An unmanned Antares supply rocket lifted off last week from Wallops Island, Va. The payload for the vehicle was a 5,000-pound module with supplies, spy equipment and experiments for the International Space Station. These launches happen all the time and they never make the news. But this one did.
Shortly after ignition, the rocket barely rose past the gantry before it erupted spectacularly in a fireball. The company that contracted to send the Antares to the space station, Orbital Sciences, noted quietly that the unexplained explosion was under investigation.
What many Americans don’t know is that Orbital Sciences is using 20-year-old “refurbished Russian boosters.”
Houston, we have a Putin.
I grew up during the glory days of NASA space flight. I was born shortly after the original seven Mercury astronauts were named, and my early childhood was marked by one successful launch after another. Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper and Deke Slayton were household names.
These crew-cut 30-something astronauts would sit in a garbage can on top of a missile launch vehicle and grin. The launches would then be subjected to daylong coverage on all the television networks. The rockets would erupt and clear the tower, become tiny bright dots with high-contrast black around the flame and disappear into the void of space, picture courtesy of the black-and-white Zenith my family owned.
Walter Cronkite would marvel as they confidently reported back that “Everything is A-OK!” and “All systems are go!”
A few hours later, they would re-enter the atmosphere and splash down in the ocean right next to whatever aircraft carrier or destroyer NASA sent to retrieve them. Then they would go meet the president in the Rose Garden and get their medal. Beautiful.
Dozens of these flights went off, and, mostly, everything was A-OK. The 1967 Apollo 1 fire was a terrible tragic pause, with the deaths of Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, and then NASA dusted itself off and landed us on the moon on July 20, 1969.
I was flipping through an Oct. 2, 1964, edition of Life magazine the other night. It contained a microcosm of the full panoply of the early 1960s experience: an article about the conclusions of the Warren Commission with eight vivid, still-horrific stills of JFK from the Zapruder film, amid full-page color ads right out of Mad Men (The ’65 Wide-Track Pontiac; Salem Softness Freshens Your Taste; You’re in the Pepsi Generation).
One article struck me. It was titled “Visions of a wondrous technology; WHAT LOOMS AHEAD.” It was about the future of the U.S. space program. It had magnificent illustrations by Robert McCall showing just what the wondrous technology of 21st-century space travel would entail.
There were 28-seat space buses for the moon base we’re going to live in, for “a million dollars a year per man.”
There was a stunning illustration of our base on Mars, with “inflatable igloo-shaped shelters,” and men with “gas jets strapped to their backs to help them get around.”
Within four decades, huge space stations with delta-winged vehicles surrounded by scads of tethered astronauts would host “diplomats reluctant to meet on each other’s home ground” who “could travel to neutral man-made terrain high above the earth and its discords.”
You know, like the one we’re having with Russian President Vladimir Putin right now.
You see, that rocket Orbital Sciences launched isn’t a NASA rocket. And the engines they used weren’t even new Russian engines. Refurbished. Russian. Engines.
I wonder how the original seven Mercury astronauts would have reacted to that statement in 1961.
“Hey, guys, I know this program features the best of everything America can offer: bravery, technological savvy and awe-inspiring inspiration for millions of citizens, culminating in a series of moon landings, an International Space Station, putting a car on Mars, and Tang, the Instant Breakfast Drink. But by 2014, this nation will be subcontracting this out to a company that uses refurbished Russian rocket engines. You know. Budget cuts. Sorry.”
The Russian government now makes noises about the U.S. possibly being overbooked and bumped for future space station rides if we don’t get with the program. On Friday, a Virgin Galactic spacecraft had a fatal crash during a test flight in the Mojave Desert. Another bad sign for space privatization.
Well, here’s one small step for man: get NASA back in the game, stop using rockets purchased from eBay, and maybe we can get a little something back, too.
I’ll raise a glass of Tang to that with my monster digital watch while I write Putin a strongly-worded letter with my zero-G space pen.