Daily Archives: October 19, 2010

Travelling through space and time

The coach tour took us past the Saturn V: a Giant Redwood prematurely felled, rotting slowly on its side in the damp Florida heat. An unmissable reminder of Nasa’s glory days, then already a decade and a couple of culture shocks past. This one had been built to fly, before Nixon hacked off Apollo’s tail. Apollo 18, or 19, perhaps. It was a monument to success; a symbol of decline. It lived and died for politics.

Not far away, a forest of earlier launchers; still standing, once mighty, now mere saplings. Saturn V engines scattered like mushrooms. Gleaming, wasted mushrooms.

And the Vehicle Assembly Building. So large, I never tired of saying, that clouds formed inside. Down one side, a giant Stars and Stripes. Down another, a massive door, now closed. And inside, I told my Dad, was Columbia. At least that’s what I believed and hoped. I imagined it already hitched to its huge white fuel tank, twin SRBs either side, white-suited technicians crawling all over. I desperately wanted to see it. To see it launch. To launch in it.

A large digital clock confirmed that a launch was a few days away – but not Columbia. The orbiter’s maiden flight was beset by delays, thousands of new systems and processes to build, and test, and shake out – with no Kennedy deadline to meet. The shuttle would be a workhorse, we were told, a quick and cheap route into orbit. They wouldn’t be planting any flags, they’d be supplying a service. A launch a week, said the PR. A fleet of orbiters. I couldn’t wait. We might actually have 2001 by 2001, I thought.

With Nasa’s future cloaked inside the VAB, the tour showed us more of its triumphal past. The Apollo 13 Command Module, success grabbed from the jaws of defeat. An unused Lunar module, another of Nixon’s casualties. Battered training units to clamber over. A wooden lunar rover to pretend to drive. Actual moon rock.

Finally we boarded the coach back to the hotel. A long drive into the setting sun; an undercurrent of travel sickness always threatening to bubble up.

Thirty years on almost to the day, that journey back sums up Nasa’s fortunes. Then, we looked forward to the first shuttle launch. Now, we simply hope that the ageing fleet, two orbiters lost to mismanagement and capricious fate, makes it through the remaining few launches intact to join the Saturn V and its forebears in the museum. Nothing dates as fast as the future.

As in 1980, the Nasa of 2010 is at a turning point. The shuttle programme never delivered on its promises – too much pork, too much CYA, ‘reusable’ orbiters virtually rebuilt between launches – launches themselves costing $500m a pop. But there’s nothing to replace it.

It’s 38 years since men last walked on the moon. Since men last left Earth orbit. By the end of next year Nasa will struggle even to put people into Earth orbit without paying others – Russians, for the time being at least.

This isn’t the future I imagined, as I stood in my short shorts leaning non-nonchalantly against a rocket engine in the October sunshine.

And what future do I imagine now? Where will we be in October 2040? That’s assuming we survive Y2K38, and assuming we’re not all living on rafts or in caves or inside the Matrix or rebelling against our robot overlords or fighting the undead.

Here’s my guess. The US, long divided internally, will likely be two or more independent republics squabbling over once-settled state borders, desperate for oil, struggling in a changed climate. If not underwater, the Kennedy Space Center will be pure museum: the future long past.

But it wouldn’t surprise me to see a presence on the moon. Chinese, of course.

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