Thursday, July 23, 2009

Lament for the Saturn V

The Saturn V was a magnificent beast, simultaneously a testament to the triumphs and the excesses of the manned spaceflight program of the 1960s. Standing dozens of stories high, with its three stages, and costing billions of dollars per launch, it was capable of delivering well over a hundred tons to low earth orbit. This is the rocket that, 40 years ago this week, carried astronauts to the surface of the Moon - easily the greatest thing that America has done in the past half-century. The Moon landings gave America such an unimpeachable reputation for scientific greatness and exploration that we're only now managing to find ways to tarnish it.

You can still see a Saturn V today if you want, at Johnson Space Center. I drive by it sometimes, and every time I do, it pisses me off. Why? Because you can't see it on a launch pad, or even upright, or even intact - they've chopped it up and put the individual stages on display. A few years ago, as if to add insult to injury, they built some kind of shed over it; ostensibly to protect it from the elements, but I can't help but think that they've managed to cut it off from the sky (where a rocket belongs) in the most literal possible way. Here we have a triumph of engineering, one of the largest machines ever created by human kind, a machine that was meant to go out to a new frontier on a pillar of fire and carry some of us along for the ride... and we've put it on display in a museum, with little placards and velvet ropes, like some artifact of a lost civilization. And maybe that's exactly what it is.

I'm not saying that we should resurrect the Saturn V; it's a hopelessly dated design, and we could do a lot better today, if we really wanted to. And there's the rub. I believe, with all my heart, in the inexorable march of progress, whether in small steps or giant leaps, because technological improvements are good for everybody; if technology always improves day to day, then every day is just a little bit better for humanity than the last. On a very deep level, the thought of this process running in reverse, of technology taking a small step back, really bothers me. So to see a technological artifact on display in a museum, and to know that it's beyond anything that we have available today, just feels wrong. I suppose the thing that bothers me isn't that the Saturn V is behind the velvet rope. It's the fact that it got there without first being replaced by something better.

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