In the footsteps of Armstrong
KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 14 — Within roughly a month of each other, Neil Armstrong passed away and Voyager 1 celebrated its 35th anniversary. One making that first small step, the other traversing 11 billion miles and counting, both giant leaps for mankind. Now is as good a time as any to (re)visit space.
Nicholas de Monchaux’s Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo isn’t a story about the first spacesuit (that was Gagarin’s SK-1), nor is it the first story about a space suit (that was apparently Edison’s Conquest of Mars by Garret P. Serviss, first appearing in 1898).
It is the incredible account of how the company that made Playtex bras (International Latex Corporation) won the contract to the make the 21-layered A7L space suit for the Apollo programme. Mirroring the construction of the space suit, Fashioning Apollo tells over 21 chapters the clash of seamstresses against engineers; “feel” over empiricism (ILC seamstresses handmade parts of each astronaut’s suit on Singer sewing machines while NASA engineers demanded reams of documented specs) and almost comical instances of industrial espionage (ILC employees broke into offices of a partner-turned-rival and stole back their designs).
Monchaux himself summarises: “A spacesuit is made out of a flight suit, a Goodrich tire, a girdle, a raincoat, a tomato worm. An American rocket ship is made out of a nuclear weapon, and a German ballistic missile.” That story, not often told — and screaming for a David Fincher adaptation — is seminal. The spacesuit makes space exploration human. It is why there are footprints on the Moon.
Almost none of us will ever have Armstrong’s spectacular view. Satellite pictures still fuel most of our vision — if not conception — of the universe. Unlike a random Wikipedia search, a collected gallery of the cosmos echoes our exploration of space — linear and ever further outward. That’s why atlases like Stuart Clark’s Galaxy remain invaluable.
Focusing on our galaxy spanning “just” 100,000 light years, Galaxy achieves a surprisingly 3D experience, employing stunning double page spreads to show vastness and a kind of “Death Star” diagram to show a cross-sectional view of a planet and its place in the galaxy. Galaxy’s photos reflect the advances in telescopy, using different light wavelengths (ultraviolet, infrared, radar) to illustrate features. The text is illuminating as well, patiently but succinctly explaining things like the formation of the galaxies or stellar corpses without ever feeling entry-level Dorling Kindersley.
As instructive as telescopes and satellites continue to be, they are part of a shift away from the kind of manned exploration that Neil Armstrong was a symbol of. Long before Armstrong’s passing, the death of another space icon was already being predicted, even proposed.
The space shuttle was touted as the only reusable space vehicle, and therefore theoretically cheaper. In reality, an average space shuttle launch still costs an estimated US$450 million (US$1.5 billion if you lump in R&D costs). Sci-fi, insulated from petty annoyances like budgets, jumps straight to mankind meeting aliens. Few write fiction about failed space programmes. But then, few writers are like Warren Ellis.
The narrative of space exploration, at least in popular culture, has been predominantly American. Yes, the Russians were the first, but their participation has largely been told in contrast. Warren Ellis’s graphic novel Ministry of Space imagines the British as having recruited Germany’s key scientific minds leading to the Brits breaking the sound barrier, pioneering manned space flight, landing on the Moon and ultimately re-casting the space race by pitting America against England.
But it is his other book, Orbiter, that seems most resonant with the space programme’s current state. Orbiter’s setting is a 21st century where NASA is defunct, the Kennedy Space Centre a slum and the world’s last space shuttle, Venture, has just returned to Earth after disappearing for 10 years. The craft returns with its crew missing, save for its deranged pilot, and covered in something very much like… skin. Ellis is always very literate in the things he writes about, but his deep love for space can be felt in Oribiter’s foreword, in which he recounts the explosion of space shuttle Columbia with palpable hurt, hoping against hope that “crewed American spaceflight hadn’t been shot in the heart.”
Thirty-one years and 135 launches later, the last space shuttle to fly, the Atlantis, finds its final destination in a museum. Experiments with “affordable” space tourism continue with big names like Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos. But for now, if Americans want to venture into space, they’ll likely have to hitch a ride with ironically, the Russians. The space shuttle seems to be going the way of the Predator drone. Just 28 feet long and completely remote-controlled, Boeing’s X-37B seems to outstrip its predecessors in every way. It can remain in orbit for nine months whereas a shuttle — with its perishable cargo of humans — stayed 17 days at its maximum; the price tag per launch at US$100 million per flight is a giant leap for costs. By all accounts, there is a powerful index of impracticality against manned space flight.
But the space race was not born of practicality. That came later. There is an elegant and undeniable Moebius strip of continuity, a feedback loop from fiction to science to fiction and on, and on. The Nasa Orbiter Vehicle 101 was to be named the Constitution, but after a letter-writing campaign by fans of a certain sci-fi show, President Gerald Ford instructed it to be renamed Enterprise. Robots like Curiosity can continue to be the scouts, the canaries in the interplanetary coal mine. But space needs boots on the ground. Ellis says in his Orbiter foreword that “it’s waiting for us… We can’t allow space exploration to become our history.”
No frontier remains closed where we send our minds, and none so frequently or universally as our dream of space. With no atmosphere and no wind to erode them, Armstrong’s footprints will remain on the moon for millions of years. They should not be the last.