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The caracoling in Mad City has drawn attention away from the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery on mission STS-133, delivering supplies to the Space Station, including the necessary parts to make the new room usable. That’s as it should be. In the original vision for the Shuttle it was supposed to be a utility vehicle for getting people and things into space, used so often that individual missions were relegated to brief mentions in the inside pages of the paper, next to the lingerie ads. As we all know, it didn’t work out that way. “Turnaround” for the orbiters has from the first been an elaborate, expensive matter, so much so that NASA was more or less forced to try to make each trip dramatic and newsworthy. Having the Shuttle shoved off the front page by political shenanigans fits the original idea much better.

I’ve been to Florida reasonably often, but somehow never managed to get to the Cape to see a rocket launch, though I did do the tour once when nothing was visibly happening. My brother John (RIP) went once, and was most impressed. (He was also a NASCAR fan, and loved loud noises.) Now it looks like I’ll never get the chance, at least for Shuttle. If this mission goes off without disasters Endeavour will do STS-134 in April; if they can find enough loose change behind the couch cushions Atlantis will do STS-135 sometime this summer. That’s it. No more Shuttle.

Many people are lamenting that. Chuck Gannon on Facebook wails, what reason validates the decision (or apathy) that has let this capability slide away from us? He concludes that it’s truly unfortunate, and many agree. For myself, I’m not so sure.

Let’s face facts squarely, boys and girls: Mercury/Apollo was a publicity stunt. It may very well have been a necessary political stunt; at that time, it wasn’t at all clear just how destructive of wealth a full-on socialist system would be, and many people took Nikita Khruschev at his word. Khruschev wasn’t threatening war, he was promising that the Politburo would deliver such prosperity to the Russian people and their fraternal socialist brethren that the West would be eclipsed by the tide. As part of the accompanying propaganda the USSR was doing very well at what can only be described as a Potemkin space program, with lots of visible spectacular achievements, and it was important for international prestige that the United States establish that it could do it bigger, better, and with flashier paint jobs. This was duly accomplished, and although the budget for it was huge by any other standard, in comparison to the GDP or even the Government budget of the United States it was trivial. The United States could go to the Moon on pocket change and walking-around money; the USSR never got there at all, despite depriving its people of many comforts in order to try.

It might have been better if American politicians of the time had noted that Nikita Sergeyevich was being squired around in a ’57 Packard with Cyrillic badges. The Soviet Union, from inception to end, was like the Western towns in old movies — tall imposing front, little better than huts behind the façades. There is no doubt the space program was a magnificent achievement, but it came at a cost that wasn’t measured in money and hasn’t really been accounted for to this day.

When 1960 rolled around the United States’s aeronautical industry was varied and vibrant; jet passenger planes were fully on-line, there were experiments with ducted-fan and Coanda-effect fliers, and the several manufacturers seemingly came out with something new every week. Space, too, was getting a lot of attention: the Air Force was experimenting with lifting bodies and beginning Dyna-Soar, X-15 missions were regular, and there were dozens if not hundreds of other projects going on. Of particular interest to me are Project Pluto and SNAP, attempts to use nuclear reactors instead of chemical rockets — no, it wouldn’t have irradiated anybody; the stuff coming out would’ve been water, which doesn’t get radioactive, although Pluto was a nasty concept. In engineering labs and “skonk works” from Long Island to San Diego, scientists and engineers and techs were thinking about space and how to get there, and many of them were building models and looking for funding for the real thing.

But we had to get to the Moon, and we had to do it right away, and all of that, all of it, got sacrificed to meet that goal. Mercury/Apollo was a huge challenge, barely doable with the technology of the time; NASA lured (or shanghaied) as many of the top people as possible for the crash program, and the contracts they let for the parts that weren’t within their capability brought most of the other aerospace manufacturers into the program — or destroyed them if they didn’t go along. A truly gigantic fraction of the total aerospace expertise in the United States got diverted to the official space program, and a sizeable chunk of Canada’s as well, all buoyed up on a flood of Federal funding. The other projects got miniaturized, slowed down, or ended totally. The only way to get to space was with a NASA meatball emblazoned somewhere.

I don’t believe many — possibly any — of the scientists and engineers and techs and support people realized what was going on at the beginning. They were all either starry-eyed at the prospect, or grumpy realists who were paid to make it work and would do so if possible, and almost all of them were susceptible to the romance of the proposition. The clues came early, and we all, scientists and fanboys alike, missed them. There was going to be a Moon base — no, too complicated to do in time; the guys would just go and come back. There was going to be a Space Station, probably not a huge wheel like in 2001 but building toward that — no, too slow and too expensive; we’ll just build a great big rocket to get them up there at once. The ultimate futility of Mercury/Apollo can be summarized in a single sentence: It left nothing behind that was usable later. Even the leftover Saturn rockets, towering achievements of power and grandeur, were too big and too expensive to use for launching probes, and were broken up or used as museum displays.

When the movie’s finished, the sets get broken up and trashed or stored so they can be re-painted for another one. That’s where we were in 1969. We had film and video tape of American footprints on the Moon, surrounded by junk that was of no use to anybody, and enormous installations on Earth that had no purpose but to support single-use equipment that had no purpose going forward. Meanwhile all the other projects, the ones intended for incremental achievement of things that might have been used over and over, were dead and gone, dusty relics in the backs of hangars and closets. It was the biggest, most extravagant movie ever made. Now it was done. What now?

Engineering and design departments at aerospace manufacturers, now missing the flood of money they’d adapted to, started cutting back, and one by one the manufacturers themselves started falling. Projects that had once been cheap and quick — Lockheed built the SR-71 from scratch in four years, and came in under budget — turned into long, drawn-out, often futile wastes. NASA had had to get a complex task done quickly, and do it with as few mistakes as possible; they set up a bureaucracy to support that, and procedures that had to be followed, including by contractors. Aerospace firms adopted them perforce, and (because they worked, at least at first) extended them to their other lines. In the Fifties, engineers would make up drawings and the shop would start bending tin. In the Seventies, it all had to be done with PERT charts and planning meetings and part certifications and inspections at every point, NASA style. The product wasn’t airplanes, it was reports about airplanes, reports that had to predict the future — and since that isn’t possible, it meant backtracking and re-doing and more reports.

Worse, from the point of view of the Senators and Congresscritters and their hangers-on, the flood of money dried up. Bureaucrats battling for budget in a permissive environment can find many creative ways of directing the funds they control as is needed to firm up support for their efforts; the funds weren’t there any longer, but the NASA bureaucracy was firmly in place, and like any bureaucracy was unbudgeable without atomic weapons, or at the very least a ninja raid. Within NASA there were still a majority of people who believed in space and space exploration, but they had learned The Procedure too well and had become tech-oriented bureaucrats. They set off to build the Space Shuttle, but ran into two roadblocks: The Procedure had become too cumbersome, and they had no Grand Story to tell.

A lot of the commentary about space laments the lack of a grand story, not least within NASA itself. They kept trying the publicity stunt approach ‘way past the point where it had succumbed to the Law of Diminishing Returns, trying to build a new Grand Story that would get them back to the glory days of Apollo and near-unlimited funding. Bluntly: It didn’t work, and it shouldn’t have. If space is useful at all — which I think it is, but there are those who don’t agree — it has to be utilitarian. It can’t depend on a Grand Story to keep it afloat. It’s just my job, five days a week, a rocket man, Elton John sang, and that’s the way it has to be, or it’s just a stunt, too expensive a stunt to do with public funds.

And there was The Procedure, which by then had become Holy Writ. NASA proposed the Space Transportation System, and the aerospace firms responded — with reams and reams of paper and stacks and piles of Vu-Graph® slides, because PowerPoint hadn’t been invented. Corporate bureaucrats delivered bureaucrap to NASA bureaucrats, who dutifully digested it and produced more bureaucrap. It was delightful — things were getting done! Look how busy we all are! — and it was expensive — hey, it takes a long time to do due diligence on something this complicated — and it took a while to realize that no metal was getting bent. Even the supportive Congresscritters looked at rooms of people filling out forms instead of hammering on shiny titanium or big roaring flames, and had a hard time supporting it. No Grand Story and nothing actually getting built translated into funds gradually drying up.

It was in this atmosphere that Shuttle was developed, and you can see the traces of Apollo in every step. It was supposed to be small, so we could have lots of them and use them often; no, it needs to be big for lots of plausible reasons. It was supposed to be flown, like an airplane; no, that’s too complicated, we need to spend a lot of money building computers to control it. It was supposed to be metal, with a disposable, renewable ablative coating; no, that doesn’t fit the ideal of “reusability”, so the belly has to be exotic ceramic. It was supposed to have a “flyback booster”, a big thing that carried it partway to orbit and came back to land and be used again; no, if the orbiter’s big the booster has to be gigantic and we can’t do that, so it got whittled down, first to a disposable booster, then to bigger (and more expensive) engines on the orbiter so the booster didn’t have to be so big, then finally to solid rockets that the builders promised (faithfully, cross my heart and hope to die) would be cheap and reliable. Echo answers hollow…

Meanwhile the little projects, the incremental projects, the Dyna-Soars and SNAPs, never got started again. NASA didn’t have a Big Story for the general public, but it had an internal Big Story: make shuttle work. If there was money for space, Shuttle got it. The scientists who wanted probes cried out with loud and plaintive voices, and got enough diverted to JPL, etc., to do some wonderful things, but they were sucking hind tit and knew (and resented) it. When Shuttle went operational, it got worse, not better. Every time it landed it had to be rebuilt from scratch, for all practical purposes — the super duper last-forever tiles, no two the same size or shape, had to be inspected one by one (without breaking them, mind you, and you can ruin one with your thumbnail), and often enough taken off and reglued, and that was just the tip of the iceberg. Cynics grumped that it would be cheaper to build a Saturn and throw it away every time, and I’m not sure they were wrong, but NASA had the bit in its teeth. Shuttle was reusable, and reusable was the only way to go, and they had a not-so-small army dedicated to making it reusable, broken or no, and every cent they could scrounge went to support that effort. Small incremental projects? We’ve got no time or money for that piddly shit.

Now it’s over. Instead of bitching about President Obama “yielding our dominance in space”, you should be breathing sighs of relief. (It’s not his fault anyway; the Bush Administration decreed it, and like everything Barry-O does that actually works, he just went along.) The Ares component of the Constellation program was a hopeless-from-the-start attempt to re-use Shuttle components in a new configuration and save all that lovely pork; the deader it is, the better off we are.

In the meantime, surprise surprise! Suddenly we have a various, vibrant aerospace industry, coming up with new and different ideas and trying them out. They’re mostly shoestring operations or sucking a little of the fat out of LockMart or Boeing, and none of them can manage the pure echoing thunder of a Shuttle launch, so they’re not going to be the lede on the seven o’clock news very often. They have funny names, Xcor and Bigelow and Armadillo (Armadillo!) and more. Some of the things they try work, and some of them go down in flames; when s*t happens, they try again. They all use The Procedure, but in the early, streamlined version that actually did put a man on the moon, not the cumbersome, all-paper-no-rockets version that turns Research and Development into alternate ass-kissing and ass-covering.

Bottom line: We just pissed away fifty years. It’s 1961, and there are dozens of little space-oriented things going on, some of which might work, some of which surely will not — but we won’t know which is which until we try them. The new guys don’t need or want a Grand Story; what they need and want is a trickle of help. If NASA went back to what it was in 1961, doing research available to all comers and helping choose (and fund) likely things to try, a fraction of the budget for Shuttle would keep the new little guys fat and happy. On the other hand, trying to shove everything they do through 300 E St. SW will strangle them in the cradle. Let’s not do that. When Discovery comes back, let’s shove a steel pylon through its guts and stand it up in front of the Air & Space Museum like the obsolete fighter planes that used to grace the entrances to Air Force Bases; Endeavour can go up similarly outside the Cape (superfluous vowel and all), and Atlantis can go to Pasadena, where the probe scientists can sneer at it.

It pisses me off. When I was thirteen I expected to be able to go to the Moon, or at least the Space Station, before I kicked the bucket, and that isn’t going to happen, because we have to start over. So let’s do start over, hmm? And do it right this time, bit by bit ’til it’s a business, not an extended Hollywood extravaganza with a Federal bureaucracy designing the sets. Ad astra per aspera! (per pecuniam was a dead end.)

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March 2011