America Beyond (After the Challenger Disaster)

By Michael Crichton

Originally Published 1988 in Popular Science magazine
The future of man in space, as anticipated by NASA on the eve of the resumption of space shuttle flights. 

Standing in the space station docking module, surrounded by windows. To my left and right extend gridword wings, silver against the black of space. Directly ahead, the curved roof of the habitation module, and the pale blue of the Earth beyond. I’m here trying to unload the payload from the space shuttle, and it’s making me very nervous.

“Go negative Y, negative Y” says the voice, and I push the joystick left, controlling a delicate robot arm. Looking up, I can see the arm swinging the giant white payload cylinder over my head, toward the hab module.

“Down on Z axis — no, the other way — now your correct yaw — no, the yaw — uh oh! Soft alarm.”

A yellow button flashes. My console screens shift color. “What did I do?”

“Your robot arm is too tight against the payload.” Looking at the monitors, I see that this is true. “Go to your menu. Switch to single joint mode.”

Standing beside me in the simulator at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Blaine Brown talks me through the payload docking. I am practicing something that no human being will do in real life for at least five years, but procedures for 1995 must be tested now. The simulator evaluates docking procedures and console instrumentation for the Station yet to be built, and it’s realistic enough to make me sweat.

In fact, one of the pleasures of the Johnson Space Center, 20 miles south of Houston, is that visitors can get a real sense of what it’s like to live in space, both now and in the future. Manned spaceflight is the special province of JSC; the astronauts are trained here; so all the simulators and mockups are here. You can see the Skylab mockup, the space station of 1973 and you can see the mockup of the Space Station scheduled for construction in 1995. You can also see the shuttle simulators and WETS, the huge tank where astronauts practice their extra-vehicular activities, or EVAs.

Our future in space is constantly surprising. Nothing is quite the way you think it will be. It’s ironic that astronauts should practice EVAs in a giant water tank, because it turns out that EVAs are dangerous, not for the traditional science-fiction reasons of floating away or being punctured by meteorites, but because spacesuits are maintained at less than 1 atmosphere pressure, and decompression problems are possible.

“If you put a doppler echocardiogram on an astronaut,” says James Waligora of JSC’s biomedical research unit, “you can hear the bubbles of gas going through his heart on EVA.” The prospect of an astronaut getting the bends or an air embolism, haunts the space program. There’s also the practical matter that astronauts must sit for 4 hours of tedious pre-breathing before an EVA, requiring 10 hours of astronaut time to do 6 hours of EVA work. Astronaut time is valued at $1 million an hour.

Something better is needed for the space station, where astronauts are expected to assemble the Mars ships in orbit.

The obvious solution is a higher pressure suit, but a high pressure suit is stiffer, particularly the gloves, where hand fatigue becomes a serious problem. The astronauts themselves prefer the more dangerous low pressure suits, because they like more flexible gloves.

The present suits have other problems, too. Quick action is impossible. If something — say, a vital tool — floats away from the space station, an astronaut can’t go get it because he needs 4 hours just to get into his suit. By then, the tool will be long gone. And when astronauts do EVAs, they work on a buddy system, but only one person is really working. The other serves as a helper, passing tools, holding things.

To answer these problems, robotics teams at Johnson are making an automated buddy, called the EVA Retriever. Lucky visitors occasionally glimpse the Retriever being tested at Johnson.

If a tool is lost, the Retriever can immediately go pick it up. Its video and laser imaging eyes distinguish among visual targets; its programs can inspect the tool and decide where to grab it. In addition, the Retriever will also serve as a perfect dumb assistant for astronauts, following simple verbal commands such as “hand me the wrench” or “hold this for me.”

Hands are a traditional robotics problem. Cliff Hess of JSC talks about making “smart hands” for robots, hands that sense when something is within their grasp, hands that can feel how tightly they are squeezing, hands that can manipulate an object between their fingers, as we can turn a fork or a screwdriver. In fact, robotic technology has advanced remarkably in the last few years.

In one lab, I tossed a baseball to a smart robot hand, which caught it perfectly every time — except when it got too quick, and caught the ball between its fingertips. I shook hands with this Utah/MIT hand, and its grip was gentle and precise, although its infrared sensors gave it a slight quiver, as if hinting at more to come.

“What’s America’s future in space?” Rick Chappell pauses, looks out the window at the beautiful rolling hills of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. This is Von Braun territory, the place where NASA’s propulsion systems are designed, a place of pragmatic, hard-nosed men. Visitors see signs of that tough legacy everywhere, from the tiny primitive bunkers where we tested our first rocket motors (now an historical preservation site) to the giant concrete superstructures used to check modifications in the shuttle engines after Challenger.

Chappell is tough-minded too, and his message has its grim side. “Every commission that has looked at what we ought to do in space — the Payne Commission, the Ride Report, the National Commission on Space, the National Academy of Sciences — has recommended the same thing,” he says. “A vigorous program in both space science and in manned flight. We should have a program to study our Earth from a variety of orbiting platforms. We should have a robotic exploration of the solar system. We should go back to the moon, reach out to Mars, and ultimately colonize both places, as a part of man’s eventual release from the bonds of this planet.”

Chappell points out that the American public agrees: polls show that 67% of Americans want a vigorous space program, and 72% favor a joint US-Soviet mission to Mars.

Will we do it?

“I hope so,” Chappell says. “The future could be just incredible.” But then he frowns. He doesn’t say what we are both thinking.

Present trends are not so encouraging.

Russia, the first nation to put a satellite in space, the first nation to put a man into orbit, is now the pre-eminent space-faring nation on Earth, far surpassing the United States. Last year, Russia accounted for almost 90% of the world’s orbital launches. We launched 7 rockets into orbit. Russia launched 110 — and much of that supporting a manned program. The Soviets have now put eight space stations into orbit, and have logged three times as many man-years in space as we have, although 15 years ago, we were in the lead.

Looking to the 21st Century, both Russia and China have defined space as a priority, to promote national pride, to stimulate technological competitiveness and to focus their societies. We, on the other hand, seem to be backing away.

It is not a good sign.

“I don’t want to sound negative,” Rick Chappell says, but the statistics are disturbing. American education is faltering, especially in science and engineering. Ten years ago, Americans made 75% of the world’s new discoveries. Now we make 50%. If present trends continue, in ten years we will make only 30%. America has always competed with advanced technology, but we are slipping fast.

From that standpoint, the American space program — haphazardly funded, indifferently supported — is only symptomatic of a more general American decline. We are becoming a country without a dream, a country without a committment. A lazy and self-centered country, where people don’t want to do things because they are too hard.

“I think,” Rick Chappell says, “we should be going to space because it is hard.” Chappell sees investment in space as an investment in national pride and technological standing, a setting of priorities, and a signal to young people about where the country is headed. These issues go far beyond space, and have to do with the whole sense of what the country is doing.

What about the cost of the space program, at a time of budget deficits? What about our priorities, our pressing problems on planet Earth, such as the environment? Why spend the money to go to space?

In a competitive, technological world, we can’t afford not to go. And Chappell points out that out of a total national budget of one trillion dollars, an annual expenditure of 20 billion on space is not burdensome. The Defense Department spends 30 times what NASA does, and a small part of that could easily be diverted to civilian space.

“Sooner or later,” says Chappell, “we’ll have to decide whether we want to spend our money on activities that bring the nations of the Earth together, or on activities that keep them apart.”

If Congress can’t grasp that space is vital to America’s future, youngsters sense it instinctively. Outside Marshall is the Alabama Space and Rocket Center, where visitors can crawl inside an Apollo capsule, walk through Skylab, and take rides that give them a sense of weightlessness and high-g acceleration. Space Camp is also located here, and last year 19,000 youngsters, a third of them girls, came to Huntsville to attend. The number of kids has been increasing steadily every year since the camp opened.

One ten year-old was interviewed on TV after his week at camp. Asked about the future, he spoke of colonies on the moon, and trips to Mars. The reporter said, “How are you going to get the Congress to pay for it?”

“Maybe your Congress won’t,” the ten-year old said. “But mine will.”

At the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. visitors are reminded that the history of manned flight is a peculiarly American undertaking — something we have dominated from the days of Kitty Hawk. Two blocks from the museum, in NASA’s newly formed Office of Exploration, Alan Ladwig considers where we’ll go next.

Mars is the next great emotional objective, the next target to fire the imagination, but Mars is far, both in distance and in time. “The moon isn’t very far away,” Ladwig says. “You can go and come back in a few days. But the shortest scenario for a round trip to Mars is 15 months, and some scenarios run almost three years.”

What’s the best way to go? The Ride Report recommended the “split sprint,” in which an unmanned cargo vessel is put in orbit around Mars, followed by a manned flight that would take 15 months — 440 days, including 30 days in orbit around the planet. Astronaut Michael Collins argues for the “Venus Flyby”, which would take 22 months — 660 days, with 2 months at Mars. Other possibilities include orbiting the red planet with a manned landing on Phobos, which is much easier, but which lacks the excitement of a Martian landing. Ladwig’s office won’t even make a recommendation about the best way to go until 1992. And there won’t be an actual flight to Mars until 2004 or so. For Ladwig, even the quickest journeys will require demonstrated technology that does not, at the moment, exist.

“To take a single example,” he says, “we talk about assembling the Mars ships in low earth orbit, using personnel from the Space Station. But at Cape Kennedy they need hundreds of people to assemble the shuttle. We won’t have all those people up there. It’s not clear to me that anyone has taken a hard look at whether we can really do assembly in orbit.”

There are other questions, too. Long term effects of weightlessness include bone decalcification, muscle atrophy, neuromuscular incoordinarion. We know little about countermeasures. “If we send a man to Mars, we’d like to be sure he’ll be able to walk when he arrives.” Some Russian cosmonauts have lived in orbit for more than the 8 months of a Martian journey — but landing on Earth, they’ve had to be carried from the spacecraft.

“I’m certain we can work all this out,” Ladwig says. “But right now, as we sit here, the studies haven’t been done.”

In the far corner of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, miles from the excitement of the launch complexes that draws so many visitors each year, across the causeway near the manatee preserve, is Building L, where Bill Knott runs CELSS: Controlled Ecological Life Support System. At its center is a hyperbaric chamber once used to test Mercury capsules. Surrounding the chamber are two storeys of giant air handlers, filters and pumps, miles of tubing, thousands of wires. All for a simple purpose.

Bill Knott is trying to grow food for one man in space.

People have talked about glibly about growing food for years, but Knott is, in his words, “actually trying to do it.” It’s not so easy. He has massive technical problems growing wheat, potatoes and soy in a closed environmental loop. And he’s also worried about the psychological problems for the crew.

Knott asked a University nutrition department for recipes using the six foods he knew he could grow. “They gave us about 200 recipes, of which maybe 35 were doable.” It’s not enough. “They told us they needed tomatoes, and we hadn’t planned to grow tomatoes. And you need a source of oil for cooking. The astronauts’ll have flour, but bread is hard to make if you don’t have eggs and milk.”

Will astronauts be vegetarians? “Not necessarily,” Knott says. “We’re trying to get some meat in there.” One system he is studying involves growing Tilapia, a trash fish. In one laboratory, spinach grows on hydroponic stems, nourished by the waste of swimming fish in an adjacent tank. But will this system work energetically? Too soon to tell.

Once Knott has refined his systems, automation will be required: “you can’t turn the astronauts into farmers,” he says. “They can’t spend all their time on a trip to Mars taking care of the food supply.”

They also can’t spend all their time exercising to counteract the effects of weightlessness, as some Russian cosmonauts have done. Nearly everyone assumes that astronauts will, in the end, require some degree of artificial gravity.

“How much gravity is enough?” asks Sam Pool of JSC. “It’s the biggest question facing the life sciences.” It turns out you want as little gravity as possible, for four reasons.

First, it’s hard to go back and forth between weightlessness and gravity. It’s nauseating, and hand-eye coordination suffers. It’s much more comfortable to stay in either a weightless or gravity environment. Astronauts making EVAs during the flight to Mars would go back and forth many times, experiencing difficulty each time.

Second, in a rotating environment, there is a gravity gradient depending on how far out along the spokes of the wheel you are. Near the center, weightless, near the rim, full weight. This means if you are sitting at a table and lift a coffee cup to your mouth, the cup gets lighter as it approaches your mouth, and heavier as it goes back to the table.

Third, a rotating environment also creates a coriolus effect. Liquids and air tend to swirl, depending on their orientation to the direction of rotation. It can be quite confusing.

And finally, building and controlling a spinning environment is much more complex and expensive.

It turns out each of these problems is diminished as gravity is diminished, so scientists hope to work with as little gravity as possible. Hence the question, how much is enough? Pool says, “It may turn out that a combination of one sixth gravity and exercise is just right. But at the moment, nobody knows.”

Other health problems are equally difficult. Astronauts in a closed environment undergo “microbial simplification” — in essence, they quickly share the same germs. Immune responses are affected. And Stuart Nachtwey talks about the need for shielded “storm shelters” to protect the crew from the radiation of solar flares. One burst of sunspot activity could wipe out an unprotected Mars crew before they ever reached their destination.

It turns out we were lucky going to the moon — dangerous solar radiation only occurred between flights. But on a 15-22 month Mars mission, we cannot risk unprotected crews.

What about severe, life threatening illness? Jeff Davis, Chief Flight Surgeon for the astronauts, says “my personal feeling is that we will not be able to do major abdominal surgery in flight” to Mars. Statistically, astronauts experience one major health problem in 120 months. That means statistically, an 8 man Mars crew is likely to have somebody get into medical trouble during the course of the trip.

“We can handle a lot,” Davis says. “But we won’t be able to handle everything.”

The early days of spaceflight were short on amenities. It’s said that when ground crews opened the three-man Apollo capsules back from the moon, the stench was breathtaking. The shuttle is roomier and more pleasant, but its toilet is notorious: smelly, noisy, despised by crews. This is tolerable for 4 to 7-day flights in space. But what will long-duration life in space be like?

Moving down the Space Station mockup at Johnson, we come to the crew quarters. Inside, the station is square; crewmen live on each of the four walls (including floor and ceiling, since in orbit there’s no up and down.) Each personal space is roughly the size of a small walk-in closet, containing a computer, TV screen, VCR, lockers, and a porthole. They’ll sleep in wall-mounted sleeping bags, and will call home to their families every night. “The Russians found that was the key to long periods in space,” I am told. “They’ve got to be able to call home every night.”

It’s startling how familiar that sounds. I’m on the road, and I call home every night, too. It starts to sink in: people are really going to do this, they’re really going to live in space for 6 months and it’s going to be almost normal. Space is going to become just another place.

Further down the hab module is the toilet (extensively revised) and a vacuum shower (slow, but it works). Then the medical station, and the galley. Where’s the exercise equipment? They point up. It’s directly above me, mounted on the ceiling. The galley is pleasant, white and clean. I try to imagine what it will be like to sit here with my feet hooked into foot restraints and eat a meal while someone else sits upside down in front of me on a rowing machine.

Racks of food pull down from the ceiling, each meal individually wrapped: lots of trash. Astronauts produce one cubic foot of trash a day. It has to be compacted, and then disposed of. Aboard the shuttle, trash is compacted by stuffing it in a bag and then stomping on it. But this is not a satisfactory arrangment for eight astronauts living in space for 180 days at a time; the space station will have a compactor. It will also have essentially earth food; a great improvement over what astronauts once had. But the food will be trucked up from earth, and the trash taken back down.

Listening to the explanations, it becomes clear that LEO — Low Earth Orbit — is still very much a part of earth. The Space Station is not separate from the earth, but rather a remote outpost, like Antartica. Its environmental loops are not truly closed. It is not truly independent. True independence for man in space lies in the future.

The precariousness of our future is symbolized at Lockheed’s Missile and Space facility in Sunnyvale, California, where the Hubble Space Telescope is finally being readied for shipment to the Cape. The first of NASA’s Four Great Observatories, which will scan the Universe across the entire electromagnetic spectrum of visible light, gamma, X-rays, and infrared, the Space Telescope was planned in 1974 to cost $500 million, eventually cost $2 billion, had its launch postponed by the Challenger disaster, and now costs NASA $6 million a year in storage — an amount equivalent to the entire budget of the Office of Exploration in Washington. The HST launch has recently been postponed once again, from June 1989 to November 1990.

he Hubble Space Telescope will be exciting when it’s finally launched, literally giving us a view on the universe never before possible — but can we afford to have such uncertain access to space?

This is how we got to the moon: Werner Von Braun of Huntsville strapped nine proven rockets together to make the Saturn 1 — and then he strapped together five of those clusters to make the mighty Saturn 5. In essence, we rode to the moon on 45 previously proven rockets coupled with an absolute minimum of new technology.

Another Huntsville project in the Von Braun tradition is the unmanned Shuttle-C, intended for startup in 1991. Utilizing existing boosters, rockets, and launch facilities, it gives NASA a heavy lift capability at minimal cost.

Although the shuttle can lift 240,000 pounds into orbit, the orbiter itself weighs 200,000 pounds. This means the payload is only about 40,000 pounds, which is not enough for the 1990’s. But the unmanned Shuttle-C can lift 170,000 pounds, with greater launch schedule reliability, at half the cost.

Woven into the schedule of manned flights, Shuttle-C would enable the space station to be built in 19 months, instead of 38 months. And Shuttle-C can, for example, lift a Mars Rover probe and its Centaur Rocket into orbit. ( In fact, it can lift two into orbit at one time.) For scientific teams like the Jet Propulsion Lab, which have been fighting probe weight with expensive miniaturization, Shuttle-C offers aftractive possibilities. And NASA desperately needs an alternative to the manned orbiter.

If Shuttle-C represents the sensible near future, what’s farther ahead? One place to look is the Ames Research Center outside San Francisco. Here, amid a startling, unworldly landscape of giant pipes and enormous braced tubes — the wind tunnels that have made Ames a world-renowned — some of NASA’s most advanced work is being done. It hints at a bizarre and startling future to come.

For example, the National Aero-Space Plane, the “Orient Express” intended to fly at Mach 22 from New York to Tokyo in an hour, is now being studied with the most powerful supercomputers in the world. But it isn’t just a matter of airflows and wing structure — the computers at Ames are also doing molecular chemistry.

Project spokesman James Arnold points out that “the aero-space plane will be literally flying in an inferno — at temperatures of 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, where most metals liquify and run.” At such extremes, the hot metal surfaces react chemically with molecules of air flowing over them, affecting performance. And hydrogen ions in its exhaust flow into the metal of the plane, changing the aircraft in what is called “hydrogen embrittlement” — flexible metal may now shatter like glass. Then, when the airplane enters space and cools, the supersaturated hydrogen ions may leave the aircraft so rapidly, like soda fizzing over in a bottle, that they literally explode the airplane. It is as if the whole airplane is subject to the bends.

Faced with these exotic problems, Arnold says it will take three years of intensive study to decide whether the NASP is buildable at all in the forseeable future. But as Arnold says, “that’s what turns us on — the challenges.”

Computer simulations of a different sort can be found in the Life Sciences building, where Steve Bryson and Rick Jacoby demonstrate the Virtual Interactive Environment, known locally as “the helmet.” It’s almost unbelievable: a system out of 21st century science fiction.

You wear a special glove, and a headset which contains an LCD screen on which is projected a computer image of a different room. As you walk and turn your head, the projected view before your eyes changes. The illusion is uncanny. You can push objects around in this other room, bounce balls off the walls, manipulate robot arms. You can make Macintosh-like menus that hang in space, and you can grab the menus in your hand and move them out of the way if they’re blocking your view. . You can ride up and down escalators.

Yet none of this is “there,” in the real world. Flip up your helmet, and you’re standing in an ordinary room at Ames. Flip down the helmet, and you are back in some other, very exotic world.

What good is the system? Operators can control distant robots with precision, taking them over; already the Mars Rover’s eyes have been linked up to the helmet. Earthbound scientists can walk through graphic displays of their data, inspecting it from all sides. Astronauts can use menus and diagrams inside their helmets on EVA.

In fact, the Virtual Interactive Environment is so revolutionary it seems a little like the first computers — it’ll be a few years before people figure out all the things it can be used for.

Back in the real world, at Launch Complex 39 at Cape Kennedy, one day before the launch of STS-26, Discovery. It’s the first launch in two and a half years since Challenger. It’s one day before the 30th anniversary of NASA. Roughly 30 years after Sputnik, roughly 20 years after the landing on the moon. And one day before the signing of the international agreement on the Space Station in Washington.

America is going back in space.

Five thousand members of the press are here at Kennedy; NASA’s overloaded; the weather’s sticky; the press is irritable and complaining until sundown, when everybody goes out in buses to LaunchComplex 39B.

Then all the complaining stops. Everyone falls silent, standing before the most expensive and dangerous departure lounge in the world. In the darkness, the shuttle is brilliantly illuminated by searchlights which streak far into the night sky. Discovery shines like a jewel. As hundreds of press photographers swat mosquitoes and snap their photos, the shuttle appears like a cathedral, a great edifice reaching toward the heavens, brightly illuminated.

Emotions come unbidden, the realization that the exploration of space is the great human adventure of our century. It is a profoundly romantic undertaking, and it is unquestionably expensive and dangerous, as exploration throughout human history has always been. But this is the next step, and it is ours to take.

To the south, Mars glows brilliantly, at its closest approach in 17 years. Von Braun wanted to go there by 1985. The Agnew Commission recommended we go there by 1985. Mars will be close again, after the year 2000.

Will we go then, with the Soviets?

“It’s going to take consistent funding, starting right now,” says Alan Ladwig. “In the polls, Americans say overwhelmingly they want to go to Mars, but Congress says they get more mail about social security checks. People are going to have to speak up, and make sure that the President and the Congress understand that space is important to them.”

And international cooperation will require a new sophistication. “At the moment,” says J.R. Thompson of Marshall Space Flight Center, “we can’t even get the nations of the world to come together on a 4 year basis for the Olympics. In any given year, some come, some are mad. We have Vietnam, the Russians have Afghanistan. We stop talking. But for a joint Mars mission over twenty years, we’re going to have to keep talking right through whatever the problems of any particular year are.” Thompson pauses, smiles. “That alone would make it worth while.”