Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Grand Tale of Human Exploration

The crew of Apollo 1: L-R: Ed White, Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee

The crew of Challenger: Back Row, L-R: Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik. Front Row, L-R: Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald Mcnair.

The crew of Columbia: Back Row, L-R: David Brown, Laurel Clark, Michael Anderson, Ilan Ramon. Front Row, L-R: Rick Husband,  Kalpana Chawla, William McCool

Today marks a somber day (and the conclusion of a dark week) for NASA. It was exactly 8 years ago today that the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry, killing all 7 astronauts aboard. On Friday, the nation commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, which killed 7 astronauts, including teacher in space winner Christa McAuliffe. Just a day before that, January 27 marked the 44th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire, which killed all three astronauts aboard. Naturally, with anniversaries all of these disasters coming in such quick succession, it is to be expected that the nation will focus on how these brave 17 explorers died. However. What is forgotten in all of this remembrance is what the astronauts stood for: the continuation of man's grand quest to explore.

Ever since the dawning of man, we have been explorers. Millions and millions of years ago, perhaps as the light we see from the Great Andromeda Galaxy tonight was leaving home, our distant ancestors were already well on their road to discovery. The first life evolved on Earth about 3.7 billion years ago, undergoing an explosion of biodiversity around 600 million years ago. The Cambrian Explosion of multicellular organisms would eventually lead to mammals, primates, and then us.

Evolving from primates, our earliest ancestors inhabited the trees of central Africa. Perhaps our evolutionary past is the reason for the common fears and dreams of falling that so permeate our species, regardless of culture, religion, or race. However, at a time long before recorded history, our distant ancestors, specifically, one bold leader, persuaded his band of hominids to follow him down, out of the trees and onto the land in a search for a better existence, never mind the relative safety of the heights that were free from lions, tigers, and other animals far stronger than we humans ever were.

Early human migration: the first quest for our species.

In time, starting from our nursery that was the center of the African continent, we moved out to colonize the world. What a grand adventure this must have been! However, primitive man's wanderings were, without doubt, not without cost. Facing all the perils of nature with little technology and experience at this new way of living, many of our ancestors undoubtedly died from starvation, exposure, animal attack, disease, and myriad of untold reasons unimaginable to us today. Did these tragedies stop the human enterprise of exploration? Of course not. Where do you live? If you answered anywhere but Africa, you are living proof of man's age-old desire to explore.

As the human enterprise went along, not only did the desire to explore continue, but the drive to invent also took root. With the new inventions brought upon by technology, man's ability to explore new frontiers expanded dramatically. Thanks to the ship, man could now cross the sea, colonizing island lands, most notably Australia. However, with the collapse of the Classical civilization, the Western world entered a 1,000 year Dark Age, during which little in the way of science and technology was accomplished. However, starting in the late 1300s, the West would reawaken and, once again, continue the quest for invention and discovery.

Ferdinand Magellan: the 1500s equivalent of an astronaut.

When the Byzantine Empire collapsed in 1453, rich Europeans had to discover a new route to the Orient, thus commenced the age of exploration. In 1492, in a seemingly ludicrous attempt to reach the far East y sailing West, Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas, thus beginning a rush of explorers. In 1519, Ferdinand Magellan set out to do the impossible: circumnavigate the globe. Setting out from Seville, Spain with 5 ships and 234 men under his command, Magellan sailed out into the unknown. Fighting storms, illness, and hostile native peoples on the islands were they landed for 3 years, the remnants of Magellan's crew (Magellan himself was killed in a battle with natives in the Philippines) finally returned home in 1522. Only 1 ship and 18 men completed the journey.

While Magellan's most paramount goal, circumnavigating the globe, was accomplished, there was a great cost in terms of human and material loss. However, rather tan make contemporary explorers question the worth of such travels, Magellan only inspired further voyages of discovery. At this time of rapidly advancing technology and unbridled optimism, there seemed nothing that humans were incapable of accomplishing. Yes, there were setbacks, French explorer LaSalle was lost after a navigational error took him to the Texas coast instead of New Orleans, John Cabot, originally of Italy, vanished with his 5 ships on an expedition to North America, and the entire British colony of Roanoke disappeared without a trace, but none of these disasters halted the drive to explore for very long. Humans are resilient, learn from mistakes, and then press on with whatever they endeavor to do. Once the Americas were colonized, the focus shifted to the Far East and the “dark” continent of Africa, our birthplace. We humans were returning home and didn't even realize it.

From the Renaissance until the start of the 20th century, humans trekked all over the Earth by land, sea, and eventually air. When the South Pole was finally reached in 1911, many were ready to declare that there was nothing left to explore. However, these suggestions were in error.

An early Chinese rocket, the ancestor of our modern space rocket.

So far as we know, the rocket was invented by the Chinese, with dates ranging from the 10th to 12th centuries, depending on the source. century. Initially used as a celebratory firework, the rocket soon gained military significance and was used by the Chinese in their continual wars with the Mongols. When the Mongols led by Genghis Khan conquered China, Oriental technology began to spread to the outside world via trade route linking the Far east to Europe. In time, the rocket would find itself being used in military campaigns and, more innocently, as fireworks. In time, rocket technology would advance and lead to better, more powerful, accurate, and reliable rockets. By the dawning of the 20th century and what is widely considered to be the end of the grand age of exploration, rocketry, once a dangerous hit-or-miss adventure, was becoming a science and many science fiction writers, among them Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, were advocating rockets as a means of interplanetary travel. Unfortunately, taking the rocket from the realm of weapon/entertainment would require more than the mind of a few imaginative writers.

Robert Goddard: father of the modern rocket.

Robert Goddard is considered the father of the modern rocket. On October 19, 1899, Goddard, then 17, climbed a cherry tree to cut off dead limbs near the top. However, instead of focusing on his work at hand, Goddard's focus became transfixed on the sky and the possibility of ascending into it. Goddard later wrote “as I looked toward the fields at the east, I imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars, and how it would look on a small scale, if sent up from the meadow at my feet.” When he descended from the tree, Goddard had changed, he had a purpose in life: developing a machine that could travel into space.

Upon graduating as high school valedictorian, Goddard went on to pursue a college education in physics, eventually earning a Ph.D. In 1911. However, even before earning his doctorate, Goddard was writing scientific papers, his first coming in 1907 proposing methods for stabilizing the flight of airplanes and his second, and most revolutionary, in 1909, detailing he possibility for liquid fuel rockets (up yo that point, all rockets were dry fuel). In the following years, Goddard would earn his first patents and university teaching position, which would allow him to further increase his time researching rockets and propulsion methods. In 1919, Goddard's pinnacle work, A Method for Reaching Extreme Altitudes, was published. One of the topics in the book: the possibility of rockets for space travel. Although only a small portion of the work, the pages dealing with rockets as a means for space travel brought a lot of attention to Goddard, almost all of it ridiculing his theories for spaceflight.

Goddard with the first liquid fuel rocket. The rocket is in the center and the 'A' like tubing Goddard is holding is actually the support mechanism.  

Despite the criticism and lack of financial support, Goddard pressed on with his experiments, launching the first liquid fuel rocket in 1926. The rocket flew just 41 feet into the air, crashing back to Earth a mere 184 feet away from where it started its journey. However, while many might consider such a result a failure, the test did prove that liquid fuel rockets were indeed possible. In following experiments, there were many disappointments but, instead of giving up, Goddard pressed on, with he and his team analyzing the remnants of each failed rocket in a search for clues on how to help guarantee success of the next launch. In time, the liquid fuel rockets became more and more reliable and, finally, allies in the form of Charles Lindbergh and the Guggenheim family materialized to lend financial support. With financial backing, Goddard continued his work into the early 1940s, when his ever-tenuous health started to fail him. Despite offering his services to the United States military in the years leading up to and during WWII, Goddard was rebuffed. Ironically, his work was of keen interest the Germans and Russians. When Robert Goddard died on August 10, 1945, his work was still largely unappreciated in his home country.

A German V-2 rocket.

During the 1940s, rockets would return to their ancient use as weapons of war. German rocketry, far ahead of any other nation's efforts, would develop, test, and successfully terrorize England with its V-series rockets. Although highly inaccurate, the rockets did get off the ground with great reliability and could travel vast distances that were previously unimaginable. After the war, the victorious allied governments raced to capture both German know-how and the scientists themselves. Of all the competing powers, America came out the big winner, getting a hold of not just the technology, but the men behind it. Among the captured German scientists was Werner von Braun, the driving force behind German rocketry who would go on to play a major role in helping America win the space race.

Sputnik 1: the first artificial satellite.

In the years after WWII, the relationship between America and the Soviet Union cooled until it reached a state of “Cold War.” Again, rockets would be employed for military purposes, namely delivering nuclear warheads vast distances without the risk of human life on the attacker's end. During the 1950s, both USA and USSR would build bigger and bigger rockets capable of delivering ever larger bombs greater distances. In 1957, the Russians surpassed the Americans when they launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit, thus creating the possibility of raining death from above onto any location in the world. In 1961, the Russians would launch Yuri Gagarin into space and President Kennedy would lay down the gauntlet to the Russians when he declared that Americans would land on the Moon by the end of the decade.

The culmination of the space race: Apollo 11 blasts off for the Moon.

In the 1960s, both countries went on a frenzy of technological development, creating ever more powerful vehicles for space travel. Unfortunately, even in this decade of almost routine technological triumph, there was tragedy. In 1967, NASA was rocked by the Apollo 1 test accident, which killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffe on the launch pad after their space capsule burst into flames. The resulting investigation and redesign of the capsule would set back the American space program a year. On the other side of the Atlantic, the Russians endured a similar tragedy when cosmonaut Vladamir Komarov was killed after the parachute on his space capsule failed to open upon reentry. This, coupled with the explosion of an unmanned rocket would wind up spelling doom for Russian efforts to reach the Moon. For America, the Apollo 1 tragedy was mourned, but also taken as a learning experience wherein future space capsules could be made safer. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would finally become the ultimate explorers when they landed on the Moon via the 363 foot high Saturn V rocket.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon. Note Neil Armstrong's reflection in Aldrin's face shield.

Driving the Lunar Rover on Apollo 15

As a side note, following the successful lunar landing, the New York Times, which had been highly critical of Robert Goddard's ambition to fly rockets into space, printed a much belated apology, admitting that “further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th century and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum . . .”

The Skylab space station.

After the successful lunar landings of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the focus on space exploration turned to long-term stays in space and making space travel more economical and, if one can even call it that, routine. In the 1970s, the quest to explore the Final Frontier was dominated by the Skylab space station and the development of the reusable space shuttle, which first journeyed into space in 1981.

Columbia lifts off on the STS-1 mission.

As the 1980s progressed, spaceflight became an almost routine event. In the first five years of the space shuttle program, 25 shuttle missions flew into orbit. As 1986 started, NASA was off to another quick start when Columbia, the first space shuttle, launched on January 12. A few weeks later, on July 28, millions of eyes in both the United States and across the world were on shuttle Challenger because of the inclusion of teacher in space contest winner Christa McAuliffe. AS the shuttle rose from the launchpad, it seemed another routine launch until, unnoticed by many at the time, a burst of flame erupted out of Challenger's right solid booster because of a failed o-ring. The booster came loose, impacted the rest of the vehicle, and ignited the escaped gasses. The orbiter itself fell from a height of over 60,000 feet into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 7 astronauts aboard. For a nation where anything seemed possible, the loss of Challenger was devastating, with the shuttles being grounded until 1988 as a result.

The International Space Station: man's extraterrestrial home.

In the 1990s, the landscape of space changed dramatically. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian drive to the stars came to a virtual halt as political instability and economic collapse forced the Russians to focus on more Earthly concerns. However, for the United States, it as full speed head, albeit on familiar “ground.” Like in the 80s, the 90s for NASA was a time of low Earth orbit shuttle, then Mir and International Space Station missions. While the 60s and 70s were times for innovation, the 80s through the early 2000s were a time for science. Yes, the shuttles didn't chart any new territory in their missions, but they harnessed much knowledge through science in space. At the turn of the millennium, the ISS was well on its way to completion and the shuttles, although coming under some criticism because of their age, were flying a steady stream of missions without mishap.

On January 16, 2003, the oldest space shuttle in the fleet, Columbia, lifted of for an extended mission of experiments in space. At the time of launch, video footage revealed that a piece of thermal insulation had broken off the shuttle's main fuel tank and struck the left wing of the orbiter. At the time, engineers pressed NASA management for independent and astronaut inspection of the damage. All requests were denied, the belief being that once in orbit, nothing could have been done. As the shuttle completed its mission and prepared for re-entry on February 1, nothing seemed amiss until reports of debris being shed by the shuttle were reported by people out to watch the reentry. The unusual spectacle then turned to one of horror as Columbia itself was seen to disintegrate. Subsequent investigation revealed that the engineers had been right in their concerns over the wing damage, which had apparently dislodged the thermal protective tiles that keep the shuttle's metal from melting when encountering the high heat of reentry. Result: superheated air entered the hole and melted the shuttle's wing, causing Columbia to spin out of control and disintegrate.

As with the Challenger disaster, the shuttles were grounded, this time for 3 years. When Discovery launched on its second return to orbit mission (Discovery was first in space after Challenger), foam was again shed from the external fuel tank. Although it missed Discovery, concerns over the integrity of the foam caused NASA to ground the shuttles yet again. At the same time, it had been nearly a quarter of a century since the shuttles first started flying into space, there was no denying that they were getting old. However, in a memorial speech for the Columbia crew, President George W. Bush stated that “the cause in which they died will continue . . . our journey into space will go on.” In 2004, President Bush announced the Constellation Program, which provided a new focus for American space exploration in that its mission was to return Americans to the Moon. With the advent of Constellation (itself now in limbo), the shuttle era was now nearing its end.

So, in 2011 as we were forced to take a look back at the tragedies that have befallen America's space program, instead of focusing on how the astronauts died, we should all focus on how they lived and what they stood for: man's undying quest to discover new worlds. For our entire history as a species, we have been explorers with ever-changing frontiers. Millions of years ago, coming down from the trees and setting foot on the land was like setting foot on a new world. Today, we are literally journeying to new worlds, the uncharted regions of space. Throughout history, many people have died in the quest to discover new places, but did that stop us? Of course not, look at where we have come as a species: down from the trees, out of Africa, all over the planet, and now to space itself. Exploration will always be a dangerous endeavor, there is no escaping this fact, but we owe it to all of those bold explorers, those who succeeded and those who failed, who came before us and dared to go where no one had gone before and today, that means continuing our journey to the stars.

We owe it to all who came before us to continue our exploration of the universe.

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