YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Book Review : Glitches in the Forward March of Space Aviation

June 17, 1986|LEE DEMBART

Pioneering the Space Frontier: The Report of the National Commission on Space (Bantam: $14.95)

Report of the Presidential Commission on the Shuttle Challenger Accident (U.S. Government Printing Office, 710 N. Capitol St., Washington, D.C. 20401: $18; order no. 040-000-00496-3)

Does anybody recognize the name Tom Selfridge? On Sept. 17, 1908, he became the first person killed in an airplane crash. The accident happened at a flying exhibition outside Washington with Orville Wright piloting the plane. Wright was severely injured.

It was a big new story news then. Kaiser Wilhelm II cabled condolences to the family, and Selfridge, an Army lieutenant, was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. But the crash is forgotten today, a glitch in the unbridled progress of aviation in this century.

Eighty years from now, the crash of the space shuttle Challenger, which consumes our attention today, will be as little remembered as Tom Selfridge's death in Orville Wright's airplane. It is important to determine what went wrong aboard Challenger in order to fix it, but in the long run, the shuttle accident is unlikely to occupy a major chapter in the history of the exploration of space.

The Long View

All but overshadowed by the Challenger disaster and the Rogers Commission that investigated it was the work of the National Commission on Space, which spent a year looking into the next century and laying out a proposal for an American space program. The 15-member commission, which was chaired by Thomas O. Paine, the administrator of NASA during the first lunar landing, was directed to assume that the shuttle and the space station were in place and to envision a realistic, affordable program for the next 50 years.

The commission delivered its report to the President in May. It sees no diminution in America's commitment to maintain and expand its activities in space. It calls for the development of the next generation of launch vehicles beyond the shuttle, leading to full-scale, full-time bases on the moon and on Mars in the next 40 years. These stations would enable human and robotic pioneers to use the moon and Mars for scientific and commercial purposes and would lead to the exploration of the outer planets in the second half of the next century.

The commission says its proposals "will return solid benefits to the nation at every step--in the form of knowledge, productive technologies, economic returns, national security, motivation, inspiration and national prestige."

To the text of the commission's report, Bantam Books has added nearly two dozen original paintings of artists' conceptions of future activities in space and published the whole kit and caboodle as an oversized paperback. Decades from now, the book will probably have the quaint look of visions of the future from the 1939 World's Fair.

A Cloudy Crystal Ball

The commission knows well that trying to foretell the future almost always turns out wrong. It opens its report by noting that few people in 1935 could have made a good guess about what aviation would be like in 1985, and there is no reason to think that today's prognosticators will have a better track record when their work is matched against the reality of 2035.

But, they point out, they are not trying to predict the future so much as to lay out a realistic strategy that can be followed if the country chooses to. Since the Apollo program, it has been said, America's space efforts have lacked a clearly defined goal. What is it that we are trying to achieve in space? The space commission says that the national interest requires full speed ahead toward using current technology and developing new technology to push the frontiers further back.

No Proof Is Possible

But it simply asserts these things without proving them. In fact, of course, no proof is possible. One either believes that this is important, or one does not. The commission believes it. "It is . . . difficult for Americans this early in the Space Age to visualize the 21st-Century technologies that will enable the average citizen to soar into orbit at low cost, to fly to new worlds beyond Earth, and to work and live on the space frontier in closed-ecology biospheres using robotically-processed local resources," the report says. "Continuing technological progress in astronautics, robotics, and closed-ecology biospherics will make this possible."

One hesitates to burst the bubble by noting that the commission's assertions about the affordability of such a space enterprise are completely unsupported and should be questioned. Recall that when the space shuttle was sold to Congress in 1972, NASA asserted that because it was reusable, the shuttle would reduce the cost of launching cargo to orbit to as low as $100 a pound. The actual cost is at least 30 times as high, with the result that the shuttle will never make a profit or even break even.

Los Angeles Times Articles