“It’s wonderful what a kid can do with an Erector Set”

Reading Across the Airless Wilds by Earl Swift for the Times, 7 August 2021

There’s something about the moon that encourages, not just romance, not just fancy, but also a certain silliness. It was there in spades at the conference organised by the American Rocket Society in Manhattan in 1961. Time Magazine delighted in this “astonishing exhibition of the phony and the competent, the trivial and the magnificent.” (“It’s wonderful what a kid can do with an Erector Set”, one visiting engineer remarked.)

But the designs on show thefre were hardly any more bizarre than those put forward by the great minds of the era. The German rocket pioneer Hermann Oberth wrote an entire book advocating a moon car that could, if necessary, pogo-stick about the satellite. When Howard Seifert, the American Rocket Society’s president, advocated abandoning the car and preserving the pogo stick — well, Siefert’s “platform” might not have made it to the top of NASA’s favoured designs for a moon vehicle, but it was taken seriously.

Earl Swift is not above a bit of fun and wonder, but the main job of Across the Airless Wilds (a forbiddingly po-faced title for such an enjoyable book) is to explain how the oddness of the place — barren, airless, and boasting just one-sixth Earth’s gravity — tended to favour some very odd design solutions. True, NASA’s lunar rover, which actually flew on the last three Apollo missions, looks relatively normal, like a car (or at any rate, a go-kart). But this was really to do with weight constraints, budgets and historical accidents; a future in which the moon is explored by pogo-stick is still not quite out of the running.

For all its many rabbit-holes, this is a clear and compelling story about three men: Sam Romano, boss of General Motors’s lunar program, his visionary off-road specialist Mieczyslaw Gregory Bekker (Greg to his American friends) and Greg’s invaluable engineer Ferenc (Frank) Pavlics. These three were toying with the possibility of moon vehicles a full two years before the US boasted any astronauts, and the problems they confronted were not trivial. Until Bekker came along, tyres, wheels and tracks for different surfaces were developed more or less through informed trial and error. It was Bekker who treated off-roading as an intellectual puzzle as rigorous as the effort to establish the relationship between a ship’s hull and water, or a plane’s wing and the air it rides.

Not that rigour could gain much toe-hold in the early days of lunar design, since no-one could be sure what the consistency of the moon’s surface actually was. It was probably no dustier than an Earthbound desert, but there was always the nagging possibility that a spacecraft and its crew, landing on a convenient lunar plain, might vanish into some ghastly talcum quicksand.

On 3 February 1966 the Soviet probe Luna 9 put paid to that idea, settling, firmly and without incident, onto the Ocean of Storms. Though their plans for a manned mission had been abandoned, the Soviets were no bit player. Four years later it was an eight-wheel Soviet robot, Lunokhod-17, that first drove across the moon’s surface. Seven feet long and four feet tall, it upstaged NASA’s rovers nicely, with its months and miles of journey time, 25 soil samples and literally thousands of photographs.

Meanwhile NASA was having to re-imagine its Lunar Roving Vehicle any number of times, as it sought to wring every possible ounce of value from a programme that was being slashed by Congress a good year before Neil Armstrong even set foot on the Moon.

Conceived when it was assumed Apollo would be the first chapter in a long campaign of exploration and settlement, the LRV was being shrunk and squeezed and simplified to fit through an ever-tightening window of opportunity. This is the historical meat of Swift’s book, and he handles the technical, institutional and commercial complexities of the effort with a dramatist’s eye.

Apollo was supposed to pave the way for two-rocket missions. When they vanished from the schedule, the rover’s future hung in doubt. Without a second Saturn to carry cargo, any rover bound for the moon would have to be carried on the same lunar module that carried the crew. No-one knew if this was even possible.

There was, however, one wedge-shaped cavity still free between the descent stage’s legs: an awkward triangle “about the size and shape of a pup tent standing on its end.” So it was that the LRV, tht once boasted six wheels and a pressurised cabin, ended up the machine a Brompton folding bike wants to be when it grows up.

Ironically, it was NASA’s dwindling prospects post-Apollo that convinced its managers to origami something into that tiny space, just a shade over seventeen months prior to launch. Why not wring as much value out of Apollo’s last missions as possible?

The result was a triumph, though it maybe didn’t look like one. Its seats were basically deckchairs. It had neither roof, nor body. There was no steering wheel, just a T-bar the astronaut lent on. It weighed no more than one fully kitted-out astronaut, and its electric motors ground out just one horsepower. On the flat, it reached barely ten miles an hour.

But it was superbly designed for the moon, where a turn at 6MPH had it fishtailing like a speedboat, even as it bore more than twice its weight around an area the size of Manhattan.

In a market already oversaturated with books celebrating the 50th anniversary of Apollo in 2019 (many of them very good indeed) Swift finds his niche. He’s not narrow: there’s plenty of familiar context here, including a powerful sketch of the former Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. He’s not especially folksy, or willfully eccentric: the lunar rover was a key element in the Apollo program, and he wants it taken seriously. Swift finds his place by much more ingenious means — by up-ending the Apollo narrative entirely (he would say he was turning it right-side up) so that every earlier American venture into space was preparation for the last three trips to the moon.

He sets out his stall early, drawing a striking contrast between the travails of Apollo 14 astronauts Alan Shepard Jr and Edgar Mitchell — slugging half a mile up the the wall of the wrong crater, dragging a cart — with the vehicular hijinks of Apollo 15’s Dave Scott and Jim Irwin, crossing a mile of hummocky, cratered terrain rimmed on two sides by mountains the size of Everest, to a spectacular gorge, then following its edge to the foot of a huge mountain, then driving up its side.

Detailed, thrilling accounts of the two subsequent Rover-equipped Apollo missions, Apollo 16 in the Descartes highlands and Apollo 17 in the Taurus-Littrow Valley, carry the pointed message that the viewing public began to tune out of Apollo just as the science, the tech, and the adventure had gotten started.

Swift conveys the baffling, unreadable lunar landscape very well, but Across the Airless Wilds is above all a human story, and a triumphant one at that, about NASA’s most-loved machine. “Everybody you meet will tell you he worked on the rover,” remarks Eugene Cowart, Boeing’s chief engineer on the project. “You can’t find anybody who didn’t work on this thing.”

Life at all costs

Reading The Next 500 Years by Chris Mason for New Scientist, 12 May 2021

Humanity’s long-term prospects don’t look good. If we don’t all kill each other with nuclear weapons, that overdue planet-killing asteroid can’t be too far off; anyway, the Sun itself will (eventually) explode, obliterating all trace of life in our planetary system.

As if awareness of our own mortality hasn’t given us enough to fret about, we are also capable of imagining our own species’ extinction. Once we do that, though, are we not ethically bound to do something about it?

Cornell geneticist Chris Mason thinks so. “Engineering,” he writes, “is humanity’s innate duty, needed to ensure the survival of life.” And not just human life; Mason is out to ensure the cosmic future of all life, including species that are currently extinct.

Mason is not the first to think this way, but he arrives at a fascinating moment in the history of technology, when we may, after all be able to avoid some previously unavoidable catastrophes.

Mason’s 500-year plan for our future involves reengineering human and other genomes so that we can tolerate the (to us) extreme environments of other worlds. Our ultimate goal, Mason says, should be to settle new solar systems.

Spreading humanity to the stars would hedge our bets nicely, only we currently lack the tools to survive the trip, never mind the stay. That’s where Mason comes in. He was principal investigator on NASA’s Twins Study, begun in 2015: a foundational investigation into the health of identical twins Scott Kelly and Mark Kelly during the 340 days Scott was in space and Mark was on Earth.

Mason explains how the Twins Study informed NASA’s burgeoning understanding of the human biome, how a programme once narrowly focused on human genetics now extends to embrace bacteria and viruses, and how new genetic engineering tools like CRISPR and its hopeful successors may enable us to address the risks of spaceflight (exposure to cosmic radiation radiation is considered the most serious) and protect the health of settlers on the Moon, on Mars, and even, one day, on Saturn’s moon Titan.

Outside his specialism, Mason has some fun (a photosythesizing human would need skin flaps the size of two tennis courts — so now you know) then flounders slightly, reaching for familiar narratives to hold his sprawling vision together. More informed readers may start to lose interest in the later chapters. The role of spectroscopy in the detection of exoplanets is certainly relevant, but in a work of this gargantuan scope, I wonder if it needed rehearsing. And will readers of a book like this really need reminding of Frank’s Drake equation (regarding the likelihood of extra-terrestrial civilisations)?

Uneven as it is, Mason’s book is a genuine, timely, and very personable addition to a 1,000-year-old Western tradition, grounded in religious expectations and a quest for transcendence and salvation. Visionaries from Isaac Newton to Joseph Priestley to Russian space pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkowsky have spouted the very tenets that underpin Mason’s account: that the apocalypse is imminent; and that, by increasing human knowledge, we may recover the Paradise we enjoyed before the Flood.

Masonic beliefs follow the same pattern; significantly, many famous NASA astronauts, including John Glenn, Buzz Aldrin and Gordo Cooper, were Freemasons.

Mason puts a new layer of flesh on what have, so far, been some ardent but very sketchy dreams. And, though a proud child of his engineering culture, he is no dupe. He understands and explores all the major risks associated with genetic tinkering, and entertains all the most pertinent counter-arguments. He knows where 19th-century eugenics led. He knows the value of biological and neurological diversity. He’s not Frankenstein. His deepest hope is not that his plans are realised in any recognisable form; but that we continue to make plans, test them and remake them, for the sake of all life.

Not your typical fictional voyage to Mars

Sean Penn and LisaGay Hamilton

Watching The First, Beau Willimon’s new TV series, for New Scientist, 3 November 2018

FOR reasons that remained mysterious by the end of episode one, veteran astronaut Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn) has been grounded. This left him watching helplessly as a launch accident wipes out his former crewmates, bound for Mars on a rocket bankrolled by prickly space visionary Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone). By the episode’s end, the disaster has taken a huge psychological toll, not least on Ingram herself.

Welcome to the future – don’t expect it to be easy. Set 15 years from now, the world of The First is not very different from our own. Some cars drive themselves. Media gadgets proliferate. The women who currently hold high executive positions in private space companies are now public figures.

The First is not your typical fictional voyage to Mars. “It would have been safer to just get into space in the first episode,” says series creator Beau Willimon, best known for his stylish US remake of political thriller House of Cards. “But space exploration, with all of its excitement, doesn’t happen overnight. A Mars project will take years of planning.”

Virtually the whole of the first season of this intriguing Martian epic will be set on Earth. It is a risky approach, but one that persuaded Charles Elachi, a former director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, to be a consultant for the show. “Only one organisation has successfully landed something on Mars,” he tells me with relish, “and I used to head it.”

“What attracted me,” says Elachi, “was Willimon’s desire to look at the Mars project in the round, taking in the scientific aspects, but also all the technical and personal and political challenges. How do you convince people to commit to these amazing projects? Important as the science is, exploration is a human endeavour.”

Elachi has seen the truth of this at first hand, having witnessed the decades of effort and sacrifice required to land rovers on Mars, and he is impressed that the series, although it accelerates events tremendously, still reflects the likely scale of a Mars mission.

“The series starts 15 years in the future, but for me, as the show’s technical consultant, it’s really a story of the next 15 years,” says Elachi. “It’s about all the things that come before that first flight: the power sources, the vehicles, all the equipment that needs to be developed and deployed before a human ever boards a rocket.”

Building the backstory to the series was essential. And according to Willimon, it was cool: “A lot of the questions we had were questions that researchers themselves are asking,” he says. “Every design element on the screen has a clear function and a precise reason for being there. We don’t want this to be an 8-hour science lecture, but it’s important for the audience that we can explain everything in the frame.”

It takes thousands of people to get one astronaut into space. Engineers, scientists, the medical team, the ground-support team: people bring thousands of years of combined experience to the business of making several minutes tick by without failure.

Willimon, whose father served months at a time on nuclear submarines, also knows the sacrifices families make. While his father was away, he says, “I used to make these drawings and maps and plans, trying to figure out where he was, under what ice shelf, in what ocean? And I’d try to work out what he was doing.”

This makes The First a very personal project. “We all ask ourselves, What does it all mean? Is there a God? Where’s my place in the universe?” Willimon reflects. If we asked these things of ourselves all the time, we’d go mad. “But space travel,” he says, “literally travelling into the heavens, forces your hand.”

NASA, Kennedy and me

(Not that I wish to oversell this, you understand…)

Come along to New Scientist Live at 2.30pm on Saturday 22 September and you’ll find me talking to documentary-maker Rory Kennedy about how NASA shapes life on the ground, how it juggles the competing promises of the Moon and Mars, and how public and private space initiatives can work together. Kennedy will also be discussing her life as a documentary film-maker,  her memories of her uncle “Jack” Kennedy, and how the Apollo program inspired her philanthropic career.

Tickets and details here

“We don’t know why we did it”

Two views of the US space programme reviewed for New Scientist, 2 July 2014

“WE HAVE no need of other worlds,” wrote Stanislaw Lem, the Polish science fiction writer and satirist in 1961. “We need mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can’t accept it for what it is.”

A few years later, as NASA’s advocates hunted for suitable justification for the US’s $24 billion effort to put a man on the moon, they began to invoke humanity’s “outward urge” – an inborn desire to leave our familiar surroundings and explore strange new worlds.

A hastily concocted migration instinct might explain tourism. But why astronauts visited the moon, described by the 1940s US columnist Milton Mayer as a “pulverised rubble… like Dresden in May or Hiroshima in August”, requires a whole other level of blarney.

In Marketing the Moon: The selling of the Apollo lunar program, released earlier this year, David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek curated that blarney in their illustrated account of how Apollo was sold to a public already paying a bloody price for the Vietnam war.

Historian Matthew Tribbe, on the other hand, looks in an almost diametrically opposite direction. His No Requiem for the Space Age sweeps aside the Apollo programme’s technocratic special pleading – and the subsequent nostalgia – to argue that Americans fell out of love with space exploration even before Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon in July 1969.

There is no doubt that national disillusionment with the space programme swelled during the 1970s, as counter-cultural movements sent the US on “the biggest introspective binge any society in history has undergone”. But digging beneath this familiar narrative, Tribbe also shows that opposition to Apollo was both long-standing and intellectually rigorous.

The Nobel laureate physicist Max Born called Apollo “a triumph of intellect, but a tragic failure of reason”. And novelist Norman Mailer considered it “the deepest of nihilistic acts – because we don’t know why we did it”.

Apollo was the US’s biggest, brashest entry in its heart-stoppingly exciting – and terrifying – political and technological competition with the Soviet Union. By the time Apollo 11 was launched, however, that race was already won, and only a fanatic (or a military-industrial complex) would have kept running.

There was a fairly concerted attempt to sell Apollo as science. But that never rang true, and anyway what we really seek in space, as the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke told the American Aeronautical Society in 1967, is “not knowledge, but wonder, beauty, romance, novelty – and above all, adventure”. Apollo was supposed to offer the world’s most technologically advanced nation a peacetime goal as challenging and inspiring as war.

But the intractability of the war in Vietnam put paid to John F. Kennedy’s fine words to Congress on 25 May 1961, about sending an American safely to the moon before the end of the decade. As the Washington Evening Star columnist Frank R. Getlein observed: “The reason you have a moral equivalent of war is so you don’t have to have war… For us Americans, unfortunately, the moral equivalent of war has turned out to be war.”

Tribbe argues that popular enthusiasm was doused as soon as people realised just who was going into space – not them, but the representatives of the very technocratic power structure that was wreaking havoc on Earth.

This, you could argue, was hardly NASA’s fault. So it is reassuring, among all this starkly revealed futility, to see Tribbe expressing proper respect and, indeed, real warmth for NASA and its astronauts. NASA had labelled them “super-normal”; with such a moniker, it was perhaps inevitable that they failed to capture hearts and minds as easily as everyone had assumed they would. While public uninterest is Tribbe’s theme, he does not lay the blame for it at NASA’s door.

Explorations rarely inspire contemporary stay-at-homes. For example, over a century elapsed between Columbus’s initial voyage and the first permanent English settlements. Lem was right. We don’t need alien places. We need an ever-expanding supply of human ones. The moon may yet provide them. This, at least, is the compelling and technically detailed argument of Arlin Crotts’s forthcoming book The New Moon: Water, exploration, and future habitation – a perfect speculative antidote for those who find Tribbe’s history disheartening.

Tribbe quotes an unnamed journalist who wrote, during the Vietnam war: “The moon is a dream for those who have no dreams.” This may sum up many of the problems people had with Apollo in the 1970s. But Tribbe is no pessimist, and history need not demoralise us. Times and technologies change, so do nations, and so, come to think of it, do dreams.