Space: everything except the Earth

When I was growing up I wasn’t particularly interested in real-world space exploration. I liked Star Trek and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but don’t remember ever being excited about a Space Shuttle launch, Hubble, Mir or the ISS. However, the precision engineering of last year’s Curiosity landing on Mars really caught my attention, and since then I’ve been learning about everything that I’ve missed out on. Here are some awesome things, other than the Earth, in rough chronological order.

The Universe is big. Really big. The amount of knowledge and ignorance we have about the Universe is exhilarating, and it’s changing all the time. In the absence of a quantum theory of gravity, Lawrence Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing is an interesting bit of speculation about where it all came from. Our knowledge of the age just got better, with ESA announcing 13.82 billion years as the new best bet. At the other end of time, how the Universe will end seems to be unknown, but most of the hypotheses point to a Universe that doesn’t care about our feelings.

Robert Goddard’s A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes (PDF) from 1919 is surprisingly comprehensible to a software engineer from 1984. The illustrations and photos are wonderful, in particular the Coston ship rocket bundle (p. 48, fig. 7) reminded me of a certain xkcd what if? Also, I was intrigued to find on the topic of “recovery of apparatus on return,” that Goddard suggested a limited form of powered descent (p. 53):

If it is considered desirable, for any reason, to dispense with a sufficiently large parachute, the retarding of the apparatus may be accomplished to any degree by having the rocket consist, at its highest point of flight, not merely of instruments plus parachute, but of instruments together with a chamber, and considerable propellant material. Then, after the rocket has descended to some lower level, […] this propellant material can be ejected, so that the velocity is considerably checked before the apparatus reaches as low an altitude as, say, 5,000 ft.

Goddard also discussed briefly the issue of reaching the Moon; the mocking New York Times editorial and the 49-year-late “correction” are at the same time amusing and tragic.

Reach the Moon we did. If Up Goer Five makes it seem simple, then Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles (PDF) uncovers the amazing engineering of the many engines and stages of the Saturn rockets. (I’m currently editing an EPUB version of this book.) Just days ago, Jeff Bezos recovered two F-1 engines from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, with the intent of turning them into museum exhibits. While I’d love to see them, it saddens me that humanity hasn’t had the capability for lunar exploration in my lifetime, and that it’s now a subject for history books and museums.

In the shadow of the Saturn V stands the Soviet N1. Achievements include 30 (!) engines on the first stage and the largest artificial non-nuclear explosion in history, but not reaching space, orbit, or the Moon. Information on the Soviet space program is hard to come by, so Rockets and People, Volume 4: The Moon Race seems like a very valuable account of these events, which I hope to find the time to read soon.

The Shuttle era began before I was born and only recently came to an end. Even though the destination (LEO) is mundane compared to the Saturn V’s, I still thoroughly enjoyed 45 mins of HD quality, high-speed footage of the launch sequences of STS-114, STS-117, and STS-124, with commentaries from NASA rocket engineers (via reddit).

SpaceX does plenty of things to be excited about. It was only a few weeks ago that they completed a 24-story test flight with its Grasshopper reusable rocket—powered descent all the way down, and on a far greater scale than what Goddard contemplated. If full reusability can be made to work, it should lower launch costs dramatically and thus expand access to space to a whole new level. In the category of awesome power, the Falcon Heavy will fire 27 (!) Merlin 1D engines at liftoff, making it the most powerful rocket in my lifetime. I can’t wait to see it roar.

Mars is what got me interested in non-Earth matters, and it must be the next destination for humanity. I very much enjoyed Robert Zubrin’s The Case for Mars, in which he argues for a simple mission structure and producing the methane for the return journey on Mars using atmospheric carbon dioxide. Elon Musk clearly wants to go, calling it “planetary redundancy” and “life insurance.” Perhaps not incidentally, SpaceX is working on a methane-powered engine. Of the publicly announced efforts to actually go, neither Inspiration Mars (human flyby in 2018) nor Mars One (one-way colonization in 2023) seem completely impossible. To see humanity take this step in my lifetime is the most exciting prospect of all.

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