Thursday, May 5, 2011

50 Years Ago Today

Alan Shepherd convinced them to "light the candle" and rode his Freedom 7 Mercury capsule atop an IRBM into a suborbital flight.  The American space age had begun.  Good summary at the appropriately-named "Mercury News".
I was a snot-nosed kid (really - I had allergies) around the limits of civilization in Southwest Miami - places that are now densely populated.  Schools weren't air conditioned.  TVs were rare, and the whole school, it seems, went to the couple of rooms that had a black and white TV.  (It must have been the heroic 6th graders who had them, certainly not us lowly first graders!)  I still remember the noisy black and white images from that day, and the air of excitement that filled the country.

On July 21, Gus Grissom would ride another suborbital Mercury-Redstone flight, famously losing his spacecraft, the Liberty Bell 7, before John Glenn would become the first American to orbit the earth, riding the more powerful Atlas ICBM booster into orbit.  But the most historically important moment happened mere weeks after Alan Shepherd's flight, May 25, 1961.  John F. Kennedy announced
"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish."
I suppose you had to be there.  I was captivated and became a space geek kid. 

As big a fan as I was - and am - of space exploration, NASA's finest days were over by about 1980.  Today, it's an arthritic bureaucracy better at preserving itself than exploring.  I don't know for sure that the future is with Spacex and not one of their competitors, but this week they took the unusual step of posting their actual costs to develop their rockets and the actual costs of their flights.  This is unheard of in that business. 
The Falcon 9 launch vehicle was developed from a blank sheet to first launch in four and half years for just over $300 million. The Falcon 9 is an EELV class vehicle that generates roughly one million pounds of thrust (four times the maximum thrust of a Boeing 747) and carries more payload to orbit than a Delta IV Medium.
Let's get the arthritic dinosaur out of the way and let innovation flourish.  


  1. NASA is a microcosm of every .gov organization, or any large organization in general, it seems. Great promise and success early on, then as they become more enamored with themselves (the culture of the institution, not the individuals themselves) the focus turns from the mission to the organization itself. The dynamic and daring mission-focused culture of the early days is replaced with endless effort to improve the organization and the mission is relegated to second priority behind PR and jockeying for more funding (or in the case of business, pleasing stockholders and increasing margins). The advent of Ralph Nader and the litigious safety-paranoid culture of the late 70's didn't help them any either.

    I suspect that's why small businesses are widely considered to be the drivers of the economy. Big organizations may be the anchor, but its the small businesses that push the envelope. NASA was at its best in its early days, when it ran like a small business, with individuals who were absolutely dedicated to the mission and would work round the clock to make sure that things happened. Now its a dinosaur, a battleship, so buried in bureaucracy and politics (and recently, hobbled by a ridiculous Politically Correct agenda) that its almost impossible for it to make anything happen anymore. Unfortunately, NASA is far more impressive in the history books than in real life anymore.

    It would be nice to see the old horse retired respectfully, and the reigns turned over to private industry to pick up where NASA left off. However, I'm afraid that because of its status as one of the few real success stories of centrally planned .gov institutions that it will be ridden all the way down into utter disgrace by those who see .gov control as the solution to all problems.

    (I have a fondness for Gus Grissom, not in small part due to the fact that he and I share the same first name - and its not "Gus")

  2. Same first name, srsly? I won't say it (since you didn't) but any space geek worth any salt at all knows that.

    You're exactly on, of course. It's the log growth of regulations I've talked about before. Although hardly ever talked about, the over regulation of life is one of the biggest problems we face. It is often said that a new Microsoft or new Apple couldn't be started today because of all the regulations.

    My definition of "police state" always centered on "everything can be considered illegal, and whether you live or die depends on who you encounter".

  3. Funds for NASA should be cut to the bone. How much of our taxes does NASA really need for muslim outreach, their new mission thanks to Obama? It costs much less to publicize the scientific progress made possible my Arabs (maybe 300 KB on a flash drive?) than to construct, prepare, launch, track, and recover a shuttle mission. That ought to save us at least 200-300 billion, or am I being too conservative?

    Unless FLOTUS decides to take a vacation at the International Space Station, and bring all of her friends and servants, er, staff.

  4. Yep, same first name (we'll leave it to the reader to research that one if necessary). That's about where the similarity ends though - he was from Indiana, I'm from Oklahoma - he was in the Air Force, I was in the Army - he was a test pilot, I'm an engineer - he's been to space, I've been to Korea (which was kinda like another planet). I only consider myself a junior amateur space geek though, by the time I was born trips to space were old hat. However, I devoured all 3 hours of "The Right Stuff" over and over again - every time it came on HBO. The early days of the space program were definitely their greatest moments.

    Interestingly, I read parts of the article on NASA over on Wikipedia and it occurred to me that a very real part of the decline of NASA reflects changes in American society. The average American mind has been boxed in and hobbled by our current television-fed PC non-offensive thinking - and so we've demanded a similar neutering and hobbling of our exploratory agency. This really hit home when I read about a plan to study the effects of radiation during space travel using primates that was scrapped due to pressure from PETA/HSUS and members of congress. In the early days NASA routinely used primates to test new ideas and designs and nobody protested or complained. The current incarnation of America has no stomach for the early NASA, the one that could actually accomplish things, because we don't have the necessary cajones to do what it takes. Our vision is neither far enough nor wide enough anymore - we as a people have become constrained by our own ridiculous egalitarianism that we foolishly extend to everything.

    Your idea of the police state pretty much conincides with mine, which is "that which is not explicitly permitted is forbidden" - like you said "everything can be considered illegal".

  5. I've toyed with the idea of doing a book with the working title "How Islam Destroyed Arab Culture" to address some of your points, Reg. The Arab world was early to advance a lot of practical technology. We do use Arabic numbers, after all, and a lot of early science and technology came out of that area of the world; look at the pyramids, for instance. With the rise of Islam that stopped. A telling sign is that when the "tyrannical despots" need medical treatment, they come to the US - although Obamacare will stop that.

    Another sign of what LeverAction's talking about: in the 1980s, several deep space spacecraft (Cassini to Saturn, Galileo to Jupiter, others) were launched with radioisotope thermal generators on board. The amount of energy you can get out of sunlight varies by inverse square law, so by the time you get to Jupiter, you can't really power a satellite with solar panels; well, not unless you sacrifice a lot of payload for really, really big panels. So the anti-nuke protesters were out here in packs, trying to stop the launches, screaming about us putting radiation in space (which is so appallingly stupid, I don't know where to start) and worrying about incredibly unlikely events. Me, I'd like an RTG to run my flashlights, so I don't have to think about batteries running low if I have to leave my light on for hours.

    With TV commercials for lawyers on all the time, we've become a nation where everything has to be safe to parts per trillion levels.

    We've got to figure out how to get rid of the Code of Federal Regulations, and about 90% of the infrastructure.

  6. I was talking with my wife the other night about Islam, and we came around to that idea about "Islamic contributions" to science. I made the exact same point that you make, that the Arabs contributed the sciences of algebra, alchemia (chemistry), optics, and some metalurgy to the world - right up until the rise of Islam and then it all mysteriously stopped. And it wasn't until after Islam that the middle eastern kingdoms began to attempt to conquer the world. Since then the only science coming out of the Islamic world claims that immodest women cause earthquakes.

    If you look at Islamic societies in the last 1300 years you see no significant innovation or progress, with many cultures living even today just like their ancient ancestors. Their only advances in science and technology have been imported, copied, or stolen from other societies. And its not because of oppression from the west - the Islamists oppressed much of what is now the west for a long time themselves - its self oppression in the name of continuing a way of life that was already backwards and oppressive when it conceived. I guess I'd be okay with that if they would just keep to themselves, kinda like the Amish, but instead they insist on trying to force everyone else to believe it as well.

    But then again I'm just an ignorant, racist, redneck, xenophobic, islamophobe who should be locked up for that kind of thought - except that they can't do that (yet) because we don't live under Shari'a law (yet).

  7. We've got to figure out how to get rid of the Code of Federal Regulations, and about 90% of the infrastructure.

    I don't know. It's too much work. I'll bet you that Musk and Bezos and Greason and Carmak are all totally aware of all this, and they have some back-room, under the radar plans in the spirit of early Pournelle and Heinlein.

  8. Anon - SpaceX has been launching from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, so they're subject to very strict regulations. I'm not convinced those rule are all necessary, but they are all expensive. Florida has talked about having a spaceport, but they need to do some reviews of the launch procedures to make sure they make sense.

    I'd personally be delighted to see some "space pirates" figure out how to get into orbit without the Air Force red tape.