Posts Tagged With: NASA

Into the Black

Remember 1981? Yes, it’s a bit fuzzy at this point, but that was the year that manned spaceflight became normal. On the 21st of April, the Space Shuttle Columbia rocketed into orbit. Over the next 30 years, 135 launches were made by the fleet. For the generations who grew up or were born during this era, astronauts traveling to and living in space (on board the International Space Station) became commonplace. This normalcy hid the difficulty and danger that were behind the curtain.

Rowland White‘s Into the Black recounts the epic effort to design and launch the shuttle. It took nearly as long and was every bit as difficult as the Apollo program. In some ways it was more so: Apollo components had to work once; the Shuttles had to survive the rigors of launch and space over and over.

White recounts how the shuttle program was the final project of the Apollo veterans. It was also a fusion of a canceled military space program – complete with astronauts and launch sites – that would be combined with the civilian side.  Technologies such as reusable rocket engines and protection from reentry were beyond state of the art. The drama that unfolded was every bit as exciting as what was told in From Earth to the Moon and Apollo 13.

Danger was never eliminated, but the later losses of the Challenger and Columbia were not, ironically, cause by failures of the orbiters. None of the shuttles ever failed, repeatedly surviving launch stresses and harsh environments that those of us earthbound cannot imagine.

While the shuttles never flew as frequently as envisioned, nor brought the costs of launch down, history will look back on them as making possible what comes next. We are already seeing the turnover of spaceflight to private companies. The International Space Station that the shuttles enabled is an orbital spaceport on the verge of becoming the staging point for new ventures. The government and politics often got in their own way in opening the frontier, but as Into the Black details, the astronauts of the Space Shuttles swung that door wide open.

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Last Man

When humans first entered the final frontier the very edge of technology was pushed to its limits. The race into space may have been driven by the Cold War, but ultimately there was something even greater behind it.

The human spirit.

That spirit has driven mankind to explore for millennia and space is no different. Every bit as dangerous as the New World, the Amazon and the Wild West, but this frontier has no bounds and is unforgiving. Unfortunately, the powers that be, quickly lost vision and returned to their myopia. In an age where technology is taken for granted, it is hard to believe this happened decades ago. It is also a reminder that we could do so much more than iPhones and smart cars.

There are some who still remain from that first wave; those who were there on the new frontier. This is the story of the last man to walk on another world:

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Challenger 7: 30 Years Ago

Two weeks from tomorrow, on January 28th, marks 30 years since the Challenger Disaster.

Seems so long ago, yet it is one of those days people never forget. School was out that day, probably because of bad weather, and I remember watching on television the news showing the explosion over and over.

I will never forget.

We didn’t give up on spaceflight that day, but I wish more would have seen the real promise of the Final Frontier. Instead, many in government still see it as another “get-elected-for-a-few-years” opportunity. The vision of government sees only through the next election cycle, not seven generations hence.

There are those who are far more forward in their thinking. Those who are tired of the others who have given up on the human spirit of adventure. The spirit that created pioneers, frontiersman and explorers. That spirit is in all of us, even if those in power have forgotten.

We can best remember and honor the Challenger 7, and all those astronauts who light up the sky on the National Astronaut Memorial, by looking and forging ahead.

By remembering pioneers are still needed, frontiers need explored and danger can never be eliminated.

Honor those who tried, those who failed, those who succeeded and those who gave the last full measure.

Let the future not say we gave up, forgot or ignored.

If we do, there will be no future to look back on us.

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Pluto Reminds Us to Awaken

A U.S. spacecraft named New Horizons arrived at Pluto today after a 9 year, 3 billion mile journey. Some may ask why bother? What’s the point?

It’s sad that many have taken such a small view of humanity. Instead, small incremental changes are seen as breakthroughs. We allow government, societies and anyone with a lot of money to define us, tell us what to do and how far we can go.

The truth is, if New Horizons and other achievements like it were the norm, we’d live in a much different world. The wonders of the future wouldn’t always be 50 years distant. Imagine fusion reactors fed by Helium-3 from the Moon. Asteroids with uncountable mineral resources. Regular space travel not limited to a few or science fiction. These aren’t dreams, but are realities long within our grasp. Instead, we let those with no vision, who only see tomorrow and do what it takes to hang onto power until then, decide what is best.

Pluto may be a small world, with little impact on our own, but it is in our Solar System. Exploring this region of space – our region of space – is in us as much as the drive that explored every corner of our planet, above it and on our Moon. William E. Burrows explained this in his book Exploring Space that chronicled the first wave of robot explorers, envoys that preceded the people that have or will follow:

…the core motivation for human beings to venture where the can, and to send robotic proxies where they cannot, is as sublimated but as real and ultimately unerring as the one that guides snow geese, salmon and other migrators on their own immense journeys. It is a reason that transcends reason. We go because of a profound urge to leave our imprint on the universe…That is why we explore. The treasure invested in long voyages of high adventure could be arguably spent [elsewhere]…but ultimately the imperative to merely survive…is not the most admirable of goals. Greatness is achieved not by putting out fires but by creating monuments to humanity’s full capacity for enterprise, imagination and courage. Certainly these include, as they always have, setting courses that lead straight into the heart of the unknown.

In other words, setting our sights so low, following those with no vision, will lead us nowhere we want to be. We need to dare ourselves again. Awake the fires that we are born with. Science can’t do it all, it is not a religion or God. Our free will to do great things has a dark side as well. So we could just give up and let others decide our fate, or we can believe, as Dr. Franklin Storm states in the new Fantastic Four film:

It is our duty as human beings to push forward into the unknown…

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Challenger: 28 Years Later and its Legacy in Space

Remembering American Explorers, American Heroes and the importance of the Space Frontier: 28 Years Ago Today and Fallen Heroes.

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Mars: A New Hope

NASA’s most ambitious Mars probe is set to land late today (or early tomorrow, depending where you live). NASA is one of the few government programs that actually invests in a major — and important — industry that supports high-tech jobs and science and technology advancement. However, the geniuses in Washington has been throwing NASA under the bus as of late. They’d rather bailout unsuccessful ventures. But I digress. At least NASA is finally relying more on the commercialization of space. Now if they only would do that with the International Space Station.

Man’s obssesion with Mars has been detailed by many authors in great fiction. Ray Bradbury’s classic The Martian Chronicles showed us the ruins of a dying world.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ swashbuckling John Carter series is an amazing adventure series decades ahead of its time.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is a detailed epic on man’s settlement and terraforming of the Red Planet.

There are many others, but these are of the best. Even though Mars is a dead world, it still draws us to it as one of the most dynamic — and mysterious — worlds in our Solar System. As unfolds in Robinson’s novels, it’s the most likely world for humans to colonize if we can ever begin to look further than next week. Robert Zubrin’s The Case For Mars explains the reasons and means for exploring the Red World.

In an era where the politicians lack any vision, and most people wander aimlessly through life, maybe Mars will inspire a few to raise the bar.

Especially in this election year with the same empty promises and waves of deception, Mars could be just what we need.

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But What of Our Future?

Here we often discuss history, but what of our future? I wonder this as the shuttle program ends and after reading the The Case for Mars. The exploration of space is adrift, blown about by the shallow whims of politicians only interested in making it to the next election.

Will the lessons of history that tell us of the perils of short-sightedness ever impact the feeble minds of Washington?

Rome. China. The Middle East. All, often for centuries, turned their backs on the future for many regrettable reasons. Space travel held so much promise in the 1960s to turn people away from killing each other and enter into a prosperous adventure exploring a new frontier. Even though Apollo was largely born out of Cold War politics and launched on military technology, it was of such scale that it had Earth-changing potential.

Then it was ended.

Nixon canceled the last missions even though most of the hardware was already paid for or built. Then started decades of going nowhere, trapped in low-earth orbit. Nearly each president releasing a “vision” for the future then abandoning it. Plan after plan with no purpose other than to secure short-term votes only to have the next leader trash it. Note how they put goals so far out in the future that it would not matter if it failed or not. One of President Obama’s current “visions” is men visiting asteroids by 2025.

2025? This could be done by 2017. Asteroids are rich in mineral resources, yet as long as the government runs the show with their fake plans, we will never get there. The Moon has enough helium-3 to fuel the world for generations. Yet we still fight over gas and oil and hope for the best.

When will a politician come along with real vision? Not worried about making it to the next election? Someone who can explain why the final frontier is valuable and attainable? A person who pushes the government out of the way and lets the people take control?

Certainly the shuttle had its successes. It was an amazing vehicle that flew for three decades. It was also an engineering nightmare with too many compromises. Too much promised and too many eggs in one basket. The technical marvel, the International Space Station, is also an achievement. It also is underutilized and without direction. It almost became like, “Let’s get it finished, have it orbit a few years, then figure something out.” Its value as proving ground for private space efforts or Mars exploration is grossly unused.

Not that it is needed to go to Mars. The Case for Mars proved that. It also proved it doesn’t take decades or unimaginable amounts of money. NASA briefly pursued it and for a few short years began to embrace simpler, commonsense approaches to exploring Mars and the Moon. Then the superbrains of Washington intervened once again.

The government bailed out companies and banks that did everything wrong, but what of the space workers? The people who invested in our future? The people that did everything right and what was asked of them? The people who wanted to do so much more?

There are glimmers of hope as the private space industry finally emerges from underneath the crushing weight of the government and industry giants (i.e. SpaceX). But will someone in this election year actually stand up and provide a real vision? Not another fabricated feel-good plan that requires us to start from scratch again?

This isn’t new or hard. We did it over 30 years ago. Let’s leave our children something other than crushing debt and a legacy bereft of any forward-thinking.

Who will answer the challenge?

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An Era Ends

Normally we discuss very ancient history here, but this week ends the Space Shuttle program. While it never flew as much as intended, nor brought costs of spaceflight down, it did make it normal. Hard to believe it has been thirty years since the first flight in 1981. Like most government run programs, it was hampered by the changing whims of politicians, as has the entire space program. Ever since Apollo was ended early, the government has never embraced the grand plans and future-thinking legacies that spaceflight could bring. We are decades behind where we could be. For insight to what space travel could bring mankind, check out The Survival Imperative: Using Space to Protect Earth, Mining The Sky: Untold Riches From The Asteroids, Comets and Planets, The Case for Mars and Return to the Moon.

Energy. Resources. Exploration. Knowledge. A New Frontier.

Perhaps the next stage of human history.

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