Rocket beef

If you’re too young to remember the heady, early days of the US space program maybe you’ve at least had the opportunity to read Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff”. Or maybe you’ve seen the movie – giving you at least a taste of the big adventure. Back in the day, space exploration commanded a large chunk of America’s attention.

As a young lad, my imagination was entirely captured by all things space. I was a certified junior rocket geek. The space program stoked my thirst for knowledge, set me to furiously reading books and newspapers and even piqued my interest in math and physics as I embarked on my own ambitious program of model-rocket building.

I was reflecting on those pioneer days of decades past while watching modern-day NASA’s efforts to launch their first ‘new’ rocket since the early 1980s – the Ares 1-X. NASA-TV is a staple of our satellite TV now as my four-year-old junior rocket geek is experiencing his own infatuation with All Things Space. NASA’s web site video feed is also a handy thing to run in the background when a launch is pending during work hours.

My, how things have changed.

They finally launched it.

They finally launched it.

I mean, seriously, what has happened to the prototypical buzz-cut, steely-eyed test pilots and chain-smoking engineers? Have they all been consigned to the dustbin of history? It’s not that the 2009 version of NASA is necessarily timid, but they certainly do seem to have a heightened sense of the budgetary consequences of failure.

The phrase “Let’s light this candle!” seems particularly absent from current NASA nomenclature. I couldn’t help but notice this as the Ares launch team waited and plotted their way to a launch window through the Cape’s aggravating cloud cover. The launch was scrubbed on Monday and re-scheduled multiple times on Tuesday while the NASA krewe fretted about something called the “tribo electrification rule”.

Blah-blah-blah, scooby-dooby-do. The what? Jesus Jiminy pissing into the wind, they were worried about the edge of some batch of clouds within a half-mile of the launch pad.

Back when I was a boy, nobody worried about the effin’ clouds. Clouds? Hell, we had the Communist Red Freedom-Hating Soviet Damn Russians to worry about. Nobody gave a rat’s ass about some bozo clouds. Clouds near the launch pad weren’t going to interfere with America’s remit to spread Democracy to the Moon and beyond, dammit.

In fact, I don’t think the Goodyear Blimp hovering over a launch pad would have held up a 1960s rocket launch. Our rockets had fighter pilots strapped to their noses and men who built ballistic missiles for a hobby lighting the fuses. NASA rockets were big enough, fast enough and just plain damn American enough that it didn’t matter what they ran into – they would win.

The Rocketdyne A-7 engine that shot Alan Sheppard off into the Atlantic generated a tad over 80,000 pounds of thrust. Was he worried about clouds? Hell, no. The Ares 1-X main stage (basically a solid rocket booster cadged from the STS program) generates 3,000,000 pounds of thrust.

OK, I understand that “Rocketdyne” is a pretty cool name for a prime contractor, especially compared to “Thiokol” (the prime contractor for the SRB). But that’s no excuse for wimpiness. When you’ve got a rocket that can pump out THREE DAMN MILLION pounds of thrust, you could name it “Liberace” and still expect that it would knock the snot out of anything it might run into.

Anyway, they managed to get the thing off the pad finally. And now I read that NASA expects to have it operational in maybe 5 or 6 or 7 years. WTF? NASA needs a serious infusion of square jaws, flat-top haircuts and slide rules. When Apollo 1 burned up on the launch pad in January 1967, it was a total fup-uck for NASA and back to square one. But just two and a half years later, America was landing a man on the friggin Moon. And now they need another 6 or 7 years just to get a new rocket into ORBIT?

O, where have you gone, Kurt Debus?

Leave a Reply