Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Abandon In Place

The following is something of a tradition for me; it's a column I wrote many years ago, on the 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. I'm rather sorry to say that I see no particular need to revise its conclusions today--although I should admit that I'm starting to doubt whether I'll ever write the book referenced at the beginning.

Every writer--at least every one I've ever met or heard of--has a "trunk." It's where they store work that didn't make the cut, or isn't ready yet, or just had to be left alone for one reason or another. For some it is a literal trunk, a footlocker full of scribbled pages and typed sheets. In my case, it's a computer folder named (wait for it) "THE TRUNK." Here's a peek inside, at the first page of a book I'll write one of these years:

On the Atlantic coast of Florida stands an artifact that looks like a giant's table. It towers over the sand and scrub grass, a massive construct of stained concrete and rusted steel. It sits mutely, in a field of debris, left behind by its makers, all but forgotten by history.

Three men died here, by fire. Three more were hurled from this stone table and very nearly perished on a dangerous mission turned frantic by human mistakes. Eighteen were carried from here on a pillar of flame to land on another world and claim it for all humanity.

It is Pad 34, at the John F. Kennedy Space Flight Center. There is no plaque to mark the significance of the spot, no memorial to the fallen, no record of the great feats that were accomplished from this place. All that remains is the giant's table, its epitaph marked in stencil with a cold bureaucratic notation.

The legs of the table bear a single phrase: ABANDON IN PLACE.

The book that will have that title is years in my future, but its melodramatic foreword will serve for today, the thirtieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. As we look back across three decades at that epochal achievement, it's worthwhile to remember not just what was accomplished, but also at what's been lost since then.

Neal Armstrong had hardly taken his one small step thirty Julys ago when the Apollo program was abruptly truncated. Ten landings were planned, but by the time two billion 1970 dollars had been ripped away from NASA's annual budget, only six would be accomplished (unlucky Apollo 13 would have made it seven). In a panic, NASA scrambled for a new mission, a further reason to exist as a major-league agency.

Casting around madly for a stepping stone to future manned explorations, the agency settled on the Space Shuttle, billing it as a reusable vehicle that would take off and land as easily as an airliner--no more throwing away great chunks of a spacecraft along the way. Pie-in-the-sky proposals assured congressional planners that a Shuttle would dramatically lower the costs of space flight, down to $1000 a pound or less to Earth orbit (the reality was closer to $10,000 a pound in 1988).

As Shuttle development ramped up (only to be cut back itself as budgets were lowered again and again during the 1970's, causing design compromises that eventually led to, among other things, the 1986 Challenger explosion), the "old-fashioned" Saturn rockets, the most powerful machines ever built by man, the chariots that that had taken humanity to another world, were literally left to rot.

The last of the great Saturn V boosters ever flown was used to lift the Skylab space station into orbit in 1973. Three more of the 363-foot-tall Saturns were already built, needing only fuel, payload, and direction to fly... but the decision was made that they were more useful as relics than as rockets. The last of America's Saturn V's were carted off to NASA museums, and there they still lie in pieces today, at Houston, Huntsville, and Cape Canaveral. **

Think about that for a moment. Three... Saturn... V... rockets. Finished. Built. Paid for. Wasted.

These were not just carefully crafted towers of aluminum and steel. These were national treasures--the only machines in the world that could carry a space station to orbit in one launch (it will take dozens of Space Shuttle missions to finish the interminable construction of the current station). A second, completed Skylab was also mothballed--it too sits dismantled, in the Huntsville Space and Rocket Center, a waste of untold millions.

These were the only rockets ever built capable of taking a significant payload to the moon. It's been said accurately, many times, if we wanted to go back today, we couldn't. The Soviets tried, frantically and unsuccessfully to duplicate the Saturn V; their highly secret, rarely spoken of N-1, a monster rocket with an incredible cluster of 30 engines, never flew successfully. A final desperate attempt to beat Apollo 11 to the moon ended in a catastrophic launch pad explosion on July 3 of 1969--the marks left behind by that explosion are still visible in satellite photos today.

The Saturn V could do that job, reliably, and they were thrown away, like so much waste paper (speaking of which, legend has it that NASA actually discarded the blueprints during the 1970's). Many of the highly trained people who designed and built the Saturn V's were also thrown overboard and out of work. Some found other jobs--my grandfather, who had worked on every American rocket since the original Jupiter I, which launched the first U.S. satellite into orbit, went on to build and test the Shuttles--but thousands of others were pushed out, never again to use their talents in the pursuit of space flight.

There have been triumphs since then, to be sure. For all their faults and compromises, the Shuttles are dependable and versatile. They will serve us well for decades to come (they will have to, because no follow-on manned vehicle is even on the drawing boards). The roster of unmanned space probes is an astonishing record of achievement in exploration: Mariner, Viking, Explorer, Voyager, Galileo, Cassini, Pathfinder, more to follow.

But there could have been so much more. Thirty years ago, humanity briefly left its cradle to step out into the unknown. What a pity, what a shame on us all that we promptly jumped back into that cradle, and threw away our hard-won traveling shoes.


Postscript: I've been advised since writing this column that somebody has already published a 'coffee table' book of NASA facility photographs titled Abandon In Place. I feel kind of like Snoopy in an old Peanuts cartoon--"All of the good titles have been taken."

** 2009 Postscript: the Saturn V still on display in Huntsville was actually a test vehicle that was never intended for flight. Still, two of them left to rot was two too many.

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