Sunday, July 29, 2007

Frontier Finale

In which we celebrate the birth of one pioneer and mourn the passing of three others

This month, July, marks what would have been the 100th birthday of science fiction giant, Robert A. Heinlein. Last week, the week of July 22nd, was one of the worst for manned space exploration since the Columbia disaster of 2003, which killed seven brave astronauts.

Heinlein, an irascible libertarian and rugged individualist, wrote of space travel as a great adventure to be undertaken by bold hearts. His early works, like Rocketship Galileo, are my favorites. In Rocketship (1947), for example, some savvy teenage boys, lead by an older scientist, build a spaceship and fly to the moon. Unfortunately they found that the moon had already been claimed—by the Nazis. Trouble ensues.

Heinlein's work influenced thousands. It's safe to say that he acted as muse not only to a legion of spotty, fantasizing teenagers, but also to a hard core of dedicated eggheads—boys a girls whose math skills far exceed my own—who made manned space flight happen. They're the people who put people on the moon.

Heinlein envisioned travel to the moon and the planets as largely a private enterprise embarked upon by Neitzchean supermen (and super-teens). He was somewhat wrong in that. Rather, it was a (very expensive) public-private partnership, spurred on by the threat of Soviet communism, which eventually won us the moon back in 1969.

NASA, of course, has had its ups and downs. But recently it has had mostly downs. Earlier this year, an astronaut was caught in some kind of mysterious (and possibly murderous) love triangle. Then the Mars Rovers, which have lasted far beyond their projected life-spans, have been inundated by a major Martian dust storm that threatens to destroy them. Then, just last week, some cracker working Kennedy apparently sabotaged and important bit of computing equipment that could have endangered the launch of the Shuttle Endeavor, scheduled for August 7. On top of all that came the report, which I think is probably blown out of all proportion, that some astronauts may have been a bit tipsy before blast-off.

Enter Burt Rutan, aerospace pioneer and entrepreneur—Heinlein's kind of man. Rutan's experiemental SpaceShipOne, you will recall, won the $10 million X-Prize a few years ago, becoming the first re-usable, private, non-military, non-government-funded spacecraft to make it into space.

I was there at Mojave Spaceport to observe that morning. It was fucking magnificent. Heinlein would have reveled in it.

To the unschooled observer, it might seem like Rutan's achievement wasn't all that. After all, NASA had sent a man into space all the way back in the 1960s and the Russians did the same before that, right? In fact, SpaceShipOne proved several concepts, including:

  • A new, hybrid and highly controllable and predictable nitrous oxide propulsion system
  • A new, lightweight composite fuselage
  • That a craft launched from a conventional jet aircraft could make it into space
  • A unique folding wing design that brought the craft through reentry
  • That launching a man into space could be cheap—a lot cheaper than NASA's $5,000 - $10,000 per pound

After the X-Prize, Virgin billionaire, Richard Branson, invested millions in Rutan's project and founded Virgin Galactic, a space tourism outfit that would depend on Rutan's rocketships.

It all seemed to be going so well. Then, last week, disaster struck at Mojave Spaceport. A tank full of nitrous oxide exploded during a cold fire test. Three men have died and three others remain seriously injured. The three are:

Eric Blackwell, 38, of Randsburg, CA

Charles Glenn May, 45, of Mojave, CA

Todd Ivens, 33, of Tahachapi, CA

I see these men as pioneers of space, sacrifices along the long and dangerous road of space exploration. They're the latest in a long line of glorious dead. I think Heinlein would say the same.

I hope, however, they don't become martyrs to the cause. My greatest fear at this point is that government do-gooders will step with their regulatory sticks and, meaning to do good, stifle the nascent space tourism industry and all the serendipitous advancement that is likely to come out of it.


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