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