PTT, Dave Un­win

The de­sire for space is still there – will man make it to Mars any time soon?

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As a huge fan of all things space, I thought the re­cent su­per blue blood moon (al­though in the UK we didn’t see the blood bit as we weren’t part of the eclipse) was too good to miss. I went out­side on the evening of 31 Jan­u­ary and was very glad I did — it was well worth the ef­fort.

Coin­ci­den­tally I’d been greatly en­joy­ing read­ing the au­to­bi­og­ra­phy of as­tro­naut John Young that week. I have al­ways thought that be­ing an as­tro­naut is prob­a­bly the coolest job ever, and Young — who died re­cently — was known as ‘the as­tro­naut’s as­tro­naut’. In my opin­ion it sim­ply doesn’t get any cooler than that!

Born in 1930, Young grew up in Ge­or­gia dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion. As a naval avi­a­tor he flew Grum­man F9F Cougars and Vought F8 Cru­saders, be­fore be­com­ing a test pilot and set­ting a num­ber of time-to-climb records in a spe­cially stripped down F-4 Phan­tom, in­clud­ing climb­ing to 3,000 me­tres in less than 35 sec­onds – from a stand­ing start!

Young joined NASA in 1962 as one of the sec­ond group of as­tro­nauts. He flew in space six times and com­manded four dif­fer­ent types of space­ship. He flew in Gem­ini III and as com­man­der of Gem­ini X; in Apollo X — when he be­came the first per­son to fly solo around the moon — and as com­man­der of Apollo XVI, in the process be­com­ing one of only three men to have flown to the moon twice. Sit­ting on top of a Saturn V rocket about to blast off from Cape Canaveral’s his­toric Pad 39A must have been pretty ex­cit­ing. The thing was 111 me­tres tall (fif­teen higher than Big Ben’s clock tower) and weighed al­most 3,000 tonnes, most of which was fuel (RP-1, liq­uid hy­dro­gen, and liq­uid oxy­gen). And, as Mer­cury

John Young was known as ‘the as­tro­naut’s as­tro­naut’

as­tro­naut John Glenn mem­o­rably ob­served, “All of the two mil­lion com­po­nents had been built by the low­est bid­der on a govern­ment con­tract.”

Young was also the com­man­der of the first and ninth space shut­tle flights, fly­ing the shut­tle Columbia both times. STS-1 was par­tic­u­larly note­wor­thy as this was the first time that the US had not ini­tially flown a new type of space­craft un­manned. In an­other first for a manned space­craft, it used solid-rocket boost­ers. As the loss of Chal­lenger (STS-51) in 1986 and Columbia (STS-107) in 2003 were to prove, manned space­flight was — and al­ways will be — danger­ous. Yet, as Columbia blasted off from Pad 39A on 12 April 1981, in what has been de­scribed as ‘the bold­est test flight in his­tory’, Young’s pulse was recorded at only 70bpm! His ex­pla­na­tion? “I was so old it couldn’t go any faster!”

As well as be­ing a fine avi­a­tor, Young was also an ex­cep­tional en­gi­neer, who ap­par­ently had ‘an un­canny abil­ity’ to cut to the heart of a tech­ni­cal is­sue by pos­ing the per­fect ques­tion – fol­lowed by his iconic phrase, “Just ask­ing...”

Young even­tu­ally be­came Chief of the As­tro­naut Of­fice, and had the long­est ca­reer of any NASA as­tro­naut, even though he got in se­ri­ous trou­ble for smug­gling a corned beef sand­wich aboard Gem­ini III, and was fiercely crit­i­cal of NASA’S se­nior man­age­ment dur­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the Chal­lenger dis­as­ter.

His book is as dry as it’s fas­ci­nat­ing, and I feel sure that he would have got along fa­mously with an­other of my he­roes, Cap­tain James Cook. Cook wrote ‘Am­bi­tion leads me not only far­ther than any other man has been be­fore me, but as far as I think it pos­si­ble for man to go,’ and it’s clearly no co­in­ci­dence that NASA named two shut­tles En­deav­our and Dis­cov­ery af­ter ships com­manded by Cook.

So where to­day is the am­bi­tion that drove Cook and Young? As I gazed up at the moon on that cold Jan­u­ary evening two sober­ing sta­tis­tics sud­denly oc­curred to me. First, it will soon be an in­cred­i­ble fifty years since mankind slipped earth’s surly grav­i­ta­tional bonds and ven­tured out into the cos­mos, when Apollo VIII be­came the first manned space­ship to or­bit the moon. Sec­ond, of the twelve men who walked on the moon only five are still alive — and they are all in their eight­ies. No one has walked upon the lu­nar land­scape since 1972 and, un­less we re­turn to the moon soon, there will be no one alive who has left earth’s or­bit. I find both these facts rather de­press­ing.

How­ever, it’s not all doom and gloom. On the evening of 6 Fe­bru­ary I was glued to Youtube and watched Spacex’s Fal­con Heavy rocket suc­cess­fully blast off from Pad 39A, car­ry­ing Elon Musk’s own Tesla sports car into space. The lift off was fan­tas­tic, but the si­mul­ta­ne­ous ver­ti­cal land­ings of the side cores re­ally was some­thing else! Spacex claims that the Fal­con Heavy can not only lift dou­ble the mass of its near­est com­peti­tor, the Delta IV Heavy, but also that it costs only around one quar­ter of the price! By the time you read this, that Tesla Road­ster will have been suc­cess­fully placed into a ‘Hohmann trans­fer’ and be fly­ing in an el­lip­ti­cal or­bit around the sun.

It’s been a long time com­ing but, hope­fully, we’ve just seen the start of a long, long jour­ney that will cul­mi­nate in a manned Mars mis­sion — and I can’t wait!

Soon there will be no one alive who has left earth’s or­bit

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