Saturday, June 08, 2024

Space Exploration: An Epic Week

Even by the standards of an Apollo kid, this was a memorable week. 

We had two groundbreaking missions, the loss of an Apollo hero and an announcement of an upcoming film project. And that’s just the stuff connected to human flight. 

It kicked off with the delayed flight of Boeing’s Starliner on June 5. There was a lot of prelaunch discussion about taking off with a leak of helium (used to pressurize thrusters) but the redundant systems made everyone feel the safety margins were satisfied. Still, it got a bit sticky when more leak and thruster problems developed.  Starliner had to hold outside the ISS’s 200m keep out zone until the system was deemed go for docking. Once in, Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams got to work on further troubleshooting the Starliner and running experiments.

Then Thursday brought the second launch of the week was another milestone.  On the fourth launch of SpaceX’s experimental Starship, intended to revolutionize space travel in the next great Earth-to-orbit leap since the Falcon 9 made reusable launchers routine, achieved more of its test objectives than any previous mission, by far: indeed, it orbited, reentered, demonstrated essentially everything except landing on a platform, dropping the booster and spacecraft into the sea at the end of controlled landing sequences that involved flip maneuvers, engine relights, and essentially all the technical steps short of touchdown.  

With a week of triumph came a very hard moment. William “Bill” Anders of Apollo 8 was piloting his T-34A (a vintage trainer) when he crashed into the sea for reasons unknown. 

Anders will forever be remembered for his quick reaction when he saw the stunning 

(Images NASA)

Earthrise over the lunar horizon and grabbed a 35mm camera for one of the iconic photographs of the Space Age, one used ever since to remind humans we are all passengers on Spaceship Earth. He said of the photograph, “We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”

Anders graduated from the Naval Academy in 1955 and served as a fighter pilot in the Air Force. In 1996 he founded the Heritage Flight Museum. Anders became a major general is n the USAF Reserve, held numerous government aerospace leadership posts, and eventually became chair of General Dynamics, retiring in 1994. 

Anders was 90. (The Beechcraft plane entered service as a USAF trainer in 1950: it was also used by the Navy and internationally.)  There will undoubtedly be criticism about whether he should have been flying the acrobatics recorded on video in the 225hp aircraft, at that age, even on a lovely day off Jones Island in San Juan Washington state, but I think Charles Lindbergh has the last word here:

“Any coward can sit at home and criticize a pilot for flying into a mountain in a fog. But I would rather by far die on a mountainside than in bed. What kind of man would live where there is no daring? And is life so dear that we should blame men for dying in adventure? Is there a better way to die?”

A last note of the week was the announcement of an upcoming streaming-service film on Sally Ride. Spielberg’s Amblin Partners will co-produce the Amazon film, and Kristin Stewart will star. The film is based on Meredith E. Bagby’s book The New Guys. It’s a good book, with potential for a great film (and an pic casting challenge, with so many well-known historical figures at NASA and on the Rogers midsession). I do wonder if they will make a serious film or a soap opera. Bagby is involved, not just as seller of the rights but in coproduction, so that's good, but...Fingers crossed. 

Matt Bille is a historian and writer in Colorado Springs. His 2004 book The First Space Race chronicled the Sputnik-Explorer-Vanguard competition of the 1950s.