Space, an improbable future frontier

 

by Mike Kroll

 

On Saturday, November 11th-- Veteran's Day-- the Adler Planetarium in Chicago opened its newest permanent exhibit, Shoot for the Moon. This exhibit celebrates the early U.S. space program and its accomplished goal of putting man on the moon by highlighting a single critical mission, Gemini 12, on its 40th anniversary. Two days before opening of the exhibit Gemini 12 astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell were on hand to see the restored Gemini 12 capsule and the rest of the exhibit as well as to meet with reporters. Officials at the Adler wanted to generate interest and enthusiasm amongst the general public to visit one of Chicago's under-appreciated attractions while both the Planetarium and the retired astronauts hope to build public awareness and renewed support for a reinvigorated American space program.

“Shoot for the Moon highlights the exciting stories of space exploration and America's bold plans to return to the moon,” reads the Adler press release. “Shoot for the Moon is the dramatic first expression of the Adler Planetarium's new institutional vision to be the world's leading space science center.”

“We hope the Adler's Shoot for the Moon exhibition makes space history more accessible to young visitors and inspires them to imagine their own futures as explorers,” said Dr. Paul Knappenberger, Jr., president of the Adler Planetarium. And the slick new exhibit accomplishes that goal and more as it is designed to appeal not only to grade and middle school age children but their parents as well; most of whom came along well after the start of NASA's declining fortunes and America's (over)reaction to repeated shuttle disasters. Recall that it has been 34 years since man last walked on the moon (and that was Chicagoan and Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan in December 1972).

Clearly, for most adults, the restored Gemini 12 capsule (on long-term loan from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum) along with other artifacts of the Gemini and Apollo space programs are the gems of the exhibit but for children there are numerous well-designed and fun learning activities related to space flight and lunar experiences. For example, children can actually touch and handle numerous space program pieces such as parts of a space suit, the food astronauts eat or a shuttle heat tile. When you consider that Shoot for the Moon is just one of numerous exhibits available to visitors to the Adler Planetarium you have a must-see morning or afternoon attraction for you family's next Chicago visit.

I must confess I made the trip to Chicago because astronauts were and remain heroes to me.  I couldn't pass up the opportunity to meet and interview Aldrin and Lovell. While the Tom Hanks movie Apollo 13 made Lovell a household hero across America Aldrin remains largely unknown despite being the second man to walk on the Moon after Neil Armstrong. For men in their 70s (Lovell is 78 and Aldrin is 76) both appeared in remarkably good health and physical shape and their intellect remains nimble and keen. As is typical of military pilots neither was of intimidating stature and both carried themselves proudly. Neither man could be considered as the stereotypical astronaut of their period.

Both men trained as engineers at military academies, Aldrin at West Point and Lovell at Annapolis; and both men flew fighter jets during the Korean War in the Air Force and Navy respectively. Aldrin flew 66 combat missions in the F-86 Sabre and shot down two Mig 15s while Lovell flew the Navy's F-9F fighter and later as a test pilot was program manager for the Navy's F-4 Phantom. Both men undertook post graduate education with Aldrin earning a PhD in Astronautics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology while Lovell studied aviation safety at the University of Southern California and advanced business at the Harvard Business School. Aldrin is truly a rocket scientist who mastered the techniques of space rendezvous and brought that knowledge to NASA's Gemini program. “Buzz really didn't fit into the typical role of an astronaut,” noted Lovell, “and he was constantly kidded by the others who,reflecting a test pilot view of life, referred to him as 'Dr. Rendezvous' and not always endearingly so.”

Interestingly, neither man was accepted into the space program when they first applied. Lovell was turned down when he applied for the Mercury program because of an illness he was just getting over during the selection process but just as tenacity paid off in his getting accepted into the Naval Academy on his second try so too with NASA. Lovell wasn't among the “Original Seven” but he was in the second NASA astronaut class, the “New Nine.” Aldrin was turned down for the second astronaut class but was selected in the third group largely due to his scholarly expertise in spacecraft docking techniques. And by the way, Buzz is his legal first name. Born from his younger sister's inability to pronounce “brother” (it came out “buzzer”) it was a nickname that stuck in the shortened version so Aldrin made it his legal name in 1988.

These two men made made but a single spaceflight together, in Gemini 12, and they proudly stood next to the refurbished capsule with only glass and 40 years separating them from their four-day home back in 1966. The capsule only made one flight but even refurbished it clearly showed the wear of reentry. "This was a good bird. It did its job," said Lovell. Looking into the spacecraft Aldrin commented, “All of those switches instead of computer keyboards" as he began to describe the slow and difficult process of suiting up for a spacewalk in the very cramped quarters. “We both had to suit up before Buzz could open his hatch because once open I too was exposed to the vacuum of space,” explained Lovell.

Opening the hatch was no simple feat but then neither was spacewalking. “It looks effortless in the movies,” explained Aldrin, “but in earlier Gemini missions the astronauts were exerting far too much effort trying to move in space.” Aldrin and Lovell were the first to train in a pool underwater to better approximate the conditions of space and develop energy efficient means of moving and working in space. “Back then we didn't have self-contained backpack and our lives depended upon this umbilical cord that pressurized our suits and provided cooling and communications capability and also tethered us to the spacecraft,” said Aldrin. “Gemini was really the research and development phase of the space program and our mission was critical to prove that man could work in space,” explained Lovell.

The Gemini project had to demonstrate that a team of men could live and work in space for up to two weeks, the minimum time determined to be necessary to get to the Moon and back. It also had to prove that not only could spacecraft rendezvous and dock but maneuver as a single object in space. And finally, unlike the Mercury project, the Gemini capsules permitted far more maneuvering control by the astronauts and were expected to reenter Earth's atmosphere at a precise predetermined time and place and land on time at a prechosen point in the ocean. To accommodate two men and the supplies necessary for longer flight the capsule needed to be larger and the Titan II rocket that propelled it need to be bigger than the Redstones used by the Mercury program.

The 5,000 square foot Adler exhibit is largely a celebration of Lovell's NASA experience and the retired astronaut was a hands-on participant in its creation. Many of the artifacts came from Lovell's personal collection and he lent many hours of his time to Adler staff working on the exhibit. In 1999 Lovell and his family opened a restaurant north of Chicago in Lake Forest and he now lives nearby.

For millions of baby-boomers (such as myself) the early years of the American space program hold a special place in our hearts and psyche. We literally grew up amidst the height of the cold war, the cusp of the civil rights movement, the experience of Vietnam and the race for the moon. Try as we might, we simply cannot separate these events and their impact on our lives, especially children and young adults who came of age alongside them. The world was a much bigger place back then. Newspapers and magazines and the big three television networks played a much bigger role in our lives. But mostly we grew up balancing a revulsion against what we viewed as a messed up world with unbridled optimism for the future.

Nearly all of the original astronauts were born during the tail end of the great depression making them too young to fight in World War II but just the right age for Korea. Nearly all were fighter pilots and/or test pilots and many graduated with engineering degrees from either West Point or the Naval Academy. All were volunteers selected from a much larger pool of applicants who craved the adventure and accepted the risks but weren't reckless. This can-do problem solving attitude was evident in both Aldrin and Lovell and it was a large part of why Lovell and his Apollo 13 crew survived that near disaster. According to Lovell the movie was very accurate but took dramatic liberties in two respects: during the actual mission there was never any finger pointing or dissension between the astronauts and presumably due to military and NASA discipline the real crew seldom cursed.

The space program and the unrecognized sacrifices of our parents contributed to an overconfidence in our own abilities to mold events and an under appreciation of the conflicting role that would be played by our own selfishness and hedonism. The economic boom of the post World War II years for middle-class America did not come easy for our parents, most of whom were the same generation as the astronauts themselves, but life was much easier for us and we made it even easier for our own children. A key distinction between this era of spaceflight and today was in the general acceptance of the risk involved. When catastrophic tragedy befell the Shuttle program not once but twice the entire space program ground to a halt and barely escaped cancellation.

“Spaceflight is an inherently risky business,” noted Aldrin, “as astronauts and military men we accepted reasonable risk because like a lot of things in this world benefits must be weighed against the risks. Not only the risks of space flight and exploration but also the risks of not venturing.”

"We could achieve 100 percent safety by hauling the shuttle craft back into the barn and locking the door," added Lovell. "You have to accept the rewards that you get from it overbalancing the risks that are involved. People like ourselves gladly accept the risks and hopefully there's a new direction now, a more aggressive approach to making space flights more frequent." Both men see it as a personal mission to advance the public argument in favor of expanded space exploration and research. “We need a commitment to develop and sustain a new and ambitious space program,” argued Lovell.

The science and technology that was born out of this period is as staggering as was its impact on our daily lives and much of it was driven by the dual needs of the uplifting space program and the terror of the cold war. In many ways basic science and engineering thrive best in times of crisis such as war, be it hot or cold or critically symbolic.

When I was a child we could forget about the horror of Vietnam or the fear of nuclear Armageddon each time there was the launch of a space mission. Whether it was the original seven Mercury astronauts playing catchup to the Russians in launching and orbiting a man in space; or the teams of Gemini demonstrating that useful work could be accomplished in space and that spacecraft could rendezvous and dock safely and reliably; or finally, that not only could Apollo land men on the moon and get them back safely but that we could work and explore upon the lunar landscape.

Alas, while both the Vietnam and Cold Wars are now over we have evidently learned few lessons from either. Meanwhile civil rights are a continual battle on many different fronts despite early victories and today's NASA is just another government bureaucracy. When President George W. Bush announced in January 2004 that he wanted to reinvigorate NASA by returning America to the moon and committing to a goal of landing men on Mars the political effort largely fell flat. NASA, of course, welcomed the infusion of both cash and relevance into a  program that had long ago lost the interest of most Americans. But critics, and there were many, took pot shots at the Bush plan from both directions. Whether saying it would waste of a trillion dollars because the goal was misplaced or that the goal was too grandiose to be accomplished with so little funding there is general agreement among critics that the Bush approach would waste a trillion dollars to accomplish short-term political rather than long-term scientific goals.

Men like Lovell and Aldrin recognize the value of basic science and engineering. They appreciate the reality of such endeavors is that breakthroughs are unpredictable, failures and setbacks virtually guaranteed. “People really need the inspiration provided by exhibits such as this,” commented Lovell. “We need to be reminded that there are lots of reasons to support science and research where the goal is simply knowledge and a better understanding of the universe.”

Science can't be limited by the necessity to regularly contribute to the corporate quarterly profit nor can its funding survive the vagaries of politics as usually practices. A longer term view and the political commitment to sustained investment over a period of decades will be necessary if we really want to pursue a manned space program to Mars. Like the quest for the moon before it we are almost assured of practical and profitable commercial products coming as the result of work to make a Mars mission possible. But realistically we need to prepare ourselves to support a programs that goes well beyond simply getting men to Mars and back. It would indeed be squandering resources to follow the same gameplan as Apollo and prematurely claim victory. If we are not committed to maintaining a long-term presence in space and on Mars once we get there the critics arguing that we not even begin the process will have been proven correct.