October 25, 2015

FTV: Leaving Orbit

    I will give you fair warning – this installment of FTV will not be about music.  It is about a book, and I will further warn you that it is not a book about music, musicians, or MTV.  This isn’t a book review, either.   It is more of a commentary on the topic of Margaret Lazarus Dean’s book Leaving Orbit:  Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight.  Every generation can lay claim to something unique be it a fad or a technological breakthrough.  We even go so far as to label our generations with  handles that the history books will record as touchstones to make it easier for us to reference each period.  Mine label is pretty simple.  I am a product of The Space Age and that is why Lazarus’s book caught my eye roaming the aisles at Bookworld.  

    Margaret Lazarus Dean has impeccable credentials as an author.  She is an associate professor of English at the University of Tennessee and resides in Knoxville.  She was born in 1972,  the same year that the Apollo moon landing program was ending.  She got hooked on the idea of space exploration at the age of seven while visiting the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.  I enjoyed her descriptions of the Air and Space Museum because I was lucky enough to visit there in the early 1990s.  Both the museum and a lifelong interest in space exploration are our common connection, but our paths diverge from that common point.  She is a writer, having previously penned a space themed novel (The Time It Takes to Fall which she commonly refers to as ‘my Challenger book’ as in the Space Shuttle Challenger).  I like to write, but I am not a writer.  On the other hand, I am kind of a space exploration dinosaur because I got to see the whole program evolve from Sputnik to the end of the Shuttle era to the exploration of Pluto (which, by the way, still gets planetary status in my universe).  Dean is very knowledgeable about manned space exploration, but readily admits that there are aspects of the early space program that she can only speculate about as she wasn’t there to see it as it unfolded.  As she says in her book, “There is always someone out there who knows more.”

    After The Time It Takes to Fall was published, she began an internet friendship with a NASA worker named Omar who, like his father, worked on the Space Shuttle program at Cape Canaveral.  When he contacted her after reading her first book, Dean worried that his insider view of the program would result in a long list of inaccuracies he had found.  Just the opposite occurred and her friendship with Omar gave her access to segments of the Cape Canaveral spaceport that would not have been available to her as a writer.  Omar’s unique job as a NASA insider was also invaluable to Dean as she tried to find a balancing point between the end of the Space Shuttle program and its overall place in the storied history (and future) of NASA.

    Dean wanted to gauge the current generation’s understanding of the space program so she prompted  her university students with some simple questions about the topic.  She was astonished at some of the answers.  “How much of the Federal budget goes to NASA?”   Her student’s guesses were on par with a multi-year national study that showed on the average, Americans believe 20 percent of the federal budget goes to NASA.   A significant number of people believe that it consumes 50 percent!   According to Bill Nye, the president of the Planetary Society, NASA’s budget peaked during the Apollo moon landing program at 4.5 percent but today has shrunk to a mere .4  percentage of the Federal budget.  Dean pointed out that NASA’s budget was less than the cost needed to provide air conditioning for troops in Iraq.   The bank bailout of 2008 cost more than the entire fifty-year NASA budget.

     She proceeded to ask them basic questions about the space program and clearly, the generations who grew up with only the Space Shuttle in their space program were not aware of the earlier, so called Heroic Era of spaceflight.  In fact, they tended to lump them together and jumble the parts up in a mish-mash of facts traded between the two eras.  Here are some examples of their basic space program knowledge:   John Glenn walked on the Moon in 1965 (reality:  he made the first American orbital flight and became the oldest human to fly in space aboard the shuttle, but he never went to the moon).  Women and the space shuttle have been to the Moon (reality:   no and no).  The shuttle can travel up to 40 million miles away from the Earth (reality:  250 miles, the height of the International Space Station, is about as far as it can go) and 400 people have walked on the Moon, most recently in 2001 (reality:  only 12 men have walked on the Moon, the last in 1972).   Is it unusual for a generation to be so out of touch with a major historical era like the Space Age?  I remember how many things I got wrong about World War II before my history lessons took root.  My generation approached the study of WWII like it was ancient history even though it ended a mere 8 years before I was born.  

    By the time Dean arrived in Florida for the final Shuttle Launch, she had devoured Norman Mailer’s accounts of the Apollo 11 moon launch that took place three years before she was even born.  She finally decided to apply for press credentials for the final Shuttle launch which put her in the same viewing area that all the correspondents had used since the Apollo 4 launch.  Dean’s sense of history about the space program was heightened we she was able to get closer to the actual launch site for each of the last three flights.  Her own opinions and emotions blended with accounts given by those who witnessed the launch of the first moon landing are what make this a remarkable history of the entire space program, not just the end of the Shuttle era.

    Her central questions throughout Leaving Orbit are:  “What does the end of the Space Shuttle era mean?  What does it mean that we went to space for fifty years and then decided not to go anymore?” Almost everyone she asked these questions responded with some variation of, “Those are good questions.”  What Dean discovered in the end weren’t really  well defined answers to her key questions. The answers she received ended up spawning more questions.  When the Apollo era ended, the Shuttle program was already in development.  When the Shuttle era was over, privatization of space travel was in the works but NASA itself had no way to get astronauts to the International Space Station.  Buying rides into space aboard Russian rockets just isn’t the same as having an active rocket program capable of launching humans into space!  

    What comes next?  Dean did not think she would be able to embrace the civilian rocket programs as she had the NASA efforts.  Humans are meant to explore and for the first time in fifty years, we have turned over the reigns of space exploration to private companies.  Manned exploration is expensive and perhaps the only way to see it continue is through federal funding.  In today’s dollars, the entire shuttle program cost $200 billion, twice as much as the Apollo program.  A manned mission program to Mars will cost twice as much as the shuttle program, but private companies will be wary of an expensive mission like this if there are no profits to be made.  Time will tell what the future of manned space exploration will be.  Incidentally, the war in Iraq has already cost five times the projected cost of a manned Mars program.  Dean hopes the private space companies succeed, but also hopes we can reignite the national enthusiasm that will be needed to fully fund NASA’s future programs.

    I highly recommend Lazarus’s book even if you are not a science or space buff.  A second page turner I would recommend is An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield.  If a Canadian can set his sights on becoming an astronaut at a time when his own country had no space program of its own and end up commanding the International Space Station, then perhaps we can aspire to do more with our program than live on past glories.