Monday, December 8, 2008

Two Surprises

First of all, I hope you all had an enjoyable happy Thanksgiving 2008. We had a great evening with new friends I hope we repeat.

I had hoped to get a new post done about a week ago, but Real Life intruded in the form of a friend who needed help with a new resume and the death of our hot water heater and an emergency effort to get it replaced before it really started to leak enough to flood our cellar. I’m glad to report the cellar is now in no danger of flooding and our water is now hot enough to wash in without having to add some water heated on the stove to warm it up.

A few nights ago, Barbara Walters interviewed what she considered to be the ten most interesting people of 2008. It made me wonder how I would react to interview questions well-crafted to draw me out. For example, something like “What events in your life most surprised you?” Right now I want to mention two: the fall of the U.S.S.R. and the end of the Cold War and the relative neglect of the American space program after the success of the Apollo program. I was delighted by the first and greatly depressed by the second.

Odd as it sounds, I expected the Cold War to last my lifetime in one form or another. The only alternate I saw to periods of crisis alternating with periods of stalemate was a hot war of some sort. In the 1950s and early 1960s I believed in the potential of the typical SF sneak attack nuclear war, like in Philip Wylie’s Tomorrow or Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon. Living about 100 miles northwest of New York and around 50 miles west of Stewart Air Force Base, I fully expected to be able to see some of it. I even once had a graphic nightmare of burned refugees from New York pushing their way in through our kitchen door. Brrr!

Then I went away to college in 1958 at S.U.N.Y. Albany in Albany, New York. My dorm was only two or three miles from the state capitol where Governor Nelson Rockefeller and his wife and kids lived when he was in town. I was sure that Albany was worth a bomb should a big war take place. Several times there was a fire late at night somewhere in the neighborhood around the college and the fire sirens blew. I would wake up and agonize over the possibility of an attack. Should I turn on the radio to see if everything was okay? Or should I just ignore it and try to get back to sleep? I always turned on the radio to check.

Thankfully, the Cuban Crisis seemed to chase those fears away. Lucky for me, as Ulster County is just about downwind of everywhere, especially those missile silos in North Dakota, and while my father was a very strong, tough, and handy guy and we had a big, deep basement, I didn’t really expect to survive a nuclear war – and that was long before Carl Sagan and co-authors published their findings on nuclear winter.

I remember once reading a colorful historical novel entitled Ram which involved the wars between England and France in the 1700s. The protagonist’s first name was Ramilles, after a French town where he was found early in the century as a little orphan by some British soldiers, one of whom adopted him He grew up to be a soldier and adventurer fighting in several of the hot and cold wars between England and France, including serving in India as a young officer, until he died an old man near Fort Pitt during the French and Indian War. If I remember correctly, he gots to see or meet the young George Washington before he died. That long series of wars was the theme of his life. I fully expected we would have had to race the Soviets to the moon and Mars and who knows where else. Little did I suspect that the Soviet system was more brittle in many, many ways than ours was; a lousy system of succession, for one thing, and the candidates kept getting older! The concept of nuclear winter plus Star Wars helped tip the scales against the Soviets as well. In a way, it’s sad they didn’t last a bit longer or at least have made lots more noise about pushing on with their space program. Then Nixon could have complained about a “moon shot gap” and that might have kept our post-Apollo program going.

I’ve been very depressed for years by the long twilight of the American space program. I’m one of those who feel that in this case, as in so many other things, it’s all Nixon’s fault. True, Lyndon Johnson tried to run the Viet Nam War and the Great Society at the same time and Nixon felt he had to cut back. I read a tell-all book about the space program several years ago (it’s buried in a box where I can’t get my hands on it tonight) that put forth the theory that we have Casper Weinberger to thank that we have anything like a Space Shuttle AT ALL; Nixon was going to kill the whole damn Shuttle program, it claimed. So we do have a Shuttle of sorts, but the Shuttle we have is a turkey, not an eagle. But thanks, Casper, anyway.

I remember seeing many concept paintings in aerospace magazines of the time what the shuttle should have been. Picture a larger version of a Boeing 707 with the upper stage of the shuttle riding on its back, probably with a big rocket or a bundle of solid rockets attached to the rear end of the Shuttle. The big jet would have been effectively Stage I, the fat liquid-fueled rocket or the bundle of solids would have been the Stage II, and the business end of the Shuttle would have been Stage III. The whole conglomeration would take off from a mucking LONG runway, lumber up to around 30,000 feet or so, and the second stage would have beeen fired off the back of the big jet. (Or maybe the upper stages would have been blasted off the front of the big jet with small rocket charges and dropped a few hundred feet before the second stage ignited.)Yes, it would have looked something like the heavy lifter that is used to ferry the Shuttle back to Florida when it lands out west. In fact, the whole operation would have been much like that goofy James Bond movie in which a Shuttle gets hijacked right off the back of its heavy lifter. Remember that fiascoof a movie? Not as bad as “Octopussy”, but close. Oh, Roger Moore, you have a lot to answer for!

The problem was that the airlift concept must have cost too damn much to pull off during the Nixon administration, so we got the smaller and inefficient “just as good as” external tank design Shuttle we have now. With decent funding and the heavy-lift launch vehicles that were already on the drawing boards during the Apollo years (like the Nova) we surely would have a nice, cozy base on the moon by now.

Well, a case can be made that the money NOT spent on an ambitious space program was well-spent by President Reagan on driving or scaring the Soviets into bankruptcy. But I don’t miss the air cars and flying belts promised me as a kid as I miss that moon base!