiful rocket when NASA flew it – didn’t translate well to the model rocket world.
      – Being a complete geek about model rockets. I still have them all here – we should go fly them sometime just for giggles.
      – Watching a shuttle launch from the rooftop of a hotel in Orlando about 12 years ago was one of the coolest things I have ever seen.

      UNLIKE you, i have not visited KSC yet – what the hell am i waiting for?

  2. Linda Covert Campbell July 16, 2011 at 2:26 am #

    Well said, baby boy!

  3. carpetbagger July 19, 2011 at 2:10 am #

    John Glenn took off on Friendship-7 four days after I was born. My mom remembers it very well. I remember watching the moon landing on a tiny, grainy black-and-white set on our back porch. At that time, I don’t think I was as in tune with what was happening as you were though.

    In college, I went with some friends to Carswell Air Force Base to see the Space Shuttle take off on the back of a 747 as they piggy-backed it from Cali to Fla. It was like watching a 7-story building taking off. Also in college, I met and shook hands with Alan Bean. It’s pretty awesome to shake the hands of a man who walked on the moon.

    Wish I had made a trip to watch a lift-off. It’s one of those things you just thought we’d always do, so what’s the hurry.

    It’s pretty amazing that all of NASA’s accidents happened in earth’s atmosphere. All those flights and never a mishap in the dangers of space itself. Amazing. I agree. It’s pretty sad that we are just letting all this knowledge, skill, and experience drift away. Plus, now what hope do apes have of someday taking over the world?

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