Saturday, August 30, 2003


By Robert Zimmerman

ISI, $27.95, 544 pages


Every spectacular spacecraft failure proves the same thing: Space travel is a tough, expensive, risky business. Computers crash, rockets explode, probes miss planets and satellites smack into the atmosphere. And then there are human tragedies — the Challengers, the Columbias.

Yet for every glitch, space travelers find a fix, for every disaster, they find a renewed determination. Sometimes the solutions happen in mid-mission, sometimes, they aren’t found until the accident review board finishes its work.

Space enthusiasts worried about where the manned space program is headed will take some heart from reading Robert Zimmerman’s “Leaving Earth: Space Stations Rival Superpowers and the Quest for Interplanetary Travel,” in which the author tells how determined men and women have mastered, if not totally overcome, many of the hazards of living in space.

Mr. Zimmerman shows that space, for all it’s promise, can be a Murphy’s Law paradise, in which everything goes wrong, often at exactly the most critical moment. There are the physical difficulties — the hostile environment outside and the constricted spaces inside space stations. There are physiological challenges of space sickness and bone loss, and the psychological challenges of boredom and claustrophobia and of mismatched teammates stuck together in inescapably tight quarters. Then there are the technical difficulties — balky computers, leaky space suits, tools that don’t work well in zero gravity. Perhaps the greatest problems are created by politicians and space bureaucracies.

As Mr. Zimmerman notes in describing the experience of those on Skylab, “Without gravity, nothing behaved as you expected,” starting with showers. All unsecured items, ranging from silverware to tiny droplets of water, behaved just as should have been expected in zero gravity, namely by floating away.

As Mr. Zimmerman makes clear, the difficulties were there from the outset. On the first mission to occupy the first Russian space station, the guidance system of the crew’s rocket malfunctioned, forcing cosmonaut Vladimir Shatalov to steer manually. However, once the craft arrived, he couldn’t confirm that it had fully docked with the station. When he tried to undock for a second try, he couldn’t get the claps to release. The craft didn’t have enough fuel or oxygen to try again, so the crew never made it inside (where a malfunctioning oxygen replacement system would have awaited them) and so had to return to Earth.

The adaptive ability of astronauts and cosmonauts was also evident at the outset. On the first manned mission to the Skylab space station, astronauts Pete Conrad, Joe Kerwin and Paul Weitz deployed a sunscreen to reduce the interior temperature from 130 F, and found a way to fully release a stuck solar panel, even though there were no handholds nearby. As Mr. Conrad exclaimed upon landing, “We can fix anything!”

As missions got longer, computers improved, tools were adapted, and scientists determined that bone density loss could be controlled by constant exercise. However, challenges continued to crop up. The adaptive ability of astronauts and cosmonauts was put to it’s limit aboard Mir, where Russian and American crews had to deal with, among others, an almost catastrophic fire, a collision with a re-supply ship, a series of difficulties with the oxygen regenerators (culminated by their failure) and a coolant leak, which, Mr. Zimmerman reports, “Made the overheated station smelled like a car repair shop.”

But those problems were also beaten back. The fire was extinguished, and the crews managed to rig an atmosphere recycling system until a replacement arrived from earth, work around the coolant leak and repair most of the damage caused by the collision.

Though daunting, the physical difficulties were often dwarfed by psychological challenges. Mr. Zimmerman relates that in 1982, cosmonauts Valentin Lebedev and Anatoly Berezovoi set a longevity record of over six months in space, but had such serious personality conflicts that they haven’t spoken to one another since they landed. Cosmonauts lost friends and loved ones while in space-sometimes they were informed while they were still in space, sometimes they only found out once they landed.

When American and Russians did joint missions, personality differences were sometimes exacerbated by cultural misunderstandings. Astronaut Norm Thagard experienced isolation not only from his Russian crewmates, but also from his supposed supporters at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He complained to Mr. Zimmerman, “NASA didn’t do squat.” Mr. Zimmerman pointed out further, “During the entire shuttle-Mir program, NASA seemed oblivious to the needs of the astronauts sent to Russia.”

Perhaps that was because, as Mr. Zimmerman recounts, “To [President] Clinton, space was entirely a foreign aid program, useful for helping the Russians while simultaneously encouraging international cooperation.” He wasn’t the only one who used the space program almost purely for political ends. To General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, the space program was little more than a political prop. Ronald Reagan, while a supporter of the space program, failed to give the space station a clear goal, so that the dream decayed into a bureaucratic boondoggle.

Indeed, while at the end of the Cold War, the Russians were experimenting in ways to make money on the space program, NASA’s bureaucracy was becoming as centralized and as command-and-control directed as the reddest dreams of a Soviet commissar. As Mr. Zimmerman grimly tells, while the plans for Space Station Freedom where being drawn up, “The bureaucracy at NASA seemed more interested in drawing grandiose gold-plated blueprints than in building something simple but concrete … there were layers of bureaucracy at every NASA center, made up of people more interested in protecting their jobs and building office empires than in building risky but daring spacecraft that would conquer the stars.”

That’s perhaps Mr. Zimmerman’s greatest frustration, one that echoes through the book and resonates among space enthusiasts. The International Space Station could have been directed towards self-sufficiency, a trial platform for humans on a multi-year mission to Mars or a permanent settlement on the moon. Instead, NASA has settled for well … whatever the astronauts are doing up there mission after mission.

Mr. Zimmerman shows that engineers and astronauts have the ability survive, and even thrive in space, to conquer everything that can be thrown at them by nature and their fellows. However, it’s not clear that they can overcome the inertia of bureaucracies or the indecision of politicians.

Man has the ability to travel to the stars. The haunting question Mr. Zimmerman leaves us with is, does he have the will?

Charles Rousseaux is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.

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