Space Exploration in a Time of Social Turmoil

The Expedition 63 crew welcomes Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station. (Credits: NASA/Bill Stafford)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The contrast was jarring. In one browser window, two NASA astronauts were making their way to the International Space Station (ISS) after the first orbital launch of a crew from U.S. soil in nearly 9 years.

In another window, scenes of chaos played out as protests over the death of George Floyd after his arrest by Minneapolis police erupted into violent clashes across the country.

There it was, America in a nutshell: a country capable of the tremendous technological achievements still hobbled by a legacy of racism, discrimination and violence dating back 400 years to the arrival of the first slave ship to the English colony of Virginia in 1619. A nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal that is still struggling to achieve something close to that ideal for all of its citizens 244 years after its founding.

Despite all the struggle, and the genuine progress that has been made toward a fairer society, racial problems were once again dividing the nation. Race in America is like an old wound that has never healed.

Floyd’s death and the protests, riots and violence that followed would be upsetting enough in a normal year. But, 2020 has been anything but normal.

Watching Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley give a tour of their Crew Dragon spacecraft on orbit, one could be excused for thinking the astronauts were the lucky ones. Their timing, accidental though it might be, was exquisite. Leave the planet for three or four months, and hope things have improved by the time you get back.

Of course, with what 2020 had already served up — it was still only May 30 — there was no guarantee of that happening. Still, a few months away from this mess wouldn’t be a bad thing.

By the time Bob and Doug were blasted into orbit by a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster, the COVID-19 pandemic had swept across the world, sickening and killing hundreds of thousands. The U.S. death toll had surpassed 100,000, the economy was all but shut down, and about 40 million people were unemployed. 

The combination of a pandemic, economic collapse and political unrest evoked the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918, the Depression of 1929, and the riots, violence and assassinations of 1968. All three seem to have combined to produce an enfant terrible named 2020.

Any urge one had to ask what else could go wrong during this annus horribilis was tempered by the fear of actually getting an answer. No matter how bad things are, they can always get worse. Much, much worse. And some of the possibilities are terrifying. 

But, enough of that. Best not to dwell on it.

Space officials were not shy at pointing to the Crew Dragon launch as a bright spot that elevated the country above its dismal circumstances and pointed the way to a brighter future out in the cosmos.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk appealed to the public to embrace the goal of making humanity a multi-planet species. Taking that idea seriously as vitriol and scenes of violence filled Twitter was no easy task.

It was also hard to ignore the depressingly apocalyptic nature of Elon’s plea. Earth, and all life on it, are doomed to extinction in some future cataclysm, he posits. The frozen deserts of Mars — bereft of survivable atmospheric pressure, breathable air and drinkable water — are humanity’s last, best hope for survival when Earth’s time comes.

An inspiring message that is not. Given a choice, the majority of Earth’s billions of people would favor spending billions on keeping our planet safe from catastrophe instead of relocating some tiny portion of humanity to the desolate, frozen expanses of the Red Planet.

Superman notwithstanding, space travel has usually been portrayed as an adventure, not the last hope of a doomed civilization. It was in that elevated spirit that the epic voyage of Apollo 8 to the moon in December 1968 can be viewed.

Humanity’s first trip to another world at Christmas time provided an inspiring ending to a truly terrible year that had seen the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Sen. Robert Kennedy, riots in major American cities, protests against the Vietnam War, and the election of a president — Richard Nixon — who campaigned on a platform of law and order. (Sound familiar?)

Earth rise from Apollo 8. (Credit: NASA)

NASA received a telegram thanking the space agency for saving 1968 with the Apollo 8 flight. It’s easy to see how the mission could inspire such sentiments. Seeing Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders read from the Book of Genesis as the moon rolled by beneath them remains inspiring more than half a century later. Earth rise is one of the most iconic images of the Space Age.

But, did Apollo 8 really save 1968? No. That was asking too much of NASA. No technological achievement, however impressive or inspiring, can really offset deep-seated societal and political problems. That is as true today as it was in 1968. 

Bob and Doug’s flight was an Earth orbit test of a new spacecraft designed to transport crews to the station and open up orbital travel to commercial astronauts. The mission is important, but not nearly as epic as Apollo 8’s voyage to the moon.

A better comparison is the Apollo mission that preceded it by two months. Lifting off on Oct. 11, 1968, the successful mission of Apollo 7 marked a rebirth of the American human space program.

Twenty-one months earlier, the crew of Apollo 1 — Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee — had died when a flash fire swept through their capsule during a practice countdown.

Wally Schirra, Walter Cunningham and Donn Eisele put the redesigned Apollo 7 spacecraft through rigorous testing during their 11-day mission. The vehicle passed with flying colors, paving the way for the Apollo 8 lunar flight and the landing on the moon by Apollo 11 the following summer.

Apollo 7 marked the first spaceflight by American astronauts in nearly two years. The Gemini 12 mission with Lovell and Buzz Aldrin ended that program with a successful four-day flight in November 1966. 

Long gaps between programs have been an American tradition. NASA has never managed to fly two different crewed vehicles in space during the same time period. 

Twenty-two months passed between the final Mercury flight by Gordon Cooper in May 1963 and the first crewed Gemini launch with Grissom and John Young in March 1965.

Nearly six years passed between the Apollo-Soyuz mission in July 1975 and the launch of the space shuttle Columbia on April 12, 1981. The shuttle program suffered flight gaps of more than two years apiece after the Challenger and Columbia disasters.

The gap between the end of the shuttle program in July 2011 and the Crew Dragon flight on May 30 was a mind-boggling nine years. Why it too that long is a tale for another time.

Yet, looking at it this way doesn’t tell the full story. American astronauts continued to fly to the space station during that long stretch aboard Russian Soyuz vehicles. It was a domestic launch capability that the United States lacked that Crew Dragon has now restored.

It is within this context that Bob and Doug’s trip to the space station should be viewed. This is not to diminish in any way the achievement by SpaceX and NASA in once again launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil. (And, now that it’s been done, we can finally retire that tired phrase.)

In the end, the Crew Dragon flight was little more than blip in a tumultuous period marked by disease, economic deprivations and social turmoil. After the excitement dies down, the reality of daily life in a time of social turmoil returned.

America’s problems have seldom stemmed from a lack of technology, ingenuity or enterprise. Our difficulties lie elsewhere. They lie within ourselves. And those can be the hardest problems to solve.