The Space Shuttle, the ‘Right Stuff’ and Chuck Yeager

Cold Warriors In Space

by Gwydion M. Williams

[Written soon after the tragic loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and its crew.  An accident which helped cause the winding down of the project.]

The tragic loss of shuttle mission 113 is causing a rethink of nearly 50 years of space exploration. The human exploration of space could proceed perfectly well with unmanned probes, which have done 95% of the useful work over the last three decades. Do we need to go on spending hundreds of millions on human space missions that can never be entirely safe?

The decisive moment in the Cold War was the USA’s moon landings. Two rival Modernist systems had gone head-to-head to see who could realise the ancient dream of journeys beyond Planet Earth. But it was not exactly ‘capitalism versus communism’. The USA in the 1960s was still committed to ‘tax-and-spend’, and got its act together with the creation of NASA. Meanwhile the Soviet Union in the 1960s mismanaged an economy that had been hugely successful up until then, damaging it with ‘market reforms’ that were supposed to make it better.

Space exploration was coming anyway. Scientific curiosity and engineering enthusiasm would have ensured that it happened. And the big economic benefits of communication satellites etc. would have showed up—the idea was already around. But in the 1950s, big rockets developed for military use were easily adapted to launching satellites. And space exploration and especially humans in space became a safe and convenient battleground between rival superpowers with nuclear bombs too terrible to use.

Space enthusiasts were appalled when the USA drastically cut back its space program after its highly successful moon landings. It was aptly compared to chopping down an orchard after carefully raising it and gathering the first crop. But it had been all about power and prestige on Planet Earth, the first crop was all the politicians needed or valued. With the USA the clear victor in the Moon Race, they preferred to spend the same money closer to home. (Calls for it to be spent on the poor were naïve: almost all of it was spent on the military and in the interests of the rich.)

The oddity was not the 1970s cutbacks, but the enormously generous funding of the 1960s. The USA got alarmed after the USSR pulled off a series of ‘firsts’—first to launch a satellite, first to send a man into space, first to send a woman into space, first to see the far side of the moon, first to the planet Venus. Russians first on the moon would have strengthened the impression that the USSR was the future and that the United States was part of the past. But in fact the United States absorbed the cultural and technological shifts of the 1960s, while the Soviet system hung on to 1950s values.

Documents released since the Soviet collapse confirm what most experts had said all along. The Russians always had plans for a moon landing, but the project went badly wrong and was abandoned. The prestige-game begun by Khrushchev ended with a decisive US victory. And sending people to the moon lost its glamour when it was found that the place was just of interests to engineers and geologists.

The moon landings were Kennedy’s legacy, the key moment that won the Cold War for the West, despite a serious mauling in Vietnam (which Kennedy also began). The shuttle was Nixon’s contribution, feeding on NASA’s obsession with building a real ‘spacecraft’ of the sort that Science Fiction had featured for decades. But even the best science fiction offers very improbable visions. Star Trek is typical in assuming that spacecraft are much like naval ships, but star empires resemble land empires, with sharp boundaries and not crossing and intertwining as actual naval empires always did. The vision of the future is essentially old-fashioned, prisoner of its own conventions.

The shuttle was produced by brilliant engineers inspired by 1950s science fiction. They had got to the moon using a mix of different and specialised spacecraft: one to take off from Earth, another for lunar landing which left half of itself behind for take-off, and a separate craft again for the return to earth. But now they wanted a ‘real’ spacecraft, a single vehicle that did everything.

The shuttle design was also sold as much cheaper than rockets. But this was simply untrue. These false promises were left out of histories such as the Channel 4 program on Sunday 15th (which was careful just to refer to Mission 113 by its other designation, STS 107. Their account was dominated by NASA’s spend-more-on-Me! philosophy, with Nixon as the designated Bad Person. They did not ask whether an alternative system would have been vulnerable to different sorts of failure. Or why we need people ‘on the spot’ when humans on the ground can send machines to do almost everything that is necessary.

Space exploration has been burdened by the ‘Right Stuff’ ideology, the foolish notion that bad things don’t happen to good people. The ‘Right Stuff’ is actually the Puritan notion of ‘grace’ in fancy dress, worldly success to the virtuous (which is the exact opposite of Jesus’s own teachings among the poor and dispossessed). Space exploration is inherently dangerous, and two fatal accidents out of 113 flights is not unreasonable.

Europe’s early exploration of the rest of the world regularly killed more than half the members of each expedition, not to mention those expeditions that were never heard of again. A lot of the early colonial settlements were lost without trace, and all of them suffered huge death-rates in the early days. The real pioneering spirit was a willingness to accept loss and failure. But the core of current US culture is a belief that there should be no accidents at all. Anything less than perfection is due to bad people who must be found and denounced. They seek to achieve sinlessness with the aid of lawyers.

It’s not due to any real concern about human life. The road traffic system kills tens of thousands of innocents, yet any attempt to make it safer is denounced as tyranny. Tobacco has killed millions, and is also known to be addictive. People dying tragically causes no concern, so long as the ruling elite are not overtly responsible for it. What’s intolerable is for the designated Perfect People of the USA’s showcase mission to be show to be just as vulnerable as everyone else.

There is no particular justification for humans in space, not while the journeys are still so expensive. A typical shuttle mission costs $400 million to $500 million, a satellite $20 million. So for the price of a shuttle flight, you could have 20 or more unmanned missions that would produce vastly more good science. And this would be even more true for a Mars mission, where the journey is much longer and there is no safe way back. Humans are flexible, indeed. But more flexible than 20 robotic missions? Humans are not cost-effective when it comes to doing exploration space science.

In the early visions of space vehicles, it was assumed that communications satellites and weather satellites would need people in space. You even find SF stories about huge telescopes with hundreds of astronomers placed on the moon, to take advantage of its airlessness—in real life an automated orbital telescope is much better. Automatic probes can even attract good publicity, like the little ‘Sojourner’ vehicle on Mars.

You could call it ‘Moore’s Backwash’, a consequence of ‘Moore’s Law’. It was noted in 1964 that computing power based on microchips had been doubling every year, and Moore’s Law predicted that it would go on doing so. The process has now slowed to doubling every 18 months, but it still means that automated satellites have ‘brains’ that keep on getting better and better. There is less and less in space that really need a space-based human.

Not only is human spaceflight unnecessary, the shuttle itself was a highly ingenious solution to the wrong problem. Throwing away most of your spacecraft during the trip is no big deal, not with the overall expense. Re-entry via capsule has been pretty safe, the Russians had a couple of accidents in the early days, but nothing since then. The shuttle got into needless complications because it is required to be a complete and reusable vehicle which lands like an aircraft. Instead of the awkward but safe technology of parachutes and throw-away heat-shields, the shuttle is required to slow itself down as it re-enters the atmosphere, using the heat-resistant tiles that failed so tragically on Columbia.

A better idea would have been air-breathing engines, concepts like ‘Hotol’ which never got funded. Whereas a car engine uses the oxygen in the air to burn the fuel in the fuel tank, a firework sky-rocket has a mix of combustibles and a source of oxygen, a mix that can burn much faster. Solid-fuel rockets are just gigantic fireworks. Liquid-fuel rockets are more sophisticated, you might have two separate tanks for oxygen and hydrogen, which only meet in the engine. But all space rockets suffer from having to carry their own fuel without re-supply, which means that most of the fuel is there to carry other fuel and the ‘payload’ is comparatively small.

A valid alternative would be nuclear-powered rockets, since atomic power-sources give much more energy for their weight. But past carelessness over nuclear weapon testing and nuclear power generation has left the public alarmed at anything nuclear. The idea seems unlikely to be realised despite President Bush’s recent endorsement (which may end up as a classic ‘kiss-of-death’.

The shuttle was developed too early, before air-breathing engines looked feasible. It carries all its own fuel, and a shuttle mission takes off with an awkward mix of systems. There is an external tank for the shuttle’s engines, and two solid-fuel rockets strapped on to give extra lifting-power. It was a failure of one of these ‘giant fireworks’ that caused the previous shuttle accident, when Challenger was told to take off when the vehicle was partly frozen and beyond the range of conditions in which it was supposed to work. This in turn was due to the embarrassment of continuous delays caused by well-justified fears over other safely issues. Many years before that, budget-cutting that had whittled back the better but more expensive design for the shuttle that NASA had originally wanted.

The US political system was designed by people who saw coherent government as a threat to their freedom. The most common and effective democratic systems allow professional politicians to elect a leader, whom they can get rid of if they make a mess of power. In the USA, the President governs, and appoints a cabinet of anyone he chooses. The elected legislators play no direct part in the government, but have a right and duty to interfere by detailed scrutiny of Presidential appointments and government budgets.

It’s a lousy system. In the case of NASA, the agency were not allowed to have either the shuttle they wanted or the space station they wanted. But the way the budget was argued and chopped about in separate processes in the Senate and House of Representatives did not encourage them to switch back to the relatively cheap and reliable rocket-and-return-capsule system: this might have been an excuse for further cuts. Instead, the year-by-year uncertainty led NASA to push ahead with compromised and scaled-down versions of their original dreams. Given a lump sum to spend as they saw fit, they would surely have done better.

But for what end?

Globalisation is the new Cold War, with the USA seeking to stamp its authority on the rest of the world. And NASA is part of it, as it has been from the beginning. The USA has a space program designed to please a random mix of legislators, none of whom have any specific responsibility for its success or failure. And since military spending is more popular than science, the whole system has a military-propaganda air.

The seven crew of the lost Columbia were three US Naval pilots, two US Airforce pilots, one Israeli Airforce pilot and a naturalised American born in India who had a background in civilian piloting. This particular shuttle trip had no military role, indeed. Nor was it directly connected to the Space Station, which it did not visit and which it could not have easily reached if someone had suspected that the craft was too damaged to safely return home. There are ongoing arguments as to whether there were other options, such as another shuttle going up to rescue them. Was it possible, and were the warning signs alarming enough to justify such a drastic admission of danger and failure?

The accusation—not yet proven, and perhaps mistaken—is that NASA was too much concerned with looking good. But what do you expect? In the USA, legislators control the budget, but managerial power is held by people who are hired and fired by the President and mostly have no strong political base of their own.

Mission 113 was a science mission, good science, but also science that served a political and cultural aims. The same science could have been done more cheaply using unmanned devices, which is how most of the real work happens regardless. Shuttle missions serve as grand advertisements for US power, including the opportunities for gifted immigrants who identify with American values. Mission 113 was doing just that, up until the tragic failure on re-entry.

The Israeli Airforce pilot, Ilan Ramon, took part in the 1981 bombing raid on an Iraqi nuclear reactor. He was in on the ground floor of the whole policy that ensured the 1991 Gulf War and was being used at the time to justify yet another war. The logic seems flawed: Iraq never took a serous part in any of the Arab wars against Israel, and it’s doubtful that Saddam Hussein wanted nuclear weapons to use against Israel—well known to have hundred of its own atom bombs and able to obliterate Iraq quite easily. But Israel decided in 1981 that it could lay down the law on what weapons foreign nations were allowed to possess. And nowadays the USA has globalised this approach.

Ilan Ramon was the first Israeli citizen in space, and there were understandable fears of sabotage. An explosion on lift-off would have been very suspect. But the returning shuttle was flying too high and too fast for any possible missile attack. I did wonder about whether there could have been a laser-beam attacks, the shuttle’s flight-path is well advertised. But though the exact cause remains disputed, everyone is agreed that no human agency could have intentionally brought about the crash.

Remarkably enough, the gigantic ‘footprint’ of falling shuttle debris centred was centred on the small town of Palestine, Texas. I saw this mentioned first on Channel 4 news, and suspected a spoof. But I checked my Times Atlas, which listed three places called Palestine besides the territory itself. All of them are small towns in the USA, two in Texas. One of them was unmistakably at the centre of the fallen fragments of lost Columbia. Most maps published in British newspapers and TV broadcasts left out Palestine, Texas in favour of similar small places with more ordinary names. But check the shapes against the atlas and it’s unambiguous.

The USA is supposed to be very religious, but this mostly consists of Americans loudly and publicly invoking God to justify their own prejudices. The bizarre coincidences of the shuttle crash would have had a properly religious person straight into sack-cloth and ashes, seeking to appease the Wroth of God. But Bush and his crowd are immune to negative signals. They exemplify the ‘power of positive thinking’, a process that is impressive right up until the moment when such positive persons really louse up. As the USA managed to do in Vietnam, after scoring some successes with various smaller and better-run meddling in third-world politics. As they seem to be doing right now over Iraq, where they can undoubtedly get in, but may find that Iraq is worse than Somalia.

Most US religion is vain and shallow. They are quick to cite God to justify things they want to do regardless. Not at all willing to take note of unfavourable messages or Biblical commandments that do not suit them. If Saddam Hussein was suddenly killed by a bolt of lightning, American would be happy to accept it as supernatural, or else a successful CIA plot. The excellent Hollywood film of the Apollo 13 accident was quite happy to highlight the coincidences. Negative news, though, is just not wanted, not by the mainstream. (You can find some ludicrous ‘biblical-code’ stuff at, and probably many other places.)

A few Muslim clerics have also tried to make something of the matter. But trouble for US hegemony has not so far benefited hard-line Islam. Their ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ crumpled very quickly, indicating it had never been much more than a cover for Pakistan taking over its neighbour. The Taliban was coherent government to confused and corrupt tribalists that the USA had armed against the Russians.

The Taliban collapse contrasts with the endurance of the secular-socialist Iraqi Baath, still going strong after a dozen years as the focus of US hatred. Saddam Hussein flourished for years as a US ally, indeed. But since becoming their foe, he has outlasted two US presidents, two British Prime Ministers, Ceaucescu, Mobutu, Sukarno, the entire Soviet Union and the first post-Soviet Russian ruler. Even if he goes tomorrow, it’s an impressive record.

[I underestimated the USA’s foolish determination.  They did uproot Baathism in Iraq, and damaged it in Syria.  And find it deeply puzzling that the replacements have been Militant Islam: ISIS in Syria and the Sunni Arab half of Iraq: a democratically elected Shia-religious government dependant upon sectarian pro-Iranian militia in Iraq.]

I’m not a believer in ‘divine providence’ or anything like that. But it is remarkable that the second accident in 113 missions comes just after Bush confirmed he was going to wage war on Iraq regardless of evidence. This accident kills Israel’s first astronaut, who was also a military pilot who had been part of Israel’s 1981 attack on an Iraqi nuclear reactor. A disastrous weakening of the shuttle’s left wing probably begins over California, home state of Ronald Reagan and the starting point for the New Right. The disaster indisputably culminates over Texas, President Bush’s home state. And at the centre of the falling debris is Palestine, Texas, one of just three significant places bearing that name apart from the land itself.

My first thought was definitely sabotage. But current investigations seem to rule that out, a piece of falling debris struck the shuttle’s left wing on take-off and did damage that seemed slight at the time. Investigations continue, with signs of molten metal indicating a failure of the leading edge of the wing. Another notion is a leak that exploded a tire, but this idea has fallen out of favour. The unfortunate crew probably had little idea what was happening: some trouble would have been apparent, but it’s a bumpy ride at the best of times, and always a potentially lethal landing.

Whatever the cause, the shuttle fleet has been grounded for the time being. And the whole logic of the International Space Station is in question. The station and the shuttles seem to exist for little reason except to make work for each other, and they in turn are being promoted as the basis for sending humans to Mars. A little science comes out of it, but at huge cost and with the certainty that more flights will mean more deaths. Attempts to make pioneering ventures death-proof will eat up a lot of money that could otherwise be used for unmanned projects, or for saving vastly greater numbers of lives here on Planet Earth.

In the present political climate, savings on the US human-flight space program are more likely to be grabbed by the rich or by the military than spent on anything useful. That’s what happened when liberals cut space spending in the 1970s. Jimmy Carter messed up: he could have been the big space enthusiast, promoting a 1970s space station and a trip on to Mars, the culture back then was open to positive developments in that direction. We might have had Astronautical Keynesianism reviving the US in the 1970s, rather than the Military Keynesianism that Reagan developed in the 1980s in response to liberal incoherence. But it didn’t happen, and even today, liberals still don’t understand that an economy is not at all the same as an individual household. An economy generates its own wealth, or maybe destroys it, the choice is normally very political. Deny people their dreams, and they will go looking for some smiling charmer who offers romance in a depressing world, as Ronald Reagan did.

If I could control such things in the present-day world, I’d scrap the regular human-flight program and switch the emphasis to space tourism—a logical consequence of badly-distributed wealth, and a way of keeping the process alive until there is something economically useful for it to do.

Forget about demands for ‘perfect safety’, which is not achievable. Lots of people would be happy to go into outer space with odds of survival of 1 in 10, maybe worse. I’d definitely volunteer, if I thought I had any chance of a place. If there were a lottery with a trip into space as a possible prize, I’d start buying tickets, though I don’t normally gamble.

We need to accept that exploration kills people, and that there is nothing very useful for people to do beyond the atmosphere in the next century or more.

People have said that people in space are a guarantee against humans going extinct. Myself, I have no doubt that over the next few thousands of years, humans will transform Mars and maybe Venus into habitable worlds that can be sensibly settled. But not yet: first we need to explore them thoroughly with robotic probes, and then set in motion drastic climatic changes, assuming that we find nothing that justifies leaving them untouched.

Space colonies such as the ‘L5’ project are also a distant possibility, but not a good idea for the next few decades. At the moment, no one powerful enough to wipe out life on Earth is likely to want to do such a thing. But if there were space colonies, it becomes slightly less unthinkable. It needn’t be the visible elected leaders, though these can be bad enough. But what about a covert sect in the military? It is unlikely, of course. But vastly less unlikely than a major catastrophie hitting the whole world some time in the next century or two.

It is also sheer mythology to suppose that the Earth is a crowded planet. Even in Britain, there is lots of excellent land that has less of a population than it had in the 19th century. Globally, you can see an excellent picture at Europe and India are crowded but the USA far from full, Siberia is almost empty and there are even huge unpopulated territories in the west of China.

Being competitive for power and wealth means that people huddle round the core of decision-making. Correcting this would be much better than wasting trillions on space colonies where a few hundred people might live.

Human space settlement should wait until there’s no one alive with personal experience of a major war, no one who has been de-sensitised to the value of human life. In the meantime, machines are cheap and plentiful. The loss of an unmanned mission cause no great public outcry, it’s tragic just for the people who worked on it, and the mission can often be done again some other way. Options exist for automated missions that were unthinkable in the days of the first ocean voyagers, barely developed when heavier-than-air vehicles were first flown.

Aircraft went from experimental machines to a major economic and military roles in less than two decades. Automatic space craft have likewise achieved major economic, scientific and military roles in the 44 years since Sputnik. But spacecraft with humans on board can not do much more than modern automata, and are enormously more expensive.

The logic for of human spaceflight is only political prestige. That’s why the Chinese are expected to start their own human space flight program later this year, but with just one astronaut for the pioneering flight. It puts them well ahead of Japan and India, without particularly offending the USA. Theirs will be the only system of human spaceflight independent of the USA, though in real terms that matters little. In fact NASA are keen to have a little competition, now that the Russians have become visibly dependent on NASA ‘outsourcing’. Europe, as rich as the USA, runs a space program one-sixth of the size and with no plans for human flight. But if the Chinese are up there, the pressure to match them will be increased. And, inevitably, more accident will occur.

No one should go into space if they have any dependents left back here on Earth.

It was the USA’s decision in the late 1950s and early 1960s to make it a venture their ‘ideal people’—initially white male military and married with children. The definition of ‘Perfect Persons’ as been extended with the softening of attitudes since the 1960s. But really, there is no need to risk anyone with dependant children, there are enough others who’d be happy to accept the risks.

Tom Wolfe documented the process in his space-flight book The Right Stuff. His story-telling is good: he begins with the quest to crack the ‘sound barrier’, supersonic flight without a fatal loss of control. Yeager was the man who did it, and the methods used led logically to rocket-planes that might have flown into space. This got aborted when the Russians started launching satellites and cosmonauts using the big rockets that had been developed for Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. The USA followed suit, though with Yeager playing a prominent part in selecting and training the astronauts.

Wolfe’s big idea, though, is the ‘right stuff’ ideology. US culture believes that those with the ‘right stuff’ will pull through any danger. Those who perish deserve it—though it’s another not-in-my-backyard doctrines. The same people who apply the idea to strangers and foreigners would be outraged if it were applied to their own. The truth is, it’s an outrageous principle whoever it’s applied to.

It’s also wrong: factually mistaken as well as ethically odorous. Wolfe spices the nonsense with cynicism, but never says that the ideas are mistaken, or that there are other truths that can be discovered.. There’s a lot he’s not frank about, including the nature of Pancho Barnes’s little outfit. You might suppose it was a restaurant plus aeronautical fan club: but Yeager’s wife explains:

“Pancho called a spade a spade. Her bar was little more than a desert whorehouse. She knew it and so did I. She respected me because, unlike a lot of other wives, I never made a fuss about my husband going there… Pancho was amoral, with the foulest mouth imaginable.”

This is in Yeager’s own biography, where he makes space for other voices and casts doubt the whole ‘right stuff’ nonsense.

Tom Wolfe is an entertaining writer, but also a silly loud-mouth and superficial thinker. Elements of his ideas have passed into the ideology of McLunatic Globalisation, though he’s not wholly at home with the total package. And Yeager, though in most ways a typical American of the Keynesian era, knew from his own experience that he’d been lucky as well as brave and skilled. Misfortunes recounted by him include him and his brother accidentally shooting their baby sister, and Yeager as a young pilot being shot down after just 8 wartime missions. He was lucky to get back to Allied territory, even luckier to be allowed to fly again, in defiance of the normal rules, so that he accumulated enough of a reputation to become a test pilot and eventually ‘break the sound barrier’.

Yeager was an outstandingly good pilot, indeed, but also lucky, in that he arranged to get posted to nearest air base to home without having any idea what was to be done there.

“If another air base had been closer to Hamlin than Wright Field, I would not have been at the right time. I had no idea that I had stumbled into the most exciting place on earth for a fighter pilot.” (Yeager, An Autobiography by General Chuck Yeager and Leo Janos. Century Hutchinson, 1985, page 82.)

He also said

“The public didn’t really understand the concept of the sound barrier, but the press description if a brick wall in the sky made me seem like a young Captain Marvel. Sometimes I just winced reading stories crediting me with feats that were wildly exaggerated… It’s hard enough being a test pilot without dragging around a ten-foot reputation that just isn’t true. Everyone expects miracles from me and that’s a perfect way to get killed” (Ibid, p164)

Skill and quick thinking come into it.

“Flying at supersonic speeds, a pilot has a couple of seconds to take decisive corrective action when something goes alarmingly wrong. Some of the dead pilots needed more time to figure it out.” (Ibid, p 186).

On the other hand

“Fritz had been my backup pilot on the X-1 after Hoover. He was the best takeoff and landing pilot I ever saw. Nobody remembers that Fritz was the second pilot to break Mach 1 in the X-1… In late 1948… on landing, the wing hit the ground, the airplane cart-wheeled, and Fritz died of terrible head injuries. How and why such a fabulous pilot was caught that was is hard to understand.”(Ibid, p 187).

And even the best pilot can’t save a disintegrating vehicle, which was what happened to shuttle Columbia. The whole thing is just now in limbo, but will probably resume in a few months with most of the same errors, as happened after Challenger. You’ll have many more expensive high-prestige flights that maybe make the USA look good. Meantime little robotic probes representing the entire human race that will do the bulk of the work.


First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, 2003, using the pen-name ” Michael Alexander”

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