When the Chains of Gravity Were Broken

Op-Ed Contributor


Fifty years ago Tuesday, an obscure Soviet Air Force lieutenant named Yuri Gagarin climbed onboard an eminently conventional form of transport — a converted city bus — and headed toward another order of vehicle altogether: a towering rocket, on top of which was mounted a gleaming spherical Vostok capsule encased in a pointed fairing.

According to Soviet media, upon exiting at the launch pad Gagarin made a spontaneous speech stuffed with patriotic fervor. Except it didn’t happen: His ghost-written oration had been taped in Moscow weeks earlier and only broadcast later that day. What he really did was order the driver to stop on its way to the pad, exit, and relieve himself on the rear tire. This action has since been repeated by most of the hundreds of crews launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. In fact it’s considered bad luck — even bad manners — not to.

Two decades before Tom Wolfe coined the phrase, Gagarin clearly had an irrevocable case of Right Stuff. Ensconced in his cramped capsule, he was informed, only 20 minutes before launch, that his pulse rate was a calm 64. “Roger. That means my heart’s beating,” he responded.

His sense of humor weathered the thunderous ride to orbit as well, when up to five G’s of pressure shoved him deep into his seat, distorting his face into a sagging mask. Asked anxiously by the chief designer of the spacecraft, Sergei Korolev, how he felt, Gagarin laconically replied, “I feel fine. How about you?”

In fact pre-launch jitters had caused Korolev to swallow a dose of tranquilizers, which reportedly failed to prevent him from shaking visibly during much of Gagarin’s ride. Korolev’s agitation was understandable — half of the early R-7 rocket had failed during unmanned test flights, making Russian roulette a far safer activity.

But if Korolev’s pills didn’t work, his rocket did, and a euphoric Gagarin became the first person ever to witness the ravishing sight of the Earth from space: “It’s beautiful! What beauty!”

The Gagarin anniversary, and the retirement of the U.S. Space Shuttle this year after three decades spent reconnoitering low Earth orbit, bring the first great chapter of space flight to an end. So where do we stand a half century after Gagarin’s rocket ride? Are things “beautiful”?

The short answer is no — even if on the face of it, there are good reasons for satisfaction.

The space race triggered by early Soviet successes quickly led to the U.S. Apollo program and six triumphant Moon landings by American astronauts. Subsequent U.S. and Soviet space stations, most notably the giant American Skylab station and the Soviet Mir station, were ultimately replaced by the single most complex collective space engineering project ever attempted: the International Space Station.

Scheduled for completion this year, staffed by rotating mixed crews of American, Russian, European and Japanese astronauts, it’s also among the most expensive such project, clocking in at roughly $150 billion — a figure comparable to that of Apollo, only without a destination or truly convincing rationale.

And therein lies the rub. No matter how courageously, vigorously and skillfully human beings have worked in low Earth orbit since the return of the last Moon mission in 1972, through no fault of their own they’ve simply not been mandated to go anywhere new. The shuttle and the International Space Station, after all, both fly at altitudes lower than those achieved by the comparatively primitive two-man Gemini capsules of the mid-60’s. Let alone the Moon.

It’s hard to characterize such missions as exploration. In fact, most reasons for satisfaction in our progress in space lie in the achievements of a different kind of pioneer. Real space exploration since 1972 has been blazed by successive generations of spindly, elegantly machined, cost-efficient robotic spacecraft.

Possessing a different kind of stuff than Yuri Gagarin or Neil Armstrong, they’ve fanned out across the dazzlingly variegated archipelago of worlds that orbit the sun. With astronauts consigned to the outermost fringes of Earth’s atmosphere, it has been the unmanned spacecraft that have been opening the solar system to our eyes.

Robotic missions have landed on Venus, Mars, Saturn’s moon Titan, and the asteroid Eros. They’ve deployed balloons to explore the dense Venusian atmosphere, rovers to crawl across the ochre desert landscapes of Mars, and atmospheric probes to dive into Jupiter’s kinetic storm systems.

They’ve discovered the solar system’s largest canyon, its highest mountain and its deepest sea. In the last few years, they’ve observed giant plumes of water venting from Saturn’s moon Enceladus; standing lakes of liquid ethane on Saturn’s foggy satellite Titan; fallen meteorites and whirling dust-devils on the surface of Mars; and volcanoes erupting perennially from the pock-marked surface of Jupiter’s moon Io.

In the late 1990s NASA’s Galileo Orbiter provided stunning evidence that Jupiter’s enigmatic satellite Europa is in fact a giant pearlescent drop of sea-water with a comparatively thin ice crust and a deep rocky core. Europa’s vast global ocean may in fact possess up to three times as much water as all the oceans of Earth combined — an astonishing prospect, and one that should have created far more excitement than it has.

Many planetary scientists consider Europa the most likely potential home of extraterrestrial life inside our solar system. It seems to possess all the conditions known to have fostered life on Earth, and has probably had them for billions of years.

All these revelations have been gotten at a fraction of the cost of human space flight. NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, which runs all of the U.S. unmanned missions — including revolutionary space-based observatories such as the Hubble Space Telescope — receives less than half of the funds allocated to crewed missions.

Despite this, space probes have steadily increased in their reach and capabilities, to the point where the engineering wizards of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, can take a budget so comparatively miniscule that those in charge of human space flight might consider it a rounding error, and whip up such immaculately machined robots as the two exceptionally peripatetic and hardy Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.

One is still fully operational and one finally failed last March, a whopping eight years after landing on what were originally conceived to be three-month surface missions. To date they’ve cost about $924 million dollars in total — only two thirds the cost of a single shuttle mission.

Despite this record of successes, and even with the retirement of the shuttle and the termination of NASA’s Constellation Program — a congenitally under-funded Bush-era effort to return astronauts to the Moon — the Science Mission Directorate is facing significant budget cuts for 2012.

For example, with NASA likely facing a decrease in funding of $6 billion, a mission dedicated to Europa is in imminent danger of being canceled — for the third time in just over a decade. This is not just deplorable, it’s contrary to our deepest innate drives as a species. Since when have we discovered an ocean and turned our backs on it?

None of this is to argue for phasing out human space flight in favor of the robotic kind. On the contrary, excellent reasons exist for a vigorous expansion of human activities beyond low Earth orbit and across the Solar System.

But in many ways the construction of the International Space Station has locked human space flight into a holding pattern for the near term, simply because it makes no sense to complete such an expensive project and then immediately abandon it. In that light, the recent Obama administration decisions to cancel the Constellation Moon program, retire the Space Shuttle and seek lower-cost ways of sending crews to the station are understandable.

But given their record of success with automated exploration, our first priority should be to use the savings thus achieved — and if necessary additional funds — to insure that NASA’s Science Mission Directorate remains fully funded.

Robotic space flight has revealed the Solar System to be a cornucopia of wonders, producing an unprecedented explosion in our understanding of our place in the universe.

It has provided stunning evidence of innumerable planets elsewhere in our galaxy, and even delivered pictures of embryonic solar systems forming. And it has done all this on less than one third of the budget of an agency that itself only consumes about 0.6 percent of the annual budget of the federal government.

In the late 1930’s H.G. Wells observed that the human race faces a choice between “the universe or nothing.” Given our planet’s ever-growing population, diminishing natural resources and the ominous specter of climate change, the same stark choice applies to our generation — only with interest. The decision should be obvious.


Michael Benson is the author of “Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes” and “Far Out: A Space-Time Chronicle.” An exhibition of photographic prints based on “Beyond” is currently on view at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

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