This marks the first in what I hope will be a series of historical comments on NASA’s transition away from the Space Shuttle. Robert R. MacGregor, a Princeton grad student writing a dissertation on rocket design in the US and Soviet Union, kicks us off.
Upon my request, Bob offered a host of powerful historical frameworks to help us think about scuttling the shuttle. Part of what Bob suggested was that we consider this transition alongside the earlier decision to replace the Apollo program with the space shuttle program in the first place. I was struck by one of his side points about the disjoint between the powerful narratives we all know of technological progress and what actually happened to manned space flight:
A big part of why Apollo hoax conspiracy theories are so successful is precisely because the space race narrative doesn’t fit in with the narrative of technological progress. Why would we go to the moon and then just stop? It doesn’t make sense—if technology is getting better—that we could go to the moon and then not go back for a half century. How could the Europeans have ignored the New World after Columbus came back? While the original Apollo hoax believers were a small minority, and the public cheered Buzz Aldrin when he punched Bart Sibrel in the face while filming a documentary on the moon landing conspiracy, these arguments only gain credibility as time goes on.
You might ask, what alternative narrative is there? Well, the Soviet Union never publicly saw the space race as a race to the moon, and indeed the entire Soviet lunar effort was only made public in the late 1980’s during glasnost. For the Soviet Union, the narrative focused on Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, who kicked off the rest of the narrative with a bang, but left its ending unfinished.I’d like to suggest that the real answer is that space flight is hard and it’s not getting any easier. It’s not the kind of problem that better computers or better plastics solve, and the technology involved only gradually gets better over time. It’s a drag-out slugfest with nature that will always be dangerous and expensive. So instead of Columbus and his conquistador followers, who found a tropical paradise comparatively emptied of its inhabitants by disease and easily overrun with guns and horses, perhaps the better metaphor to the moon landings were the Norse Vikings who, in the early 11th century, landed at L’Anse aux Meadows in Canada and built a small settlement. They, unlike the Spaniards, didn’t find a lush and inviting paradise with cities of gold, but instead found a hostile, bitter environment full of people intent on killing them far from their home and loved ones. They decided to leave. No Europeans would come back for four hundred years.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments. More smart NASA comments coming this week.