Space Exploration—How Far Has Man Gone?
ON APRIL 12, 1961, a new Columbus entered the annals of history. Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, Russian cosmonaut, made man’s first voyage into space in the space capsule Vostok 1. His journey lasted 108 minutes and took him 25,400 miles [40,900 km] around the earth in one orbit. He was the winner of the first heat in the great space race between the former Soviet Union and the United States.
U.S.News & World Report stated: “The truth is that . . . America was propelled into space by the imperative to beat the Russians.” President John F. Kennedy was set to trying to close the gap between the Soviet and the American space accomplishments. John Logsdon, director of the Center for International Science and Technology Policy, wrote in Blueprint for Space: “Sorenson [Kennedy’s special counsel] says Kennedy’s attitude was influenced by the fact [that] ‘the Soviets had gained tremendous worldwide prestige from the Gagarin flight at the same time we had suffered a loss of prestige from the Bay of Pigs.* It pointed up the fact that prestige was a real, and not simply public relations, factor in world affairs.’”
President Kennedy determined that cost what it may the United States had to do something spectacular to overtake the Soviets. He asked: “Do we have a chance of beating the Soviets by putting a laboratory in space, or by a trip around the moon, or by a rocket to land on the moon, or by a rocket to go to the moon and back with a man? Is there any other space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win?” At last U.S. scientists had a political motivator to back their ambitions. But they were going to have to wait for their success.
The Russians continued their string of successes in 1963 when Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova became the first woman to orbit the earth, not once, but 48 times! NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) faced the challenge of catching up in the race for international space prestige. So, what did they finally accomplish?
Apollo and the Moon
NASA scientists had been studying the possibility of a lunar landing since 1959. They requested permission to build a spacecraft that would be called Apollo. However, “President Eisenhower refused to approve this request.” Why this negative attitude? The cost, from $34 billion to $46 billion, “would not produce enough scientific knowledge to justify the investment. . . . Eisenhower told NASA that he would not approve any project aimed at a lunar landing.” (Blueprint for Space) The scientists’ only hope was in the new president, John F. Kennedy.
He set the U.S. scientists the goal of landing a man on the moon before the end of the decade—and before the Russians! Wendell Marley, who was an electrical engineer working on the Apollo guidance and navigation system, told Awake!: “There was definitely a sense of rivalry with the U.S.S.R., and this was also a motivating force among many of the engineers I worked with. We were proud to do our part in landing a man on the moon before Russia did. Many of us even worked overtime without extra pay in order to stay on schedule.”
The outcome of all that effort is now history—Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin left the first human footprints on lunar soil in July 1969. This tremendous achievement was not without a price. On January 27, 1967, three astronauts lost their lives in an on-board fire in the command capsule during a preflight test. Less than three months later, Russian cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov died while attempting to return after 18 orbits of the earth. Yet, for hundreds of years, that has often been the price that men and women have paid for exploration. They have died in their quest for knowledge and glory.
Now, apart from moon travel, what other progress has been made in space?
Searching the Planets
NASA has sent many satellites out into space, and they have paid off handsomely in increased knowledge of the universe. That is one of the benefits that scientists point to in order to justify the enormous expense of manned flights and unmanned space probes. March 1992 saw the 20th anniversary of one of the great success stories of space exploration—the launching of the first space probe to go beyond the solar system. Pioneer 10, launched in 1972, made up for a string of early failures among its predecessors, stretching back to 1958. The probe’s active life was expected to be about three years. Instead of that, thanks to its nuclear power source, it is still sending back information to the earth. Nicholas Booth, writing in New Scientist, says that “NASA officials expect to be able to track the craft until the turn of the century. It could be described as the most successful interplanetary mission ever.” Why has Pioneer 10 been so special?
It was programmed to head for our largest planetary neighbor, Jupiter, before exiting the solar system. This involved a journey of some 484 million miles [779 million km] that took nearly two years. It reached Jupiter in December 1973. On the way it passed Mars and went through an asteroid belt beyond Mars. It recorded 55 impacts from dust particles. However, the spacecraft escaped without damage. Other instruments measured radiation and magnetic fields around Jupiter.
Then Pioneer 11 was launched, and after passing Jupiter it went on to Saturn. Building on the foundation of these Pioneer ventures, NASA followed up with the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft. These, in Nicholas Booth’s words, have sent back “a deluge of information about the Jovian system that eclipsed the results of the Pioneer missions.” How do these probes get their information back to the earth?
There is a tracking system called the Deep Space Network, consisting of radio dishes, of 210 feet [64 m] diameter, which take turns picking up the signals as the earth rotates. These dishes are located in Spain, Australia, and the United States. They have been the key to accurate reception of spacecraft radio signals.
Is There Life on Mars?
Space exploration will apparently continue to be driven by one intriguing question that has stirred man’s curiosity for centuries: Does intelligent life exist anywhere out there in the vast universe? For a long time astronomers and writers speculated as to whether there was life on the red planet Mars. What have recent spaceflights proved in that respect?
The series of Mariner space probes in the 1960’s and 1970’s sent back pictures of Mars. Then, in 1976, the Viking 1 and 2 landers touched down on Mars and, incredibly, sent back information on the rock and soil. How was it obtained? By the use of an automated chemical and biological laboratory on the landing craft. Soil was picked up by a robotic arm, brought into the craft, and analyzed by the robotic laboratory. Was there any life there or any hope of it? What did the photos and analyses reveal?
Space science writer Bruce Murray explains: “No bushes, no grasses, no footprints or other indications of life relieved the barrenness of this geologically fascinating terrain. . . . Despite the most careful searching with soil samples . . . , not a single organic molecule was detected . . . Mars’ soil is far more sterile than any environment on Earth. . . . Mars very probably has been lifeless for at least the last several billion years.”
Murray drew a conclusion from all the evidence coming back from planetary exploration: “We are indeed alone in this Solar System. Earth, exhibiting the only watery surface, is the oasis of life. We do not have distant microbial cousins on Mars or anywhere else plausibly in this Solar System.”
What Does Venus Look Like?
Venus, although about the same size as Earth, is a forbidding planet for humans. Astronomer Carl Sagan calls it “a thoroughly nasty place.” Its upper clouds contain sulfuric acid, and its atmosphere is mainly carbon dioxide. The atmospheric pressure at the surface is 90 times that of Earth; that is equivalent to the weight of water over half a mile [1 km] deep.
In what other ways does Venus differ from Earth? Carl Sagan, in his book Cosmos, states that Venus turns “backwards, in the opposite direction from all other planets in the inner solar system. As a result, the Sun rises in the west and sets in the east, taking 118 Earth days from sunrise to sunrise.” Surface temperatures are about 900 degrees Fahrenheit [480° C], or, as Sagan says, “hotter than the hottest household oven.” Since 1962, Venus has been explored by a variety of Mariner and Pioneer-Venus probes as well as by numerous Soviet Venera craft.
For mapping, however, the best results have come from the space probe Magellan, the Venus radar mapper managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It was launched from the space shuttle Atlantis May 4, 1989. This remarkable craft, Magellan, took 15 months to reach Venus, where it now orbits the planet every three hours and 15 minutes as it takes its radar images and transmits them back to earth. Stuart J. Goldman, writing in Sky & Telescope, says: “Calling the product of the Magellan spacecraft’s mission phenomenal is making a gross understatement. . . . This robotic surveyor mapped 84 percent of an entire planet to a resolution of a football stadium during its first 8 months in orbit. . . . The quantity of data Magellan has beamed back to eager scientists has been unprecedented. By the beginning of 1992 the spacecraft had sent 2.8 trillion bits of information. This is three times the imaging data from all previous planetary spacecraft combined.”
Here is a case where the combination of a manned shuttle and a robot has produced incredible results. The benefit? Greater knowledge of our solar system. And all of this at a relatively low cost, since the Magellan has been to some extent a spare-parts project, using many leftovers from the Voyager, Galileo, and Mariner probes.
NASA and the Spy Satellites
The search for scientific knowledge has not been the only motive for space exploration. Another driving force has been the desire to achieve a military advantage over any potential enemy. Over the years, the space programs have been used by both the United States and the former Soviet Union as a vehicle to expand their spying capacity. Bruce Murray says in his book Journey Into Space: “Earth orbit was from the beginning an arena for reconnaissance and other military activities, a domain of deadly serious strategic rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union.”
Joseph J. Trento reports in his book Prescription for Disaster that “in 1971 the CIA and Air Force began designing the Keyhole or KH series of spy satellites. On December 19, 1976, the first Keyhole was launched.” These photographic satellites could stay in orbit for two years and send their information back to the earth by digital transmission. How effective were they? Trento continues: “Their resolution was so superior that license plate numbers on parked cars could be clearly read. Further, the satellites were used to photograph Soviet spacecraft in orbit and strategic bombers in flight.”
The Complicated Shuttles
In recent years the world has thrilled to see the manned shuttle orbiters launched into space. Have you ever thought about the complexity of the whole operation? Of how many things could go wrong and lead to disaster? For example, engineers have struggled with such problems as how to keep the shuttle engines cool at blast-off to prevent them from melting from their own heat. “During the first few years of testing, one engine after another melted down and exploded” writes Trento. Then, there is the need to ignite the two solid-fuel booster rockets absolutely simultaneously so that the whole apparatus does not cartwheel to destruction. These factors certainly helped to increase the costs.
The first successful launch came on April 12, 1981. As the two-man crew of John Young and Robert Crippen sat strapped into their seats, each of the three shuttle engines produced a thrust of 375,000 pounds [170,000 kg]. According to Trento, some of the scientists wondered: “Would this be victory or would the dream cartwheel into the Florida swamps? If the solids did not ignite within a second of each other there would be conflagration on pad 39A. . . . At zero the solids fired. White steam filled the horizon and the hold-down bolts broke loose. The crew could hear the roar. They felt the swing of the vehicle and the surge of energy.” They were successful. “For the first time in U.S. history, Americans had climbed aboard an unproven rocket system and flown it. . . . The most sophisticated vehicle ever built worked.” A new breed of Columbuses was born. But not without dangers—and not without a price. The Challenger disaster of 1986 that resulted in the loss of seven astronauts is testimony to that fact.
On that first flight, color photographs showed that heat resistant tiles, vital for reentry at temperatures of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit [1,100° C], were missing from the bottom of the orbiter. The scientists needed to take a closer look to assess the damage. No earth-based cameras were powerful enough to give a clear picture of Columbia’s damaged belly. So, what was the solution? The KH-11 spy satellite was out there in orbit above the shuttle. It was decided to turn the orbiter upside down in relation to the earth so that its belly would face the satellite. The results sent back to earth assured the NASA people that no large areas of tile were missing. The mission was not in jeopardy.
Shuttle Program—For War or for Peace?
The history of NASA is one of constant clashes between those who saw the agency as a means of peaceful exploration of space and those who saw it mainly as an opportunity to get the drop on the Soviets in the Cold War. In 1982 this conflict of interests was summarized by Harold C. Hollenbeck, member of the House of Representatives, when he said to the House Science and Technology Committee: “The tragedy is the American people are not aware of the politicizing and militarizing of the civilian space agency. . . . It was a civilian-run team that put us on the moon . . . I, for one, do not want a gold-plated space program that is part of some Star Wars Pentagon. . . . I can only hope the next generation of Americans will not look back upon those of us here today as the leaders who sat in silence as America turned a noble endeavor into an interstellar war machine.”
He continued with a remark that summed up the mess that man was making of his future: “We went into space as a new frontier and now we drag the hate and the bitterness of earth into the heavens as if it is the right of man to make war everyplace.” Big business and political and military interests were trying to take over NASA. Billions of dollars and thousands of jobs (and votes) were tied up in its future.
A logical question now is, What have been some of the benefits for mankind of space exploration, and what does the future hold?
A failed invasion of Cuba that took place on April 17, 1961.
[Pictures on page 8, 9]
1. The lunar rover vehicle from Apollo
2. Lunar module with astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr., (July 20, 1969)
3. Vehicle Assembly Building, possibly the largest single construction in the world
4. Shuttle on the transporter on the way to the launch pad
5. Satellite about to be launched
6. “Challenger” shuttle with robotic arm visible
7. First woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova
8. First man in space, Yuri A. Gagarin
9. Robot arms gathering samples on Mars
Photos 1-6 NASA photo; 7, 8 Tass/Sovfoto; 9 Photo NASA/JPL