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The Price of "Peace"
Our twin-prop Brasilia leapt off the runway like a startled bird, the turbocharged engines groaning as they struggled to pull the plane upward through the steamy funk that passes for air in the late-summer tropics. We had only a few seconds to watch the Fijian capital city of Suva-a hodgepodge of tin-roofed jungle, architectural brutalism-melt from view like a hazy ghost town. Then the world outside went white, and we became part of the clouds.
In the low-pressure turbulence the Brasilia popped and bobbed like a bathtub toy, but we sat in contented silence, happy to be airborne. It had been raining all day, sometimes in scattered wisps of mist, more often in pounding sheets of practically solid liquid. Our group, about thirty in all, had traveled for nearly three hours by bus from our base outside of the town of Nadi, a creaky tourist trap on the rounded curve of Fiji's southwest side. The rain had made for slow, treacherous driving on the island's snaking roads, which seemed to be losing the battle against the jungle's tireless campaign to reclaim them. In the end, the roads and the jungle had cost us time, a commodity we had only in the sparest quantity.
Nevertheless, here we were. We had traveled from all over the world and spent an anxious week in Fiji for a chance at witnessing two hundred seconds of history. As our plane roared through the late afternoon sky, none of us were thinking about the hoops we'd jumped through to shoehorn ourselves into a small plane buzzing southeast toward what one member of our group had dubbed the loneliest place on the planet. Instead, we were thinking about Mir.
The Brasilia was on course to a position where we could observe the aging Russian space station as it plummeted from the sky. For more than two years, space engineers around the world had done computer modeling and other scientific soothsaying to anticipate what Mir would do when it plowed into the upper atmosphere at seven times the speed of sound. As we took off from Suva that afternoon, there was general agreement that the models and predictions amounted to a collective shrug: Mir was a 140-ton Tinkertoy the size of a jumbo jet, massive and unpredictable. It was more than twice as large as the second-largest man-made object ever to return to Earth, the American Skylab space station, which in 1979 had skipped down from orbit slightly askew and accidentally rained debris across the Australian outback, mercifully scarring nothing but the landscape. Still, even Skylab offered only a limited precedent to Mir's reentry. The only certainty was that once Mir reached an altitude of about 130 miles above the Earth there would be no turning back. Mir would come home.
We were to fly parallel to a rectangular swath of ocean that stretched southeast from Fiji roughly toward Argentina. This was to be Mir's "debris footprint," a mostly empty patch of water with no populated landmasses, no shipping lanes and only a smattering of fishing boats whose captains had been duly warned of Mir's pending return. It was here that the Russians would try to dump what was left of Mir after it burned its way through the Earth's heavy blanket of air, which captures an astonishing one hundred tons or so of space junk each year and incinerates it before a trace can touch terra firma. Again, Mir was a different story. Because of its size, what was left of the station after reentry could be considerable; up to forty tons of metal that would be traveling faster than a rifle bullet, even after being slowed by the atmosphere.
This is exactly what we hoped to see. Our flight plan had been recalculated dozens of times, and the very date of Mir's demise-March 23, 2001-was finalized only two days before we took off from Suva. With real-time updates from both NASA and Russian space centers, we would be able to position our planes (a smaller Bandeirante would trail our Brasilia to increase the coverage zone) for an unsurpassed view of one of the most spectacular cosmic events of the century. We would be six miles up and only, at most, a few hundred miles away when Mir exploded in the mother of all modern fireworks shows.
The timing of Mir's final descent was bittersweet. Just the previous month, the station had celebrated its fifteenth year in orbit, three times its intended operational lifetime; undeniably, Mir was humanity's first long-term outpost in space. Yet it was hard to argue with Russia's decision to retire Mir. Pummeled by micrometeorites and even rammed by other spacecraft, Mir had come to be perceived as something of an orbiting death trap; a rickety, patchwork jalopy held together by hope, popular will and, famously, chewing gum. With the cash-strapped Russians committed as key partners in the NASA-led International Space Station, the official statement from the Russian government was that now was the time to retire Mir with grace and dignity.
But all of us on the Brasilia knew that Russia had not willingly decided to end its space station's career. In the year prior to Mir's termination, Russia had nearly succeeded in revitalizing Mir through an extensive capitalist makeover. The result would have been the world's first commercial space station. The possibility for such a stunning revival was tantalizingly real. There were signed contracts on the table, customers at the door and millions of dollars in the bank with hints of more to follow.
To anyone interested in the future of human spaceflight, the effort
to turn Mir into a privately run, market-driven human-spaceflight platform was something truly new and exciting. In time, hoped Mir's backers, a successfully commercialized Mir would spark other entrepreneurial ventures-passenger space travel, media events, perhaps even the establishment of orbital recreational facilities-that might lead to more such ventures, to better and cheaper access to orbit, and to yet more people in space.
In time, a thriving human marketplace in Earth orbit would create the foundation for more ambitious voyages-back to the moon and on to Mars, voyages that would almost certainly require public- and private-sector partnership and international cooperation. Gone were the days when interplanetary human spaceflight could be sustained on the back of a single nation. A different kind of popular buy-in was needed if something as grand as Apollo was ever to happen again.
But Mir would not survive to justify the optimism attached, perhaps too hastily, to the plans for its revitalization. Long before we headed to Fiji, it was clear that even if there had been millions of dollars more invested in Mir's makeover, money alone was never enough to save the station. Whatever else it promised, the possibility of a commercialized Mir also threatened a comfortable status quo. That fact spelled the station's doom.
In the wake of Mir's demise, however, the status quo would suffer body blows in the form of a diminutive California millionaire determined to fulfill a boyhood dream, the diminishing relevance (and growing expense) of the International Space Station, and the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia. Through it all, NASA-chief guardian of the status quo, and the binding agent that held the frayed threads of a fading Space Age together-would increasingly look less like an innovator of new frontiers than a desperate bureaucracy concerned, above all else, with its own survival.
For several days after our arrival in Fiji, there was little to do but lounge in the tropical swelter, nursing cocktails and conversation while waiting for the Russians to confirm the details of Mir's final descent. We were a mixed bunch; scientists, photographers, journalists and entrepreneurs. All of us, to a person, were space junkies. We asked one another what had become of the Space Age-that epic turning point in history whose ultimate legacy would not be one of petty nationalist squabbles but one of common adventure and discovery as we reached out to the stars toward new adventures and horizons. Convened on a tiny patch of humid paradise, we waited for the sky to fall-and wondered if our own Space Age dreams could survive the impact.
It took a lot of effort-economic, technological and most of all political-to kill the Mir space station. And whether talking over cool beers in the sweaty heat of a Fijian evening or on quiet morning walks along storm-clouded stretches of beach, we voiced the same question repeatedly, albeit in different languages and through the prisms of different agendas: was Mir's demise the result of euthanasia or of murder?
Where the proverbial human space odyssey is concerned, the date
the Soviet Union launched its tiny Sputnik satellite, October 4, 1957, was the day the Space Age began. The following year, a hastily crafted congressional mandate created the National Aeronautics and Space Agency, or NASA, which just over a decade later would engineer humankind's first footsteps on another world. That period, between 1957 and 1969, represents the most stunning rate of technological advancement the world has seen, before or since.
Few have dated the end of the Space Age. But it did end. The year was 1986.
On February 20 of that year, the Soviet Union launched the Mir space station. Beaten to the moon and Mars, the Soviets specialized in space stations, the single area of human spaceflight in which they had regularly trumped the Americans; the Soviets can claim the first space station, Salyut 1, launched in 1971, two years before the American Skylab (although the first Salyut mission ended in tragedy when the Soyuz capsule returning the crew depressurized during reentry, killing all three cosmonauts). Several more Salyuts would precede Mir as the Russians learned more and more about living in space.
Yet all of the Salyuts, and Skylab, were little more than stretched space capsules. Mir was something altogether different-an elaborate, multimodule orbital platform that could host sophisticated science experiments and serve as home to half a dozen people at a time, including some who had lived on the station for over a year. It might not have been the gigantic spinning wheel of Kubrick and Clarke's seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it was the most significant step for humans in space since Apollo.
Until the International Space Station hit its stride in 2001, Mir was the largest and most sophisticated object humans had ever put into space; it was probably the Soviet space program's greatest triumph in the post-Apollo era. But it was an empty achievement. Only a few years after its completion, the cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev would find himself stranded on Mir as an abortive coup attempt delayed the launch of his return spacecraft-an event symbolic of the decline of the Soviet Union and its human spaceflight prowess. Launched as an emblem of Soviet power, Mir would end its days as a desperate capitalist experiment.
A few weeks before Mir's launch, on January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded seventy-three seconds after liftoff, killing all seven crew members-the largest loss of life in the history of the American space program. The Challenger disaster lives in America's collective memory as the diabolical doppelgänger of the soul-thrilling Apollo launches two decades earlier.
In technical terms, Challenger's demise was traced to the now-infamous O-rings, malleable gaskets that separate sections of the two solid-fuel rockets used to boost shuttles into orbit. Challenger launched on an unusually cold winter day; the O-rings stiffened in the chill and became brittle. One O-ring cracked and burned through, causing the explosion that destroyed Challenger and killed its crew.
The larger causes of Challenger's demise arguably more painful to absorb. Various Challenger inquiries excoriated NASA for mismanagement, for shoddy engineering and for putting public image above human safety. Far from a competent band of techno-pioneers, the NASA portrayed by the inquiries was fragmented, secretive, clumsy and more concerned with saving face than saving lives.
Seventeen years after Challenger's destruction, when the oldest of the space shuttles, Columbia, disintegrated over the southwestern United States, there was an understandably similar sense of horror and mourning. But Columbia's destruction, while certainly not anticipated (at least not by the public), wasn't quite as shocking as that of Challenger. For most people, the first eye-opener of the Columbia disaster was that there had been a shuttle aloft at all. That's because Challenger had long ago blown apart any remaining public interest, not to say confidence, in the American human spaceflight venture-what's more, Challenger had robbed NASA of what little boldness and imagination the agency retained after the swaggering heyday of Apollo. By the time Columbia was lost, not only had the shuttle program been downgraded as a technological exemplar, but NASA itself had largely mortgaged its vision for that most basic of quantities, survival.
What both Challenger and Mir signified, in different ways, was that the accepted paradigm for achieving the two-part promise of the Space Age-sending human explorers to other planets and paving the way for "ordinary" humans to spend time in space-was not going to deliver either. The shattered promise of Challenger and the failed hope of Mir, taken together, effectively ended what we called the Space Age. From 1986 on, human spaceflight has been in a state of suspended animation. We're not quite regressing, but we certainly aren't moving forward.
The space shuttle was meant to herald the next phase of humankind's venture into space and restore NASA to its place of glory. Instead, the shuttle tied humans more tightly to Earth than the moon rockets it was built to replace. It did so not only in and of itself-by being almost nothing that its supporters promised and virtually everything its critics feared-but by prompting the birth of its evil cousin, the International Space Station, a money-gobbling albatross whose original intent and design have become so subverted by politics, spin and greed that not even NASA can give a straight answer anymore as to what, in fact, it's for.
Whatever else might be said of them, the shuttle and station have kept NASA in business, since by winning the race to the moon, NASA inadvertently made itself obsolete as part of America's Cold War machine. Once the moon had done its part for the American war effort, the sprawling caravan of politicians and pundits that had made space the most important national concern since defeating Japan quickly packed up their influence machines, boxed up their encouragement and barely glanced backward at what was still being called the Space Age-although not so loudly anymore.
In the process of assembling the $100 billion Apollo juggernaut, jobs had been created and companies had become fat with space dollars: the contract for the Saturn V moon rocket still holds the record as the largest civilian contract in American history. By 1972, the year the last Apollo mission went to the moon-and the year the space shuttle program was approved-NASA provided bread and butter to nearly thirty thousand civil servants and three times that many contract employees. Alarmingly for NASA, this was less than half the workforce the agency had commanded less than a decade earlier. Something new had to be thought up, built and perhaps even launched, or else all of those good things would go away.