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STS-63 marked a truly profound milestone in the history of space exploration, but did anyone notice? (credit: NASA)

The man who painted my future

Has yesterday’s dream disappeared from tomorrow?


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Back in the midst of my childhood a brochure came in the mail advertising a new book, available by special order, titled Our World in Space. It looked to be an exciting volume, especially to a ten-year-old. As the brochure explained, Isaac Asimov had written the text and the illustrations were by “acclaimed space artist” Robert McCall. I can’t recall whether my dad asked me or I asked my dad, but he went ahead and ordered it.

The paintings of Robert McCall in that book weren’t just pictures. They were snapshots of a wondrous future.

And it was every bit as exciting as I had anticipated. In fact, it was beyond exciting; it was glorious. While I had possessed an interest in spaceflight as far back as I can remember (in the rotating queue with dinosaurs, trains, basketball, and garbage trucks—go figure, the compacting mechanisms fascinated me), the vistas in that book transformed my interest into a passion. Not to slight Dr. Asimov’s considerable talent and insight, but I don’t think I got around to reading his text for two years or more. But the paintings?

I lived in them. Renderings of a sprawling Kennedy Space Center abuzz with multiple piggyback space shuttles being processed and launched, monstrous space stations amidst swarms of space shuttles, massive interplanetary landers poised for launch from a Europa spaceport, and, of course, those fantastic cities in the sky serenely hovering over Arizona’s badlands.

The paintings of Robert McCall in that book weren’t just pictures. They were snapshots of a wondrous future, a sprawling vista of landscapes and spacescapes teeming with technology’s potential and humanity’s hope. It is nearly impossible to take in a Robert McCall painting, especially a mural, and not feel that visceral yearning to conquer the last great frontier.

McCall wasn’t the first space artist to master such a magical influence over the noble emotions. Decades earlier Chesley Bonestell, Rolf Klep, and Fred Freeman, guided by the technical vision of Wernher von Braun, Fred Whipple, and Willy Ley, had achieved the very same inspirational impact on an earlier generation with their paintings in the Collier’s magazine space series.

But whereas those earlier artists were able to capture the promise of spaceflight, Robert McCall, perhaps bolstered by the real space achievements of the sixties and seventies, was somehow able to convey through his brush strokes and choice of composition that, not only was it all possible, but that it was inevitable. When one surveyed a McCall spacescape something deep in the consciousness whispered that you were looking into the future, not just an artist’s impression of some possible future.

To a maturing adolescent, however, McCall’s rich vistas offered something more: a personal destination. Years later (certainly after I had read Asimov’s text), while admiring “Preparing to Dock”, a highly technical rendering of a space station as viewed from inside the cockpit of an approaching space shuttle, I made my career choice—the decision—to work in the manned space program.

All the other images in those pages remained an immersive delight and continued to dazzle my imagination, but something about that one image, the pure functionality of it, spoke to my inner engineer’s soul. Right then I mapped out my plan to pursue degrees in aerospace engineering and to eventually work at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

And yet that image conveyed something else, too, which probably increased its inspirational power over me. Of the many dozens of images that McCall has rendered of space shuttles and space stations, somehow that particular one, almost a study in pure technology, best captured the essence of what a space shuttle was all about: the routine task of approaching a space station to deliver cargo and crew as set against the larger backdrop of extensive activities unfolding in space.

That painting spoke to me. I had to work in the space program.

Such a relationship—winged shuttles ferrying to and from space stations—is woven into the very fabric of the promise of spaceflight. Eugene Sänger first proposed the antipodal bomber in the late 1920s, and even von Braun and his Peenemünde team tested winged A-4 (V-2) missiles. But later, since it was inherent in von Braun’s later proposals and rendered so magnificently by Bonestell and the others, a winged shuttle rocketing into orbit to link up with a space station became the iconic symbol of a robust, established space effort. The significant achievements of Vostok, Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Soyuz—all disposable blunt ballistic capsules shaped by Space Race expediency and the brutish constraints of re-entry aerothermodynamics on then-known materials science—were always understood to be a shortcut, a stop-gap, until the real business of spacefaring could begin: reusable winged shuttles slicing through the heavens to ferry crews and cargo to and from orbiting outposts. That these outposts were way-stations to destinations beyond was an underlying premise of the paradigm.

McCall captured all this in that one detailed image: the attentive shuttle crew monitoring their vehicle’s graceful approach, the expansive conglomeration of cylindrical station modules only yards away, suited spacewalkers busy with specific tasks, the beautiful curving Earth as backdrop. This, it said, is what real spaceflight is all about: regular service, reusable spacecraft, much to accomplish, the expectation of expansion… all manifested in just another shuttle’s approach to just another space station.

That painting spoke to me. I had to work in the space program.

18 years later

On February 6, 1995, the future became the present as STS-63 Commander Jim Wetherbee piloted space shuttle Discovery to within 12 meters (40 feet) of the Russian space station Mir. He executed this approach to evaluate the procedures being developed for the first docking flight, STS-71, slated to follow three months later.

And I had the privilege to participate in that moment, monitoring from Houston Mission Control as Wetherbee and his five crewmates performed this task, their “final exam” from my perspective. I served on the STS-63 training team as Lead Rendezvous and Proximity Operations Instructor. In other words, I trained the first crew ever to achieve this long-anticipated milestone, a winged shuttle’s approach to a space station, the very activity depicted in that especially inspirational Robert McCall painting.

That my many coworkers and I were touching the tendrils of truly momentous history, however, slipped right past me.

Lost in the limitations in a maze of the mundane

I’m not sure exactly why. Perhaps it was my appropriate focus on the important details, like proper jet-select strategies to ensure that we (as in, the United States) didn’t damage Mir’s solar panels, or the strict profile of approach velocities and vehicle orientations permitted inside the narrow trajectory corridor. More likely it was the typical bureaucratic distraction of having to record my weekly work hours four different ways, or the last-minute program office directives that forced a complete rewrite of the crew’s final-month training flow to accommodate long-anticipated yet obstinately resisted (by them!) mission priority changes.

And then there was the hardware itself. The cramped and aging Mir was obviously a far cry from the expansive shiny stations rendered in Our World in Space, even though, conceptually, the heritage of its modular assembly ran true to McCall’s visions. And Discovery, as magnificent as she and her sister orbiters have always been, represented only our first imperfect foray into the realm of reusable spacecraft, an obvious predecessor but not a fleet-sister of the sleek, silver-winged birds with which McCall so frequently populated his paintings. To train crews to fly these vehicles, I and my fellow instructors had to learn their impressive capabilities, but also their frustrating limitations.

And the shuttle design had many such limitations, the most fundamental born of highest-level financial decisions (“Make it cheaper”) imposed at the shuttle program’s inception, back even before my 10-year-old head was immersed in that glorious Asimov-McCall book. Gone were the desired features of full reusability, flyback boosters, fly-around jet engines, escape rockets, and so-called hot structures that would have afforded minimal thermal protection requirements. In their place came side-mount segmented solid rocket boosters, silica tiles to protect an airliner-heritage aluminum airframe, and a disposable foam-insulated propellant tank… all cost-saving compromises aimed at getting something reusable with wings flying for as little development cost as possible.

With my head down in the less-than-sleek details of workaday space operations, I had lost sight of the grand vision that had inspired me all those years ago, and so missed the deeper watershed reality unfolding above our heads.

But with these compromises came corresponding costs of a different kind. The first space shuttle—rocket, spacecraft, airplane—was undeniably a magnificent and highly versatile flying machine, an impressive advance over the throw-away rockets and capsules of old (and, despite current perception, substantially less expensive per launch than the Apollo moonshots). Built on the scale of a naval vessel, imbued with exceptional features able to support a multitude of tasks, and necessarily harnessing almost unimaginable energies needed to reach orbit, the design nonetheless required (like earlier spacecraft) a jeweler’s precise care, executed by a small army of highly trained personnel. This inevitably drove up the cost required to operate it, much higher than originally hoped. And in certain critical places the shuttle was, like its expendable spacefaring forebears, fragile.

So, with my head down in the less-than-sleek details of workaday space operations, I had lost sight of the grand vision that had inspired me all those years ago, and so missed the deeper watershed reality unfolding above our heads. Instead, the only “historic milestone” that I—actually, most of us—noted at the time was in fact a second-tier one, a sort of trivia-contest also-ran: the first shuttle (as in, a specific type of spacecraft) rendezvous with a Russian spacecraft. This was because the “real” historic first, the first US-Russian link-up in space, had occurred twenty years earlier during the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. That we were touching, however fleetingly, a much more significant mark in history—the realization of a nearly century-old dream—remained hidden from my eyes until Robert McCall’s recent passing prompted this reflection.

But the importance of the STS-63 milestone remains: on that February day more than fifteen years ago space shuttles, winged reusable space shuttles, began their true mission, as ferries to space stations which themselves were always meant to be steppingstones to further destinations (hence their very name: space stations). This foundational element of “real” spaceflight, almost a gospel truth among the faithful for more than fifty years, had been realized. Robert McCall’s inevitable future had finally begun.

Retirement and retreat

Yet less than a decade later, in the wake of a second shuttle tragedy, we as a nation chose to abandon that future. Expediency had returned in the shape of the disposable ballistic capsule, and the three remaining shuttles of the pathfinder fleet—Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour—were to be retired once the International Space Station (actually, a reduced, shrunken version of it) achieved “Assembly Complete”.

The primary driver of this decision, made initially during the previous administration but reiterated during the current one, was again financial. Maintaining the first-generation space shuttle fleet simply cost too much to allow our nation to do anything else significant in space. To move outward, it was explained, the reusable but high-maintenance shuttles would have to stop flying. No follow-on winged shuttle design was considered. That route, the evolutionary path toward second- and third-generation winged vehicles of ever-more-complete reusability (long the expectation of space engineers across the industry), had somehow died during the 1990s amid various failed efforts to pursue technical advances (slush cryogenic propellants, single stage to orbit, commercial operation) too substantial to achieve with too little money and too small a market.

One might try to assign responsibility to this or that administration, but such a move would be misplaced. The decision to abandon reusable winged shuttles and return to disposable capsules is merely the most recent outward manifestation of a retreat that began even before that watershed Discovery mission to Mir. Somewhere between the optimism of the late 80s and the cynicism of the later 90s, our nation’s leaders said “no thank you” to a previous president’s call for an expansive Space Exploration Initiative while the country as a whole yawned in response. Collectively, we as a nation had decided, quite firmly, that spaceflight would remain a marginal enterprise, only meriting an investment of less than one half of one percent of our federal expenditures (roughly equivalent to one DVD per year per average taxpayer).

Hence the perceived need to kill the shuttle to enable exploration beyond low Earth orbit. Spaceflight, even dating from the design-compromise early seventies, had become an either/or proposition. The original shuttle proposal had actually been just the transportation portion of a pitch for a space station; NASA was directed (“Make it cheaper”) to choose one or the other. Forget the reality that some other individual departments of our federal government spend NASA’s entire annual budget in a few months and yet others do so every few weeks. Perception is what matters with government discretionary spending, and human spaceflight has long been deemed an extravagant hobby worth only a proportionately tiny outlay from the public coffers.

Consequently, the premise that the shuttle was only the first critical piece of a larger exploration architecture slowly evaporated as its development lagged, costs went up, and NASA found itself trying to defend the program beyond its primary purpose of servicing a space station that lay decades in the future. Given these circumstances (and the undeniable truth that spaceflight is a difficult, complex, dangerous pursuit), the shuttle program’s morphing into a sometimes self-justifying bureaucracy may have been inevitable.

Meanwhile, the Astronaut Office in Houston, once the pinnacle of dreams for countless children around the world (I’ll admit it; that was the career I had originally set my sights on), is now encouraging its ranks to seek employment elsewhere.

So, not surprisingly, many have cheered the shuttle’s impending demise, bemoaning the three decades we have spent “going around in circles”. But I suspect the most strident of these pundits remain unaware or choose to ignore the larger context and history, even as I had similarly lost perspective while down in the nitty-gritty of my job as a spaceflight instructor. Perhaps these same negative voices will only appreciate the phenomenal, very real capabilities that Atlantis, Endeavour, and Discovery represent—their cavernous payload bays, seven-person cabins, weeks-long orbital stay durations, and unmatched downmass capacities—when those capabilities have faded into the grass after the orbiters get carted off to become just three more hulking museum displays alongside the skeletons of the Apollo program, casting similar shadows of former glory.

And while the previous administration had set forth a Vision, minus the shuttle, that purportedly promised to lead us back to the Moon and thereby on to Mars and beyond in a pay-as-you-go program, the current administration, citing serious problems with NASA’s implementation of said Vision, has scaled back even further to propose a suite of technology development projects and the eventual handing over of space station ferry duties (albeit with severely reduced cargo and crew capacity) to commercial providers who may or may not be up to the task… yet. During hearings before congressional committees and in flaming exchanges across the blogosphere and op-ed pages, proponents offer prospects of decades-later crewed missions to an asteroid and perhaps Mars orbit in an almost comical attempt to paint the new approach as “real” exploration sooner. Meanwhile, the Astronaut Office in Houston, once the pinnacle of dreams for countless children around the world (I’ll admit it; that was the career I had originally set my sights on), is now encouraging its ranks to seek employment elsewhere, since the only sure (and few) tickets that remain offer seats inside station-bound Russian capsules.

Demise of a dream

But as Congress debates and the Administration defends, consideration of adding one or two shuttle missions to the manifest—at considerable cost and mostly in the name of preserving jobs and saving face—muddles the discussion and obscures the true loss that looms before us.

With our heads deep down in the details of this rocket, that spaceflight gap, or which Flexible Path, we are failing to recognize that the demise of the space shuttle, and thereby our rejection of the long-held intent to pursue its evolved and superior progeny, marks the death of a century-old dream on behalf of humanity. The first-generation reusable winged space shuttles, imperfect though they were, had unmistakably made a significant advance along a path toward expanding space exploration and development, a substantial technological leap toward the blossoming of our civilization into a truly spacefaring society.

In its place we are embracing a lesser vision, a severely constrained disposable-ballistic-capsule one, wherein we restrict ourselves to flying only a handful of astronauts on austere missions to visit a few disparate destinations every few years. The once-inspiring image of a truly robust, spacefaring civilization, replete with multiple shuttle-serviced space stations supporting exploration and industry beyond, has faded from the American consciousness. Our eyes, once alight with a desire to seek a future among the stars, are now cast firmly downward with an expedient, practical, and small-thinking acceptance of mediocrity which resides safely inside the bounds of limited horizons.

Perhaps what has come to pass was the true inevitable, and Robert McCall’s future was never meant to be. Yet I (or at least the 10-year-old that still resides deep in my heart) retain(s) a sliver of hope that Robert McCall’s inevitable future will still come to pass. While our generation obviously won’t realize that future, I pray fervently that our children, or maybe their children, will recognize the shortsighted mistakes of our timidity and will recapture their footing on the road to a destiny worthy of us as a people. And, most assuredly, in that future fleets of shuttles will be winging their way into the heavens to service many space stations which support a panoply of human activities across the entire solar system.

Robert McCall painted my future. I dearly hope he did indeed paint the future of all humankind.


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