Short Cuts

John Lanchester

Nasa has awarded the contract to build the next generation of human-manned space rocket – called, rather nicely, Orion – to a consortium headed by Lockheed Martin. This announcement was surprising for a number of reasons, but one of the most unexpected aspects was that it happened at all. The Bush administration has been so lavish with its rhetoric and promises of funding and so scanty with its delivery – in relation to the reconstructions of Afghanistan, Iraq and New Orleans, and Aids, for example – that it takes one off guard to see a pledge leading to some cash action. (Note that this promise dates back to the first Bush, who pledged to send a man to Mars as far back as 1989. Maybe this is another one of those Bush family Oedipal dramas.) No doubt it helps that this is a military-industrial boondoggle, Lockheed Martin’s contract being worth an initial $3.9 billion.

That might sound like a lot of money, but by the standards of manned space exploration, it isn’t. It takes Nasa 15,000 engineers to keep the shuttle running, for instance, at an annual cost of around $5 billion. That’s one reason the design for Orion is a return to the old model of a space rocket, with a capsule on the end of a giant stack of boosters. Everything about the shuttle is horribly out of fashion, so much so that it’s hard to remember that it was once seen as an engineering wonder. But then, after the crash of first Challenger and then Columbia, and the rising costs and the general sense that it wasn’t doing anything useful, and the related doubts over the International Space Station, whose own costs escalated from $8 billion to $100 billion, the shuttle became an official, all-round flop. And the main reason for that was and is the two terrible crashes.

The plane-like look of the shuttle is misleading. It can be manoeuvred about in space with its thrusters, but on the way there and the way back it isn’t much more flyable than the old capsule design – whose inhabitants were, for large parts of their flight, so passive that Chuck Yeager described them as ‘spam in a can’. For one thing, the solid-fuel launch rocket can’t be switched off or throttled back once it has been ignited. So basically, the shuttle astronauts are sitting attached to a fucking great bomb. On the way back, the shuttle was always said to be ‘flying’ or sometimes, more accurately, ‘gliding’ – but that is a relative term. A commercial airliner at cruising altitude and speed, for instance, has a glide ratio of roughly 15 to 1. If its engines cut out it will travel forward 15 metres for every metre it falls. So if all the engines conk out at 35,000 feet the pilot has getting on for a hundred miles to land; a reassuring thought, I find. The shuttle on its unpowered descent – bear in mind that it isn’t flying – has a glide ratio of 4 to 1. That means it is dropping out of the sky, and those soothing images of it coasting in to land are highly deceptive: that thing is falling out of the sky with the aerodynamic panache of a giant can of baked beans.

Travelling into space tied to a huge stick of dynamite, and falling back out of space like a huge breeze block, are inherently dangerous things to do. It may be that in time the shuttle’s failure rate – one crash for every 50 flights – will come not to seem, by the harsh standards of manned space exploration, outlandishly high. Nasa might do well to stress this riskiness, instead of acting all drawlingly, tranquillisingly confident. On past evidence, the interest of the relevant public, who tend not to forget that they are a paying public, fades very fast. After Apollo 11, interest in the moon landings fell off sharply. The near disaster of Apollo 13 caused a brief spike of interest, but by Apollo 16 people were calling the television networks to complain that the astronauts were getting in the way of I Love Lucy – indeed, repeats of I Love Lucy.

Nasa failed to convey the drama and difficulty of what they were doing. One of the things that has become increasingly clear in retrospect about the Apollo missions is just how fantastically dangerous they were. Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins – the latter being the man who orbited the moon in the command module while the other two members of Apollo 11 walked on the surface – both estimated the probability that the moon-walkers would return alive at about 50 per cent; a fact each of them kept to himself until afterwards. It’s hard to imagine what the impact of Apollo 11 would have been had Armstrong and Aldrin died. Even on the leisurely time-scale envisioned by the current programme – which doesn’t have people returning to the moon until 2020 at the earliest – the risks are going to be high, perhaps higher than a contemporary public is willing to accept, unless the risks are made part of the story. The fact that the gap between the last moon landings and the projected next ones will be half a century – 1972 to 2020 – makes it clear what an extraordinary thing Apollo was. You could argue, as many do, that it was extraordinarily pointless; but you can’t deny that it was extraordinary. If two or three people near you have a mobile phone, you’re currently in possession of more computing power than those famous, much-photographed banks of Nasa hardware.

As for the trip to Mars, there won’t be one for a very long time. Not unless the Chinese start to look as if they’re going to do it first, and we have another space race. That would mean we were past the current imperial age and back in the one we all miss so much, that of competitive willy-wagging on the part of two superpowers.