This week Americans celebrated the successful delivery of NASA’s Perseverance rover at its destination on the Martian surface, marking the dawn of a new era of interplanetary exploration. However, when it comes to delving into the solar system around us, the United States has not always led the way. Under the Reagan administration, for example, the agency saw its budget cut in favor of building up the arms before an anticipated Cold War clash with the Soviet Union, as we see in this excerpt from David’s latest work. W Brown, The mission.
Extract from the book THE MISSION: or: How a follower of Carl Sagan, a former motocross racer, a congressman from the Texas Tea Party, the world’s worst typewriter saleswoman, California Mountain People and an anonymous NASA official went to war with Mars , survived an insurgency on Saturn, traded blows with Washington, and flew a ride on an Alabama moon rocket to send a space robot to Jupiter in search of the second Garden of Eden deep in a alien ocean inside an ice world called Europa (A true story) © 2021 by David W. Brown. From Custom House, a line of books by William Morrow / HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted with permission.
For planetary scientists, the Jimmy Carter – Ronald Reagan years were in retrospect like the Dark Ages, and they, the monks tending to the embers of civilization. For a solid decade from late 1978, NASA did not launch any planetary science missions, and about the only space science data reaching Earth came from Voyager 1 and 2 overflights of the most distant planets. solar system, where you’d get three weeks of data and then three to five years of silence – barely enough to support a whole field of scientific research. Voyager’s discoveries in Jupiter fueled the desire of the anxious planetary scientific community to return, but it forced Reagan to fund the Galileo spacecraft – something his administration worked diligently to avoid doing when it took over. power in 1981. The new president believed he had a mandate to cut non-defense spending, and he followed through, and if you weren’t building bombs, battleships, or Black Hawk helicopters, your budget was up for grabs – and they did. While NASA’s bottom line performed well overall, that money was largely directed to the space shuttle program, which had become something of a flying Statue of Liberty in the public imagination. Either way, the shuttle had military applications, including the deployment of spy satellites and, on paper at least, the theft of satellites from foreign governments. However, supply-side marauders would continue to get their pressure from the agency, which meant science. Before the toner was dry on the new presidential letterhead, the White House told NASA that Galileo, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the joint NASA-European Space Agency international solar polar mission to study the sun, it could keep two (for now). And just like that, Solar Polar was gone. The Europeans had invested more than a hundred million dollars in it, and America was thanking them for the trouble by withdrawing without warning, leaving the Europeans in turmoil. The massacre continued with the SEE spacecraft, the Venus Orbiting Imaging Radar: vaporized. This cancellation, too, went badly. If the polar solar abandonment was a surge of unintentional lust on America’s allies abroad, the cancellation of Venus was to less a rude gesture suggesting the same to planetary scientists at home.
But this Galileo mission – how it upset and annoyed the White House. How the administration wanted this monstrosity of half a billion dollars to be killed! This expedition to Jupiter. . . we – we had just been there with Voyager! Why were we even talking about it? For example, the Bureau of Management and Budget removed Galileo from its interim plan for the agency. As for those Voyager twin spaceships: What exactly was there to learn about the planets after Saturn, anyway? Uranus! Neptune! Did it matter? I mean, come on! Just issue the stop command, and we could also turn off this devil-spawned deep space network, these gigantic twenty-story radio antennas needed to talk to them. That’s two hundred and twenty-two million dollars saved overnight. Between Galileo and Voyager, we could cut costs by half a billion.
To somehow save what was becoming, even for foreigners, a sinking ship, the public began to rush. In one case, Stan Kent, a California engineer, created what he called the Viking Fund – a private, pass-the-hat effort to cover the costs for the Deep Space Network’s downlink time for Viking 1, the last surviving spacecraft on the surface of Mars. Donate now to feed a hungry robot – send checks to 3033 Moore Park Ave. # 27, San Jose, CA 95128. The Viking program was once the pinnacle of NASA space science, the agency’s most ambitious effort since the Apollo program, and, once conceived, a potential forerunner of the obvious heir to Apollo: human missions to the planet Mars.
Between 1965 and 1976, NASA had maintained a regular sequence of sophisticated Mars probes. Mariner 4, a flyby in 1965, was humanity’s first successful encounter with the Red Planet. Mariners 6 and 7 followed four years later, imagining the entire Martian disc up close, and these images, stitched together, revealed a real rotating planet – just like Earth. Mariner 9 in 1971 was the first spacecraft to orbit another planet, mapping Mars in high resolution and capturing dust storms and weather conditions. Like the lines that flow in the book of Genesis, each spacecraft has successively made Mars a world as real as ours. By the time the Viking landers left the launch pads at Cape Canaveral in 1975, there was no hope for extant alien civilizations, but flora and fauna of some form were still on the table. And the question remained – the ultimate question – the same one that had fueled fiction and agitated scientists for centuries: what did this Martian fauna look like?
The American space program has always walked inexorably towards Mars. Before the Eagle landed – even before the first naut – cosmo, taiko or astro – before Sputnik–even before the formation of NASA itself – there was The Mars project, a speculative work of fiction by Wernher von Braun, the German rocket scientist moved to the United States immediately after World War II. Not a mere thought experiment or a fancy flight – no ray guns, no saucermen – the plot was a thin varnish on How to Do It, and the author was the person most likely to achieve it. Von Braun wrote The Mars project in 1948, after completing reconstruction work for his new American hosts, the V-2 rocket, a ballistic missile he helped develop during the war. The book was then stripped of its fictitious material and reused as a nine-page article in the April 30, 1954 issue of Collier’s Weekly, then one of the most popular and prestigious magazines in the United States. The first serious study of how to get to Mars, von Braun’s plan involved a space station and a flotilla of reusable rockets and shuttles, and required a crew of seventy for a Martian stay exceeding one Earth year. Upon their arrival, the astronauts (well, the “astronauts” –astronauts had not yet been invented) would enter orbit and spot suitable landing sites for the human beachhead. (He didn’t talk about robotic exploration because programmable digital robots hadn’t been invented yet.)
For von Braun, Mars was still the plane, the moon was just a waypoint, and fourteen years later when Armstrong jumped off that lower rung of the lunar lander ladder, it was the Saturn rocket. V from von Braun who brought him there. He (ie, von Braun) was then director of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, de facto “father of the US space program” and a little celebrity. He had made several appearances years earlier on a 1950s TV show called Disneyland– hosted by Walt himself – selling forty million Americans the notion of rugged and reliable rockets, moon fire and Martian colonies. When the shows first aired, Yuri Gagarin was still an obscure pilot in the Soviet Air Force, and Alan Shepard a test pilot in Maryland. To the extent that Americans were even aware of American space ambitions, it was von Braun who was selling Mars missions with Walt Disney. He had been working there for a very long time.
So it was no surprise that two weeks after America’s silicon soles squeezed the prints into fresh moon dust, von Braun walked into Spiro Agnew’s office and slammed on the vice president’s desk the next natural frontier for American exploration: the red planet. The fifty-page presentation – the definitive plan to make humanity multiplanetary – represented the culmination of von Braun’s work. His prescription covered many items he had offered decades earlier: rockets, shuttles, the station – even a nuclear-powered spacecraft.
Unfortunately for von Braun, the dominant forces in Congress and the White House soon came to see the Apollo program as the goal, rather than, as he had hoped, as an early milestone for something much bigger. You didn’t build the Hoover Dam and then… build more Hoover Dams downstream, politicians said. We set a goal, and by God we did. Why even have a NASA? the White House wondered aloud. By Apollo 15 in 1971, public opinion polls put public support for space spending at around 23%, with 66% saying the spending was too high. There would be no national political prize for the complete closure of Cape Canaveral. Really, what were we doing up there?
Nonetheless, von Braun’s sequence of space missions culminating in the exploration of Mars had defined NASA so much that it was almost wired into the system. Nixon, having no interest in the space program but even more interest in being the one who completed it, only considered the space shuttle element to be viable because he had these applications of Spy satellites and 2. could be a major construction project in Palmdale, Calif., keeping its home state in its column during the next presidential campaign. So it was the Californian space shuttle that was flying satellites! NASA lived to fly another day.