July 1999

Looking at the moon




I happened to glance at the moon one evening and then thought about how Man once walked on it. It was a brief burst of interest, starting with Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong's visit on 20 July 1969, thirty years ago. Altogether, there were only six missions -- 12 astronauts -- with the last one in December 1972. We've not been back since.

It was a remarkable achievement spurred by Yuri Gagarin's first space flight on 12 April 1961, only eight years earlier. And that itself was just 4 years after the Soviet Union placed Vostok I, the first artificial satellite, into orbit in 1957, stunning the Americans.

Yuri Gagarin was really just a helpless hostage in a tight cage. His capsule made one full, nearly polar, orbit of the earth, spending just one and a half hours in zero gravity. However, all revolutions have modest beginnings, so we shouldn't scoff at it. But the thing is, it's been nearly forty years since then, and in this time, it doesn't seem as if we've gone much further.

Take another revolution of flight to see what I mean: Forty years after Orville and Wilbur Wright proved the possibility of powered flight at a field in Kitty Hawk, bombing missions comprising up to 1,000 planes a night were roaring over Germany. Hundreds more were darkening the skies over Japan. Carpet bombing and mass destruction is never anything to celebrate, but it showed how quickly the technology matured.

The Wright brothers, on 17 December 1903, flew just 4 test fights. The first one flew 37 metres (120 feet) and the last flew the furthest, 260 metres (852 feet). You can walk 37 metres in under half a minute. Talk about modest beginnings!

Almost immediately, the technology spread in different directions. For some, it was a race to go further and faster. The Britons John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown were the first to fly non-stop across the Atlantic in 1919. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh did the same, but solo and faster. In 1932, Amelia Earhart bettered his record across the Atlantic. She then kept up the pace by being the first to fly alone from Honolulu to Oakland, California, across half the Pacific. Within two years, she sought to circumnavigate the Earth along the equatorial route. She left Miami, went through South America, Africa, India and South East Asia, but perished somewhere over New Guinea. She covered 35,000 km out of a planned 47,000 km journey.

Others did stunts and the airshow was born. Through the 1920's and 30's, the travelling aviator was a feature of small town America, making a few bucks each time he came in and entertained children and adults alike, either with aerial feats or joyrides. It was a kind of circus circuit. Believe it or not, we still have the modern equivalent of that. The Moonrock exhibition is still going from city to city across the globe!


Commercial aviation -- flying passengers and mail -- began in Europe and America in the 1920's. By the 1930's it had become commercially successful with the introduction of the DC3 airliner, made by the Douglas Aircraft Company. Over 10,600 of them were produced in the eleven years 1935 - 1946. Some 90% of worldwide traffic in 1939 was carried on DC3s, the most successful air transport of all time.

All technologies can be pressed into war. Flight is no exception. The First World War -- it broke out only 11 years after the first flight -- added urgency. Paris was bombed in 1914, the first time destruction came from the air. The Red Baron is not a figment of Snoopy the Beagle's imagination. He really did exist, a German fighter pilot in the same war. But mostly, the combatants used planes for reconnaissance, to see if they could break out of their trenches. Airborne munitions needed a bit more time to develop.

The thirties offered 2 theatres where airpower could be proved. The Italians used it very one-sidedly against the almost medieval Ethiopeans when they set out to conquer that country. Then the Francoists and Nationalists used it to win the Spanish Civil War.

With that experience, the Second World War was vastly, grotesquely different from the First. War was not just on the frontlines, horrible though that was. Waves of bombers thundering over cities were the main feature most nights. First it was the Low Countries and France that bore the brunt of it, then it was Britain, then the tables were turned, and it was Germany's cities that were obliterated.

Meanwhile, the Japanese carried another dimension of aviation to perfection. The first landing of an aircraft on a ship had been done as far back as 1911, only eight years after the Wrights' achievement at Kitty Hawk. Thirty-eight years after the latter, on 7 December 1941, mass formations of Japanese torpedo planes taking off from aircraft carriers stunned the Americans, destroying their Pacific Fleet on a sleepy Sunday morning in Pearl Harbour. Over the next four years, the Americans returned the blows from their carriers.

All that in the first four decades of flight.

In contrast, four decades after Yuri Gagarin, manned space flight is still extremely experimental. After the last Apollo moon mission in 1972, there has been nothing to capture our imagination to the same degree. Up until a few years ago, the Russians did spend six months at a stretch in their decrepit "space station", before decrepit became uninhabitable. The Americans still manage to send the Shuttle up every few months, on haulage or repair missions, or to watch over zero-gravity experiments. But we can all bet that even if we give them twenty years more (i.e. six decades after Gagarin) there still won't be anything like mass travel in space.

On the other hand, consider this: airports with scheduled flights taking off every 5 minutes have been a fact of life since the sixties. Mass tourism exploded after the Boeing 747 was introduced in 1969, which was a mere 66 years after Kitty Hawk. (Here's an interesting thought, between the moon landing and the unveiling of the 747, both in the same year, the latter was the greater revolution!) While there may be no more romance in airtravel, there is certainly large-scale participation and commercial profitability. With space travel, there is neither. Today, nor in the foreseeable future.

Mainly, that's because, unlike airtravel, there is really nowhere to go in space, at least nowhere that passengers could get off the craft and still breathe. Furthermore, it is uneconomic. The cost of sustaining even a few astronauts' lives out there is bad enough; getting enough boost-power and ensuring safety for 40-50 passengers at a time is prohibitive. So it looks like until these two very, very fundamental questions can be answered, space flight is not going anywhere along the same exponential trajectory as aviation.

But hold on ..

The problem, as so often the case the problem is the straitjacket of our minds. We tend to see flight and spaceflight as related categories, a hybrid of powered movement and transportation. In squinting like that, we see the younger sibling lagging behind the older.

But in fact, look closely, and spaceflight is neither powered movement nor transportation. Since the Apollo program, the most wondrous achievements -- the romance, if you wish -- has been in exploration. Small but hardy probes have sailed (not powered, but sailed by momentum and gravitational pull) billions of kilometres to look at other planets and their moons. Some of them have even landed on Mars and Venus.

As early as 1965, Mariner IV made a fly-by of Mars, a precursor to the successful Mariner IX mission of 1971/72, taking readings of the planet. Vikings I and II (1976-1980) landed on Mars and sent back their data. This decade, there has been the Mars Pathfinder 1996/97, with a roving vehicle to check out the rocks on the Martian surface. And right now, there is the Mars Global Surveyor to do a complete mapping.

Jupiter has received almost as much attention. Pioneer X, launched in 1972, went to take a look at our largest neighbour. So did Pioneer XI, launched 1973, which also went on to Saturn.

Taking advantage of a 4-planet alignment that occurs only once every 175 years, Voyagers I and II were launched in 1977, taking beautiful photographs of the planets they visited. Voyager I arrived at Jupiter in 1979, and then Saturn in 1980. Voyager II followed a few weeks later, but also went on to Uranus in 1986 and Neptune in 1989. This was a spacecraft that continued to take pictures and send them back for 12 years after launch!

Recently, the most fruitful mission has been Galileo. It was launched in 1989, equipped with an array of cameras, spectrometers and other devices. After a circuitous route via Venus and past Earth (twice), it arrived at Jupiter in 1995. Along the way, it took close looks at two asteroids and observed the comet Shoemaker-Levy. Moving into orbit about Jupiter, it has been taking measurements of many of the 16 Jovian moons -- and is still doing so. Galileo has also released a probe with a parachute into Jupiter's turbulent atmosphere, with winds up to 600 km per hour.

Don't forget the marvel of the Hubble Telescope, and the fantastic pictures of the universe it has given us. From it has come numerous discoveries of galaxies, black holes and even other solar systems. The article Swimming elephants and the demise of gods mentions a recent discovery.

Where all these spacecraft have given us the romance of exploration, more have given us the mundane: the communications satellites. We take for granted the instantaneous broadcast of the Wimbledon Championships, or CNN reporting from troublespots anywhere in the world. We think nothing anymore of dialling a friend on a mobile phone, even though he is halfway around the world.

In 1998, the Iridium system was launched. Comprising 66 satellites in low earth orbit, communicating directly (not through satellite dishes) with hand-held mobile phones, it enables point-to-point contact -- voice, fax, internet -- with anyone anywhere on planet Earth. Even in the middle of the Sahara desert or on an ice-floe drifting in the Arctic Ocean.

So there has been a revolution, thanks to space. But it is has not been in transportation. It's been nothing like airtravel. The revolution has been in communication and exploration.

And very soon, in war. 

The Americans are now, after Iraq and Kosovo, wedded to the idea of smart bombs guided precisely to their targets. These bombs are released from a stand-off position, but till now, have had to be guided in by lasers from another aircraft. It is a logical next-step, reducing the risk to combat pilots further, for the bombs to guide themselves through GPS, the Global Positioning System, a network of satellites.

The space revolution may make it almost routine to wage (small) wars without being killed. In peace, it has enabled us to speak and to hear across distances biologically impossible. We have seen breathtaking views of Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Jupiter from points where our eyes cannot possibly be. We have touched, scratched and chemically analysed rocks on Martian plains where our fingers have not yet gone.

So I was thinking as I looked at the moon: where the Wright brothers' revolution has led to Man defying gravity, the space revolution is leading to a defiance of our biological bodies. One was flight, the other escape.

Yawning Bread 



  1. For information about the planets, including some beautiful pictures, visit
  2. For more information about the Galileo mission, visit
    http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/galileo.html and