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Going UP

April 26, 2012

“That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap, for Mankind.” -Neil Armstrong, 1969, in a live broadcast from the Moon.

But, WHAT a step, it was. Actually, it was the final step in a journey of a quarter-million miles, begun centuries ago by scientists, philosophers, and people with nothing better to do than play with hot steam and gunpowder, and theories and ideas. The Saturn V rocket that carried the Apollo astronauts to the Moon, decades ago, was a powerful instrument, advanced for its’ time, but largely under human guidance, constantly piping back its’ telemetry, its’ digital vital signs and those of the astronauts, to a cluster of trained specialists huddled around monitors and readout screens like a group of nervous husbands in the maternity ward waiting room, chain-smoking and biting their nails, waiting for the latest news.

But, where did the Saturn come from? Did someone just take Goddard’s toy and feed it ’til it got bigger? For he, too, was a ‘father’ of the modern space program, or at least, distant relative, in the woodpile back there somewhere, as were the German rocket scientists that worked on Hitler’s superweapons, the V-1, and V-2 rockets, designed and built to smash England like a bug, or at least, so went the theory. But, even Robert Goddard was not the First Rocketeer, no, the Chinese were really the first to build functional rockets, though even their success was roughly predated by europeans with their steam toy, for every action, there’s an equal, and opposite reaction, so quoth the science teacher, and with the Saturn, many tons of propellant were ignited under dangerous and somewhat-controlled conditions to propel the manned missile first into orbit, then in stages, all the way to the Moon.

To say that the Saturn project was a massive undertaking would probably be to make a serious understatment, for the development of Saturn was expensive, beyond expensive, incorporated barely-tried technologies, the support that could only be gained from an entire country and its’ good credit, using materials that were basically developed FOR the space program, that did not previously exist. It required the accumulation of resources, talented people, organizational geniuses, time, more money, and a good portion of luck, because in dealing with the forces involved in throwing 200+ tons into the heavens, catastrophe constantly awaited both the engineers as well as the astronauts whose lives were directly imperiled by any kind of malfunction once the launch had taken place.

So, pioneers duly honored, advancing forward to the 21st century, on the far end of many space launches from many countries, how can we do essentially the same job, but better, faster, and cheaper? And, more safely, and repeatedly?   How many Saturns’ worth of payload will it take to assemble the Mars mission, or on an even grander scale, the ambitions of the billionaire club to mine the asteroids and glean their untold riches?

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