Other articles by John C. Sherwood



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An opinion on the future of manned spaceflight
Last updated: 25 Jan 2007

[As the anniversary of the 1970 Apollo 13 mishap arrives, this item from 1995 is being posted here as it first appeared in the Battle Creek Enquirer, subsequent to the author's meeting with Capt. James Lovell, who had visited Battle Creek while on a speaking tour. It is a somewhat pessimistic item, and events since 1995 have substantiated that pessimism to some extent. In the hope that the bleak view can be dispelled, this item is offered in an optimistic spirit. -- jcs]


CAN THRILL OF SPACE BE REKINDLED?
Enquirer's View, Battle Creek (MI) Enquirer, Sept. 28, 1995
Written by John C. Sherwood


Such a difference luck, tenacity and ingenuity make. They distance the gap between a celebration of heroism and the lamentations of a tragedy.

Standing within that gap, the American people must learn not to allow past tragedies and near-tragedies to prevent the possibility of future heroics and greater successes. That observation applies to any venture. Today we speak of the U.S. manned space program, and dreams that haven't come true. Tomorrow, because of the failure of those dreams to materialize, it may apply to something else.

In 1970, three American astronauts on their way to the moon nearly lost their lives when a faulty thermostat spawned an explosion that ripped their spacecraft open.

The full story is well known to those who've seen the film "Apollo 13" or who heard Tuesday's Battle Creek Town Hall Celebrity Series speaker Capt. James Lovell -- or who lived through those events a quarter-century ago.

After that mishap, the Apollo program remained buoyed by the fact that technical expertise still had paid off, and no lives were lost save the three men who had died in the Apollo 1 disaster during a test on the ground.

The United States continued to send astronauts to the moon, with four more successful landings -- six in all -- before the program ended in 1972. The nation fulfilled President Kennedy's quest, set in 1961, to reach the moon before the decade's end, achieving it with Apollo 11 in 1969.

With lots of momentum but no further inspiration, the manned space program shifted to Earth-orbit missions. Even their purpose was questioned when, in 1986, the space shuttle Challenger blew apart after launch, killing seven astronauts.

Faulty equipment again was blamed, but the outcome was different. For the first time, U.S. astronauts had died in flight. Faith in manned space research and public interest in the program plummeted. Where adventure once had captured enthusiasm, now there seemed only risk and expense.

Beyond the political ramifications of being at the forefront in technological research, the United States has benefitted vastly from continuing space research. spinoff discoveries in health care, computers, communications, physics and a host of other areas, all derived from manned-spaceflight research, easily justify the investment Americans have made in the enterprise.

What is lacking is interest beyond the government and quasigovernmental sectors. Indeed, it's possible that budget cuts in the newly conservative Congress could scuttle the space station that was the U.S. space program's last best hope.

Private U.S. business and technological interests should take advantage of nearly four decades of space research, and find ways to invest further in the future of Earth-orbit and lunar research:

* There are prospects for manufacture of some materials in orbit, where gravity's absence would allow creation of objects impossible on Earth.

* Similar enterprises might be possible on the moon, whose gravity is one-sixth of Earth's.

* It may be possible to download solar-generated electrical energy from orbit 24 hours a day, to power every city on the planet.

* Mining enterprises and colonies on the moon have long been a vision of science-fiction writers, many of whom foresaw them built by now.

* Problems associated with the dumping of nuclear wastes on Earth might be solved if they could be lifted to orbit and then "dumped" into the sun.

Are these pipe dreams that have no hope of coming true? Is there a place for the American entrepreneurial spirit in space?

When asked backstage at W.K. Kellogg Auditorium [in Battle Creek, Michigan] about such possibilities, Apollo 13's Capt. Lovell admitted that he had no idea whether they ever might become reality. It was a sad prediction, coming from the man who probably is the nation's most visible and popular spokesperson for taking Americans back to the moon.

Lovell said Al Rockwell of the Rockwell Corp. had once proposed to him that a bond issue might allow private investors to launch their own space program -- one not controlled by governments or subject to political sentiment.

Was there a hangup? Yes, Lovell said, shaking his head: Insurance. No one would back such an enterprise with the necessary coverage.

It's like a knife in the back. Those futuristic visions of interplanetary flight, sightseeing excursions on the moon, domed cities on Mars -- fading into oblivion because the actuarial tables forbid it.

Unless a new enthusiasm for manned space travel re-emerges in the form of a new national -- or multi-national -- goal, the year 2001 may come with humankind still lounging listlessly on its home planet, aspiring to no greater new act of discovery than what occurred between 1969 and 1972.

And even that brief period someday may be forgotten, or regarded as a pointless exercise, too difficult or costly to bother with. Like climbing Everest. Or crossing an ocean. Or conceiving of anything new and strange and marvelous.



RELATED COMMENTS
by APOLLO 13 astronaut FRED HAISE


The following questions posed by John C. Sherwood to Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise are excerpted from the Space.com live chat conducted April 11, 2000, on the 30th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 13. (To read the complete chat, go to the transcript.)


John Sherwood: Do you believe the problems encountered and/or revealed during the Apollo 13 mission contributed to the funding cuts that curtailed the Apollo program?

Fred Haise: No, I do not believe that is the case. NASA was concerned with moving on to the next program with sufficient funding, which was Skylab.



John Sherwood: When I interviewed Jim Lovell for a newspaper in 1995, I asked if he had any insight into why private enterprise has not "gone orbital" -- for example, with "space factories." He replied that insurers are unwilling to cover the potential liability. Do you agree, and do you have any additional insights or comments about the issues of "space insurance" or "space industry"?

Fred Haise: Jim is right as far as ongoing operations, but a very basic problem is to gather enough investor money to get through the development cycle, which is very costly.

John Sherwood: Do you believe that Jim Lovell's book, "Lost Moon," presented an accurate, balanced account of your Apollo mission? Can the same be said for Ron Howard's film version?

Fred Haise: Yes, Jim's book was very good, well documented, particularly for the flight side. For the ground side there was a book by Cooper called "Thirteen: The Flight That Failed." That was a very accurate portrayal of what happened on the ground. The movie was accurate, where it showed technical things like a launch or the actors free-floating and entry, the artifacts. The spacecraft, for example, were very accurate, as well as the Mission Control they built. Computer graphics were well done as well. There were a few exaggerations, of maneuvers that were done manually, of the vehicle motion. And most of the funny or spicy lines in the script were not ours.

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