China Rising In Space

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

For the 50th anniversary of Apollo 8 last month, the PBS NOVA series did a nice documentary on the flight that’s worth finding and watching. Among many, the producers interviewed one of the most cerebral of the astronauts, Michael Collins. He was the command module pilot on Apollo 11 and also a Capcom on Apollo 8.

Ever the poet-philosopher, Collins observed that when he gave Apollo 8 the go for TLI—trans-lunar injection—he did so fully grasping NASA’s refined predilection for making the magnificent into the mundane. That rather pedestrian sounding clearance marked the first time man had left the confines of Earth for another body in the solar system. It was a big deal. Collins said in retrospect, he would have said “Apollo 8, you can slip the surly bonds of Earth and dance the sky … you go!”

For those of us who followed the space program at the time, it was a heady moment and every bit as momentous as the actual lunar landing and of the Wrights’ flight at Kitty Hawk just 65 years earlier. We were in a race to land on the Moon and we were going to win. We did win.

Now, we seem to be in a different kind of race in which indifference is trying to outlast listlessness, at least for manned missions. Last week’s successful Chinese mission to put a rover on the far side of the Moon shows that the U.S. may once again have serious competition in space. This week’s AVweb Question of the Week reveals 41 percent of readers see the Chinese mission as a wake-up call. I’m among that group.

To be sure, the Chinese are probably years from parity with U.S. space expertise, but complacency all but assures they’ll catch up sooner than we think. I was a tyke of seven when the Soviets launched Sputnik out of nowhere and I clearly recall how shocked and rattled all the adults were. Eleven years later … go for TLI.

Not that NASA has been exactly asleep, mind you. Congress rejected the administration’s efforts to significantly cut NASA’s budget and it has shifted its focus to unmanned planetary research. All good. NASA’s current budget hovers around 0.5 percent of the federal budget, about where it was in 1960. The peak year was 1966 at 4.41 percent.

I suspect Mike Collins would be in alignment with my thinking that permanent manned space capability is a must for the U.S. We are a space faring nation. Period. It’s ludicrous to think that from here forward, our flight capability will be limited to paying the Russians rapacious launch fees for rides to the International Space Station. Yeah, I know, launch systems are in the works—commercial and NASA—but it’s also true we’ve gone nearly a decade without having homegrown manned launch capability that our rivals, the Russians and the Chinese, do have. It’s also true that the mojo to build something like the magnificent Saturn 5 system is eroded, if it exists at all. Manned space flight has national security implications. It has technological implications. The acceptance and overcoming of risk is good for the soul.

So yeah, China on the back side of the Moon is a wake-up call. Now all we have to do is wait for the next John F. Kennedy to hear it.

A word here about SpaceX, which just released photos this week of what it says—or what Elon Musk says—is a test version of a Starship capable of taking people “to the Moon, Mars and elsewhere.” Conceding that SpaceX has had stunning success with its hardware and its vehicles represent bona fide human launch capability, I have to say, I almost think Musk is gaslighting us with that picture. It’s straight out of Buck Rogers, circa 1930.

Kelleher’s Southwest Airlines

In his heartfelt profile of the late Herb Kelleher, Myron Nelson did a superb job of describing what made Herb Herb. I’ll add to that a couple of personal observations on how his vision effects ordinary workaday airline passengers like me.

Southwest has always had a relatively stark economic model and in an airline ecosystem where unbundling and add-on fees have run amok, it’s ever more so. I was comparing airline preferences with a frequent flier friend of mine a few months ago and he said he couldn’t stand Southwest. Why? “I want an assigned seat, that’s why.”

Yeah, I get it, but the beauty of the Southwest approach is that it’s gameable. Get yourself in the A or B group—easy to do—and you can pretty well sit where you want, although probably not always at the front of the airplane. Southwest uses numbered boarding order so you don’t have to play that silly, tense game of trying to edge up in the line to board earlier to avoid that misery of miseries, battling for overhead space. Because the airlines charge to check bags, people try to carry on ever more stuff and cabin crews don’t police it. Even a little. Boarding is an exercise in volumetric Darwinism.

Southwest doesn’t charge for bags, so there’s little combat over bin space. Even boarding nearly last, I’ve never failed to find a spot for my camera gear.

Southwest is often described as a discount airline, but I think it stopped being that sometime ago. For the places I frequently fly, Southwest often has middling fares, not the cheapest. Sometimes they’re the highest. But where Southwest guts the competition, in my view, is flexibility. The most customer-hostile thing airlines do is change fees. These used to be $50, but now are as high as $200, making buying an airline ticket guaranteed buyer’s remorse. Southwest doesn’t charge change fees, which significantly eases the stress of booking because you can always change it or bank a cancellation.

Kelleher figured out that an employee-centric business would automatically be a customer-centric one, too. The truth in that has been borne out by a half century of remarkable growth. As the industry finds ever more ways to piss off customers and relieve them of nickels and dimes, that business model looks better than ever.