A cool look at the dot race into space
Is it worth thirty billion dollars to beat the Russians to the moon? Most Americans think it is, although they know at least some of the money is wasted. But others suspect that this is history's greatest boondoggle
Maclean’s Washington editor
WHY ARE AMERICANS pouring so much money into the space race? What will it do for their lives, for our lives in Canada — we have a slight stake in the affair as the first of the smaller nations to orbit a Lilliputian laboratory — and for the lives of the rest of the world's 3,200.000,000 inhabitants?
This is what many people in the United States are asking themselves these days, tor they are beginning to wonder whether it is worth the thirty to fifty billion dollars — or more — that they expect it to cost them in the next seven years. Presumably their rivals in history's most dramatic Derby, the Russians, are asking the same thing for they. too. are paying dearly to compete.
The answer, at this stage, is a mixed bag. The bag contains an abundance of cliches: Dawn of a New Age. Realization of Man's Oldest Dream. Key That Will Unlock the Mysteries of the Universe. It contains achievements. scientific developments that will be of practical use. But. above all. ii contains hopes and doubts.
Can the effort — the immense, hectic effort — actually he justified or is it a fantastic boondoggle? After a lot of reading on the subject and a lot of interviewing. I'm convinced only that nobody can really be sure.
President John F. Kennedy, of course, is thoroughly sold on the proposition that the U. S. should beat the Soviet Union in landing men on the moon. Yet. as a significant sign of the debate that seems to be brewing, one of his cabinet members has spoken out critically. He's the blunt secretary of the interior. Stewart Udall. who stated in March that conservation should have precedence over lunar excursions and added: ‘ I'm more interested in what we do w ith our planet, how we make it habitable, and the life we offer people who will live today and tomorrow.”
One cause of the complaints of Americans about the space race — complaints that would be louder if space weren't so closely linked with defense that the complainers are afraid of appearing “un-American" or disloyal — is the way in which spending has escalated while the country is confronted with huge deficits.
In 1961, when John Kennedy told congress that the U. S. should put an astronaut on the moon before the e:ul of 1970. the budget of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was $967 million. In 1962 it zoomed to $1,826 million and in 1963 to $3,740 million. For the fiscal year 1964, which starts July I. NASA seeks $5,664 million, while space outlays scheduled by the armed forces are $1,668 million. Those scheduled by the Atomic Energy Commission are $254 million, by the Weather Bureau $26 million, and by the National Science Foundation two million dollars. The total of $7,614 million is the equivalent of more than $140 from each of the fifty-three million families in the U. S. and exceeds the annual revenue of Canada's federal treasury.
The appropriations for the conquest of space at the current session of congress will top those for any other government activity but defense, which chews up more than half of the tax dollar. The appropriations for health, housing and education are pint-sized, compared with those for space. And there is a widespread feeling that the money — or part of it — could better be spent to improve the earth than to reach the earth's satellite.
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There is danger the taxpayer is going to pay more than he should — "and I mean billions"
But there are other reasons for the second thoughts about space that are burgeoning in the U. S. Here arc some of them:
1. Americans, stung by the early space successes of the Soviet Union, were carried away by a desire to overtake and pass the Russians, no matter how high the price tag. Now it’s fairly obvious that a reaction has hit them. They still want to pass the Russians but the first glow of the contest has worn off. the moon is no longer so bright a goal, and they are scrutinizing the price on the tag with the misgivings of a woman just back from an impulsive shopping spree.
2. The more that is revealed about the moon and the planets by space probes and new techniques in astronomy, the less attractive and more hostile they sound. For example, the flight of NASA's spacecraft Mariner 11 to within twenty-one thousand miles of Venus resulted in the information being radioed earthward that the temperature of Venus is eight hundred degrees Fahrenheit, not six hundred as previously supposed, and that there is always a solar wind like “the blast out of a rocket nozzle“ in interplanetary space. And what of the moon itself, the first station on the spaceway? The latest word, from NASA's director of space sciences, Homer Newell, is that its surface may be cobwebby “fairy castles” in which a spaceship would sink out of sight, and that if the material of which the so-called castles are composed is electronically charged it may be drawn to the ship like iron filings to a magnet, enveloping it entirely and finally.
3. Quite a proportion of taxpayers, especially in the middle and upper brackets, are apprehensive about the prospect that space production, like defense production, may grow so big that it will be a permanent drain on the treasury, and the government will be unable to abandon it without virtually wrecking the economy.
4. Space contractors, most of them operating on a cost-plus basis, are stealing engineers and scientists from university faculties and from industries in competitive lines that can’t afford to match cost-plus salaries. This complaint, as a rule, is coupled with the complaint that space plants hire university-trained professionals and skilled technicians and provide relatively few jobs for the unskilled and semi-skilled, who comprise most of the unemployed six per cent of the labor force. They thus do little to ease unemployment.
5. The bickering among various branches of the armed services and NASA about which should do what, and the dogfight of congressmen for lucrative contracts for their own districts, have planted in a substantial segment of the population the suspicion that the terms “space race” and “pork barrel” are synonymous. The suspicion has been fertilized by glaring cases of overlapping and duplication.
With the mounting uncertainty as to the value of the space race, as it is now being run. there must be millions of Americans like William Proxmire, a Democratic senator from Wisconsin who. on Washington’s Capitol Hill, is a knowledgeable man on defense and space. He says of space: “There's great danger that the taxpayer is going to have to pay a great deal more — and by ‘more’ 1 mean billions of dollars — than he should have to pay.”
Proxmire doesn’t believe that landing men on the moon first will be tantamount to winning the cold war. He believes that there are more effective methods of recruiting uncommitted and hungry countries for the Western camp — methods like the Food for Peace plan.
But he doesn't want the space race cancelled. He simply wants it geared down to a reasonable, efficient, economical speed. Even among the Americans most skeptical about space, it would be hard to find a single one who would like to see space research and exploration altogether halted.
Knights in shining space suits
Why, being so dubious, are they willing to dig into their pockets to finance the adventure?
It’s because they can't be positive that the romantic and uninhibited cliches aren't true, because they want to be first to the moon for the sake of national prestige, and because there is a natural urge to explore the unexplored. It's because they have read and dreamed about space since childhood and, perhaps, because they are a bit bored and the space race is exciting.
The new heroes of the Americans are the astronauts, just as the new heroes of the Russians are the cosmonauts. When Astronaut John Glenn, accompanied by his wife and children, drove hundreds of miles on a vacation trip, he was recognized and warmly greeted at all but three of scores of gasoline stations, restaurants, motels and campsites where he stopped, and wrote his autograph until his wrist was sore.
There are, in short, emotional elements in the picture and these help account for the openhanded space allocations by a tight-fisted congress. But the legislators arc aware that it would be disastrous if the voters jumped to the conclusion that the men who shovel out billions of dollars for space are experiencing the same strange stirrings as small boys dashing around in dime store space helmets shooting death rays at imaginary Martians. As a precaution against this the legislators emphasize the relationship between space and that unassailable excuse for unbridled extravagance, defense. They also emphasize the relationship between space research and the sort of technological advances America must have if it is to retain its old industrial supremacy. What arc the facts?
If there is a thermonuclear war, the warheads will be delivered through sub-orbital or orbital space by guided missiles or by manned vehicles that are half plane, half rocket. So it’s clear that a nation’s chances both of defending itself and retaliating against attack improve when it learns more about space and increases the speed and manoeuvrability of its space weapons. Then, as demonstrated in the Cuban crisis, aerial reconnaissance is important. With today’s instruments, like cameras that can photograph a baseball at eight miles or a nose cone at two hundred miles, an orbiting observation craft could do more than an army of land-based spies. On top of that a Russian officer recently claimed, rightly or wrongly, that the Soviet Union can orbit a satellite capable of accurately firing nuclear warheads. If that’s so, then space is suddenly more vital than ever.
As for the technological advances from the space race — the advances the politicians say will shove U. S. industry far out in front of industry elsewhere — they include, to date, new ceramics and plastics that are likely to improve household appliances; a new and simple type of automobile engine; a “painless” dental drill; a portable electronic computer; new medical instruments to measure heart rate, respiration and blood pressure; a new drug useful in treating certain mental illnesses and tuberculosis— it’s a derivative of a liquid missile propellant — and a new kind of air conditioner.
A major stride forward has been in what the technologists call miniaturizing— making things smaller and smaller. The purpose was to be able to fit a formidable assortment of scientific gadgets into one satellite, but the tricks learned will eventually show up in the stores in cameras, radios, tape recorders and “microminiature” transmitters and receivers for cars.
Another gain has been in communications. Telstar, the first broadband communications satellite, has performed so impressively that it has proven we can have transatlantic television. With more sophisticated communications satellites coming, we can look for world-wide television. In the not-distant future we’ll have synchronous-orbit communications satellites at an altitude of 22,300 miles. A satellite at that altitude takes twenty-four hours to orbit — the same time it takes the earth to turn. Thus it stays constantly over the same part of the world and is like a tower 22,300 miles high. Three satellites 120 degrees apart around the equator could cover all the earth but patches at the polar caps.
Meanwhile Canada’s satellite. Alouette, the first designed and built in any country but the U. S. or the Soviet Union, has been in orbit since it was launched from California by NASA last September. It’s investigating the ionosphere and measuring the radio noises in space that disrupt long - range communications.
There have been meteorological satellites since 1960 collecting data to make weather forecasting more precise, there are solar satellites collecting data on radiation and solar flares, and there are geophysical satellites studying our own earth from above. Orbiting astronomical observatories are under construction and one of them will have a seven - hundred - pound telescope, with television equipment to show' earth-bound astronomers what it sees — which will be far more than can be seen peering through the earth's atmosphere. All these are adding, or will add. to w'hat man know's of his universe and his planet.
Nobody but a fool w'ould belittle or minimize the benefits of space research, but the most beneficial research is not necessarily associated with the space race. There are experts w'ho say the space race, by gobbling so much of the available money and monopolizing such hordes of technologists, is retarding research that might ultimately be more profitable to the w'orld.
As an indication of the dimensions of this race, NASA has a staff of twenty-six thousand. It has hundreds of contractors w'ho, in turn, have thousands of subcontractors. A NASA executive told me that it's impossible to estimate the number of Americans working full-time or part-time on space but that “there must be millions.” When I asked whether he was serious w'hen he said millions, he replied, “Yes, I'll stick by that.”
And as an indication of the sciencefiction aura that surrounds space operations, a friend from California looked me up in Washington recently. When I asked what brought him to Washington he announced casually, as though it were a routine transaction. that his firm was trying to peddle an unmanned “moon bug" — a contraption that could he rocketed to the moon to crawl, beetle-like, over the surface, analyzing its chemical composition and recording temperature and radioactivity. It would feed this data by telemeter to electronic computers on the earth.
Dr. R. L. F. Boyd, a leading British space scientist, argues that lunar exploration should be left to such unmanned devices at least for the present. He told one interview'er it would be more advantageous to concentrate on instrumented space vehicles than manned space vehicles. "I think,” he said, “there will be things a man will find out that will not he found out by other means. But one always has to weigh the cost of research against the value of the rewards. The plain fact of the matter is that for one tenth of the cost — something in that order — one could get ninety percent of the valuable information. You have to ask yourself whether you are going to increase the whole cost of the project by a factor of ten to rake in the remaining ten per cent of information. I don't think we know enough yet about the moon to decide whether it’s useful to have a man there.”
He continued that, in his opinion, the Soviet Union and the United States were not sending men into space for science, and that he was sorry science was frequently “dragged in as the justification for w'hat I really regard as a political exercise.”
Boyd is not alone in his views. Carl Dreher, a consulting engineer and the science editor of The Nation, in an article published last September, quoted Dr. Edward Condon as saying that the space race is "a kind of lunar Olympic game” providing “effervescence for millions of drab lives.” Dreher then declared. "Instead of talking only about money ... we
should be talking of ways to spare as many of these attractive young men (astronauts and cosmonauts) as possible, rather than offering them as human sacrifices on the altar of the nationalistic passions.”
Dreher struck a similar note in an article in the March issue of Harper's. saying: “Men can get to the moon and back in a soundly planned and deliberately executed project, but the contestants in a race are inviting martyrdom and it matters not a whit
whether they are Americans or Russians. Martyrs to science if you like, or to love of country, or just to masculinity and dedication, but they will die." According to Dreher, we haven't acquired enough know-how to risk lives on lunar junkets.
His pessimism may be justified. Ranger 111, the unmanned satellite aimed at the moon in January, 1962. missed and now sails endlessly around the sun. Ranger IV, fired in April. 1962, hit the back of the moon in-
stead of the front and no more was heard of it. Its mission was fruitless. Ranger V, shot at the moon in October, missed and is now. with Ranger 111, in solar orbit. So far the Russians have had better luck. They hit the moon with Lunik II in September 1959, and a month later Lunik III photographed the moon’s far side.
But if there's pessimism at NASA it doesn’t show — not at headquarters in Washington, anyway. You realize, with a sudden sense of being let down. that the people there, who are directing the space race, just look like people. They might be the office staff of a biscuit factory.
But there must be plenty of tension under the deliberate matter-of-factness. For one thing, nobody can be sure when the Soviet Union will launch a manned spacecraft toward the moon. For another, so much is happening at so many places in such a hurry. I bis year there will be more than forty major launchings, including
a new batch of three Rangers that will attempt moon photography before “impact” — which means before they crash if they hit the mark. There will also be the first unmanned tests of Ciemini, a spacecraft which will later carry two men on flights of up to two weeks and rendezvous missions.
Gemini has a key role in the space race, for it is in Gemini that astronauts will practice for LOR — lunar orbit rendezvous — which, barring changes, is the method by which men
will attempt to land on the moon, then return to earth.
In LOR three men in a large spacecraft will blast off into earth orbit, lire again to enter moon trajectory at twenty-five thousand miles an hour, and go into moon orbit after a 240,000-mile journey. One man stays in control of the mother ship and two men squeeze into an “excursion module," detach it. and effect a lunar landing by the adroit use of small rockets. After exploring for an hour
or two, or a day or two, they rocket into moon orbit, rendezvous with the mother ship, crawl back into it and drop the module. Then they head earthward. The rendezvous is one of the most critical phases.
In Gemini, the astronauts will train long and hard, first learning to overtake an unmanned target that has been hurled into orbit, then learning to “mate” interlocking parts of Gemini and the target. They'll graduate, if all goes well, from Gemini to threeman Apollo capsules — the kind that will travel to the moon.
It may sound simple but it’s far from it, and nobody knows it better than Brainerd Holmes, a forty-oneyear-old engineer who resigned from a fifty-thousand-a-year job at RCA when John Kennedy offered him a twenty-one-thousand-a-year job (civil service salaries are very inflexible in the U. S.) as director of NASA’s office of manned space. Yet Holmes radiates confidence and contends that there are no engineering problems that are insurmountable in the lunar project.
One of his close colleagues at NASA is Dr. Raymond Bisplinghoff. director of advanced research and technology, whose principal duty is to peer ten or fifteen years into the future. After the moon. Holmes and Bisplinghoff have plans for Mars and Venus, both millions of miles distant, if the politicians are still willing. They also have plans for man-made islands in outer space, that could serve as bases for scientific expeditions. But first the moon.
The fiscal year that ended June 30, 1962, is the last for which contract statistics arc compiled and that was before the space race gained momentum. Yet in that year NASA contracts meant $441 million to California, $81 million to Alabama, $71 million to Missouri, $55 million to New York, and $51 million to Florida. Lesser sums were scattered through thirtyfour other states, technical journals were crammed with ads for engineers, physicists, chemists, mathematicians, astronomers, and the technological population of the U. S. was moving around like an army of itinerant fruit pickers. What was happening then is intensified now. Scores of small companies are growing big on NASA contracts and the taxpayer’s dough, and scores of big companies are growing bigger.
The old story that the moon is cheese is dead. The moon is really a nice fat melon, now being enjoyed by many.
Which leaves two questions:
1. Who will win the space race? NASA doesn’t know whether its launching will be in 1967, 1968 or 1969. The Russians may know when their launching will be but a polite young spokesman at the Soviet embassy in Washington, while he gave me a parcel of literature on past Soviet space achievements, explained that it was not the Soviet custom to publicize a coming event too much in advance. So if the Russians know, they aren't saying.
2. Is the whole business worth while? Maybe yes, maybe no. Americans, who were almost unanimously in favor of it in 1961, are by no means unanimously for it today.