Apollo 2069

2009

(Preface from "100 Years After Armstrong: Essays in Honor of the Centenary Anniversary of Apollo 11", first published 2069)

When the publishers of this book contacted me for a preface, I understood their choice, but could not think of anything to say. I was delighted to associate my name with this book, and with the publishers, but though I admired the first astronauts, I could not think of anything to say.

They seemed too distant, too different: military men, family men, patriotic, religious, physically super-fit. Quite the opposite of me, I fear.

Then --- as you can see from the length of preface remaining below this --- I understood this was exactly the point I should make: the Apollo astronauts were different from the astronauts of today. (I use the a-word without any deeper ideological meaning; the whole cosmonauts, taikonauts, indonauts, euronauts brouhaha is in my eyes quite silly. Once you've stood on the Moon you realize the distinction is dead and has always been dead.)

The American astronauts were military men. Some test pilots, some not, but men of war anyway: the only "civilian-trained" astronaut to fly on Apollo was aboard the last flight, and all the other men on the Moon were the best of the Navy and the Air Force.

Now, this worked well with the technology of the age, because --- from our viewpoint --- the Apollos were breathtakingly, nuts-shrivelingly primitive. Don't forget Armstrong stepped out only a quarter century after the first jet fighter flew; don't forget that fifty years later the average wristwatch already had more brute calculatory force than an Apollo, a "lap top" computer more than the whole Houston complex. Such primitive and hurried devices needed men (not women, apparently) who had some applicable experience, and jet planes and various dangerous military contraptions were the closest there was.

When getting to space got cheaper and cheaper --- and, to be honest, there was no way anyone could have returned to space in any serious way before it got really cheap, as the Apollo was an anomaly; the most expensive PR fight in history --- well, when getting to space got cheaper and cheaper you had to start thinking about the men (and women, rawr) once more.

The problem, of course, was that military men are good in very specific ways. Good in following orders; good in being fearless in the face of danger and death; good in not losing control of their hands even if they out of terror lose the control of their bowels.

Thus "Checklist item 666, gnaw and yaw flighters, check."

Bad the modern computers just don't work that way. Apollo was a crude single purpose thing, kinda like a recipe: Exit Earth gravity well, enter Moon orbit, git down, put 200 kg of moon rocks in the module, git up, stir, get home, don't bounce or burn but fall back home. Let cool slightly and celebrate. Repeat. Each task was divided into a hundred sub-tasks, each carefully prepared in advance. There were some choices, but minimal branching.

That doesn't work with modern missions. Modern spaceflight isn't to New York and back; it's a mostly unplanned roadtrip where one is ready for anything: ready to react, ready to take advantage of. You may have a place you mightily want to visit, but how you get there is the pilot's business. Not only is branching massive and back-looping, it is so much so that it cannot be planned for in advance, and simple superficial command of the controls and routines, not matter how courageous, does not suffice. One has to intimately know the computers and systems involved; and one cannot rely on an Earthbase precious seconds (or, eventually, minutes) away.

And thus, we modern astronauts aren't the steel-bicepped (bicep'd?) heroes of past, because outside moderate good health and sanity, the only endurance required of us is the endurance to stay awake banging the ship computer, dancing with it, wrestling with it, doing a free-form ballet as far removed from the starched rituals of Apollo as a master chef effortless in his intuitive expertise is from a recipe-toting noob.

And this is why these astronauts of today are, if I can borrow a term well past its currency, nerds.

And this is the detail you need to keep in mind when reading of our modern women and men in space and their predecessors: Spaceflight is a science, but its execution is an art as well, and in the years since my birth that art has advanced to effortless heights undreamed-of by the pioneers of Apollo; and a part of that mastery is the accompanying levity and lack of restraint, since modern astronautics is a science and art of improvisation.

Thus also, Armstrong had his famous words, his crowning moment of awesome; but when the three of us set our feet down on the lunar soil, we spoke too, and our words reflected the difference between army boys and nerds:

D. Jones, commander: (points outside camera range, screams) "What on Earth are those things?!"

T. T. Daala: (with a hand-pumping gesture) "Pwned!"

Z. Ed. Moony: (making hand signs) (24 words of foul language removed; adjust settings to view)

Memorizing those, and remembering they will be remembered forever, forever, will give people some idea of the difference. K thx bai,

Demetrios Yiff-Jones

Commander of Eris II

last updated: (Mar 15 2011)