What happened on July 20th? It’s quite a famous date. I ask because many Americans were not even alive when a very famous event took place.
Have you figured it out? If you’re in your forties or younger, you have no memory of the event. You only know it from movies, science documentaries and news footage. What’s the date? July 20, 1969.
OK, enough with the suspense. At 4:17 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, the lunar module Eagle landed on the moon’s surface. Aboard were astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Six hours later, at 10:56 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, Armstrong became the first human to walk on the surface of the moon.
I was 17 years old, just back from an Ohio University workshop for high school journalists. Come September, I would become one of the co-editors of the school newspaper, the Cadet Review. That would start me on a career as a print journalist working for newspapers in Ohio, Florida and North Carolina.
In the harrowing minutes as the Eagle fired up its descent engine and headed for the moon’s surface, I sat in our living room and watched network coverage (which network I no longer remember). My dad’s sister Emmy, her husband Bill and their kids were down visiting us in Beverly, Ohio, and were watching the moon landing and moonwalk with us. Memories can be deceiving; for many years I thought my cousins Candy and Pat were the ones who came down from Medina to watch the Eagle chase history. But several years ago Emmy reminded me she and her family were in Beverly when Eagle touched down on the moon’s surface 47 years ago today.
Back then, basking in the exhilaration of the moon landing, I expected to witness great space achievements in the decades ahead. I had heady thoughts, but reality turned out differently. President Nixon tasked a task force headed by Vice President Spiro Agnew to look at a new space goal for NASA and the nation. They recommended a landing on Mars in 1986. That goal was DOA. Instead, we took incremental steps; first, the space shuttle, and then a commitment to build a space station.
A shuttle orbiter – Columbia – flew for the first time in April 1981. They were retired to museums after the last shuttle flight in 2011. We lost two of them along with the astronauts aboard. The three remaining ones helped build the International Space Station over about 12 years. It’s in low-earth orbit now, a testament to international cooperation. It consists of modules supplied by the United States, Russia, the European Space Agency, and the Japanese agency. It shows that we could mount an international effort to return to the moon or go to Mars – if we have the will. That’s the rub… this is not an age of grand ideas.
It appears that a majority of Americans don’t trust the federal government – and that’s who would be spearheading the effort if it’s government funded. From watching TV news and reading Facebook and Twitter comments it appears ISIS and al-Qaeda have Americans paralyzed with fear. We’re sure not made of the stuff are parents and grandparents were when they fought Hitler, Mussolini and Japanese imperialism. Some of us even want to hold a Constitutional Convention and draft a new constitution to correct the shortcomings of the current one in place since the late 18th Century. Nope… we’re not dreamers and doers anymore. So any national or international mission to Mars will probably not get off the drawing board.
Well, I don’t want to sound too pessimistic. NASA is constructing the first building blocks needed for a Mars mission (or a return to the moon if that’s the decision of a new administration). The space agency is actually bending metal for a full-up test of the nation’s new super-rocket and BEO (Beyond Earth Orbit) spacecraft, the Orion. That’s to happen in the fall or winter of 2018. The super-rocket will lift off from Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center on more than ten million pounds of thrust. That’s more thrust than the Saturn V moon rocket and the space shuttle system.
Known as the Space Launch System, or SLS, the super-rocket is based on evolved shuttle technology. When you look at a graphic of the launch, you can immediately see the shuttle heritage – two solid rocket booster and four space shuttle main engines beneath a new core stage that replaces the orbiter. The second stage is known as the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage, or ICPS, and atop it will be the Orion. The core stage will launch the Orion/ICPS into low earth orbit. When cleared to leave low earth orbit, the ICPS will send Orion out beyond the Moon. The Orion will spend three weeks in space, with six days in a retrograde orbit around the moon. It will not be a manned mission. In fact, we won’t see a manned Orion mission until the early 2020s.
NASA’s BEO program is proceeding at a snail’s pace. Sometimes it feels like it’s on life support. With the hardware for Exploration Mission One (EM-1) in the works, it’s time for NASA to get Presidential and Congressional approval to spend money to start building the elements of a true Mars spacecraft starting with a habitat module where astronauts would live and work during the trip to and from Mars.
If NASA does indeed mount build the hardware infrastructure for manned flights to Mars, it’ll probably do so using the public/private blueprint it forged to build the cargo ships and manned taxis for low-earth orbit. The SpaceX and Orbital ATK cargo ships are now routinely flying to the ISS, delivering cargo to the outpost 270 miles above our heads. The manned taxis, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, and Boeing’s Starliner, should start flying astronauts into low earth orbit in 2017 or 2018. And on the space station, NASA and Bigelow Aerospace are testing BEAM, a new concept for inflatable space vehicle modules that could become the science modules, greenhouses and living quarters for a true manned interplanetary spacecraft.
SpaceX’s Elon Musk isn’t going to wait on NASA to call on his company. He’s already building his heavy-lift rocket, the Falcon Heavy, to send Red Dragon to Mars – first unmanned and then manned. His ultimate goal is a Martian colony. Musk is expected to reveal his plans for what he calls his Mars Colonial Transporter (MCT) and associated architecture later this year at the International Astronautical Conference in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Get on board, NASA, or watch SpaceX land men and women on Mars before you do. The entrepreneurial pirates are not going to allow terrorists, scared Americans, Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton to stop his dreams – and the dreams of other Americans who want to sail the seas of space.
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Want some fun summer reading? I’ve a Sword & Sorcery Fantasy trilogy, Larenia’s Shadow, that can be purchased from the websites of Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords. And I’m working on the second draft of my epic Civil War novel, Blessed Shadows Dark & Deep. It’s just not history. There’s romance and fantasy – a Confederate soldier from North Carolina caught between two women.