Fifty years ago, NASA found the best use for a ballistic missile and put Alan Shepard into space. He was the first American to go up in a rocket, and would become the first man to play golf on the moon.
I'm a bit of a space nut, and I get to write about it at work -- which is great. In doing so I ran across this puzzling essay by Neal Stephenson. In it, he describes the creation and reliance of rockets as examples of "path dependence" and "lock-in." That's all well and good (I guess), but this is the bit that always stuck with me.
It is illuminating here, though utterly conjectural, to imagine a dialog, set in the offices of a large telecommunications firm during the 1960s, between a business development executive and an engineer.
Biz Dev Guy: We could make a preposterous amount of money from communications satellites.
Engineer: It will be expensive to build those, but even so, nothing compared to the cost of building the machines needed to launch them into orbit.
Biz Dev Guy: Funny you should mention that. It so happens that our government has already put $4 trillion into building the rockets and supporting technology we need. There's only one catch.
Engineer: OK, I'll bite. What is the catch?
Biz Dev Guy: Your communications satellite has to be the size, shape, and weight of a hydrogen bomb.
This last line was particular haunting. At first I was struck by the hideous, evil spectre hanging over the entire space program: that it was built from the most terrifying weapons ever conceived. I think Stephenson intends this unsettling sensation. I have, however, come to a new conclusion.
Instead of spending all our time and money in a completely paranoid spiral plotting the hideous demise of the enemies and shrewdly calculating the scale of human loss sustainable in the even of a nuclear holocaust, two nations put people into space. Instead of a shooting war, we had the space race, which is one of the few times in human history when our aspirations matched our willingness. Not since the pyramids have people been so motivated to achieve a great a goal that wasn't essential to their immediate safety and survival.
This has two sides, I suppose. It's depressing that it took the threat of nuclear war and national xenophobia to realize space exploration. But I prefer to look at the space race, and Shepard's first flight as a forgiving experience. In the wake of most horrific of wars, we turned fighter pilots into explorers and weapons into the vehicles that took us beyond the Earth.
Image credit NASA.