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As Long as We Remember...

October 26, 2009

Tang and Teflon

Steven R. Berryman

With scientists as the new high priests of the 1950s we officially entered the “Space Age” in 1958 with the launch of the satellite Sputnik by our archrival in the world, the U.S.S.R.


The golden orb with audio transmitter beep-beeping around us in orbit scared the hell out of our nation…


…and facilitated NASA and an enormous arms race.


Since I was born that year, and not yet having the available cable television or Internet, I watched the entire United States space program evolve on TV, along with the rest of America and Walter Cronkite on CBS “broadcasts.”


Learning the early history via black-and-white reels, it seems we rescued some of the most valuable Nazi facilitating rocket scientists, fresh from Peenemunde test-beds. Among the most important was to be Werner Von Braun.


German efforts toward true terror weapons was not wasted on the “Vengeance Weapons,” V-1 and V-2. It got NASA’s initial efforts jump-started, toward our own military-industrial complex.


That, under the thin veil of pure science for mankind.


There was never a rocket body or guidance system developed without the most deliberate cooperation of our military, immediately taking the advantage of the dual-use capabilities of the heavy launch vehicles.


Atlas and Titans, they also allowed for lifting up nuclear warheads into orbital trajectories that could transit the earth in minutes.


ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) developed by both sides in the Cold War enabled the Soviet Union and the United States to hold each other in a real “balance of terror” with an inherent “mutually assured destruction.”


Nuclear annihilation could have been brought to you by the people who bragged on Tang and Teflon as major benefits of “Man in Space!”


The peaceful use of NASA had always provided cover, as elementary school students abandoned regular class to watch launches on network television…for hours on end.


This could arguably have been to encourage young future engineers, and, I believe, that worked.


Unfortunately for the physics of the matter, our largest H-Bombs, the thermo-nuclear devices large enough to blind our opponent in a needed preemptive strike, were the size of railroad boxcars when the technology was young. A rocket the size of an Apollo booster would have been needed in order to deliver one on-target in space above what is now Russia.


In an example of magnitude, the amount of solid rocket propellant inside of the Saturn booster for our Apollo missions to the moon, if detonating accidentally on the pad, could have approximated the explosion from the original Hiroshima atomic bomb.


Later the Space Shuttle program was developed to launch spy-satellites, and conduct counter satellite operations.


We lost more than just dogs and monkeys along the way during research and development; Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were lost on the pad, and Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia during missions…and more…during experimental rocket-plane X-15 and others…


Sadly, in coincidence with the end of the Cold War in 1989, our space program was drastically scaled back, for obvious reasons. Perhaps the pursuit of pure science was just not enough to justify one of our largest of work-making programs.


I personally witnessed evidence of this a bit earlier:


In a past life, when I was solidly in the electronic business of 1985, a sales call took me to Langley, VA, to a NASA facility. This super-secure base was located in the heart of the Tidewater area that is the very heart of military operations in the free world.


We were promoting a state-of-the-art digital audio signal analyzer at the time; they should have been interested.


It took fully a month for our team to obtain clearances and permissions to gain base access and speak to a NASA representative in order to demonstrate our product.


Upon entrance, it was clear why: The sister facility to NASA, integrally joined at the hip, was Langley Air Force Base, home of the squadrons of F-15 Eagle fighters charged with first line defense of the entire Mid- Atlantic region.


We took an “accidental-on-purpose” circuitous route to tour the base and check it out. Of course, we were followed by the blue long-bed security pickups of the Air Force security forces the entire way…from a distance.


We did have our route straightened back for us… to our approved destination eventually…but not before we observed the concealed mission of the base. Many of the F-15 fighters were equipped with enormous single missiles under-belly. These were ASATs, or anti-satellite missiles, to be launched from miles up with the sub-orbital boosting help of the jets. This was obviously NASAs primary concern in the cooperative basing.


Our sales presentation elicited snores from the very gray and detached engineer type. After listening to us drone-on technically for an hour, we got an “I’ll get back to you.”


But the gentleman, obviously a veteran of the Apollo glory days, had sympathy for our efforts and offered us a peek at history that many could not know.


On the way out of our meeting, we were taken to an old metal shipping container just behind the building, very securely locked-up.


We were shown the burned up remnants of the Apollo 1 Command Module that had ignited during a test, incinerating Grissom, White, and Chaffee in January 1967.


The viewing was at once a source of pride in history, and a signal that heroic days were gone. I felt pangs for all of our collective loss…


…and doubt very strongly we will be back to the moon under an Obama Administration, if ever.


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