Space and military experiments in the sixties, and what we’ve lost

I’ve just finished Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. It’s about Project Mercury, America’s first manned spaceflight program, which paved the way for Gemini and Apollo.

Too much of it focused on the relationships between the astronauts than I liked, though I wouldn’t have enjoyed it more if it went harder on the technical details. I wish that I knew enough physics and engineering to appreciate its details about propulsion. I don’t, and instead I most enjoyed reading about the environment that produced technology. (This is also how I felt when I read The Idea Factory, a book about the inventions that came out of Bell Labs.)

What’s most striking is how easy it was then to run experiments with unpredictable consequences. It’s almost unbelievable to read about everything that the American government was willing to try in order to beat the Soviets. Reciting anything like a precautionary principle to a scientist at that time would probably provoke incredulity and contempt. The sixties were a time when people won funding and permission for trying out really radical things, on a scale that’s hard to grasp today. Here are some examples of what I mean, by no means an exhaustive list of interesting projects of that time.

  1. The rockets that put the first American astronauts into orbit were modified intercontinental ballistic missiles. NASA made some tweaks to the Redstone and Atlas missiles, stuck astronauts on top of them, and shot them up. That was how Alan Shepard entered space in the first Mercury flight in 1961. Someone thought that you can send astronauts into space and bring them back to earth on missiles designed to deliver warheads, and they were right.
  2. The sound barrier was broken by an experimental rocket plane in 1947. The X-1 reached Mach 1.06 by being drop-launched from the bomb bay of a B-29 Superfortress. The X-planes managed to enter space, and the Air Force endeavored (unsuccessfully) to get them to be considered alternatives to NASA’s missions. Someone thought that you can break the sound barrier by launching a plane from the air rather than from the ground, and they were right.
  3. Then I learned that scramjets take this to a whole new extreme. Scramjets are drop-launched from about 50,000 feet, travel at around Mach 5 (~4,000 miles per hour), and can theoretically reach Mach 20. If I understand them correctly, scramjets don’t exactly have engines; instead they suck in a huge amount of oxygen, and “ram” that into a combustor to produce thrust. They travel fast enough that you can get from New York to London in less than an hour. Experimental flights were conducted in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and a patent for its design was first submitted in 1964. Alas it doesn’t look like there hasn’t been much more research and experiments with scramjets for the last few decades.
  4. Project Orion, an investigation into nuclear propulsion, was started in the late ‘50s. Physicists thought that you can travel through space by continuously blowing up atomic bombs behind a spacecraft, which would be protected from these explosions by a copper- or lead-tinted plate. This was however mostly theoretical, and no experiments were ever conducted.
  5. Speaking of nuclear explosions, perhaps the single best representative of the spirit of the times is the Starfish Prime test. In 1962, James Van Allen announced to the world his discovery of a layer of radiation by the earth’s magnetic field. The military promptly decided to detonate a thermonuclear bomb inside it. It was around 1960, when the military had begun conducting nuclear tests in high altitudes and outer space. Starfish Prime involved detonating a 1.45 megaton bomb (100 times the size of the Hiroshima bomb) in what’s now known as the Van Allen radiation belt. The detonation temporarily altered the shape of the belt, destroyed a lot of satellites, and created an artificial aurora borealis that could be seen from New Zealand to Hawaii. Only later did we learn more about the belt and discover, for example, that it plays a crucial role in shielding us from solar winds. Here’s James Fleming, a science historian, on Starfish Prime: “This is the first occasion I’ve ever discovered where someone discovered something and immediately decided to blow it up…” and no less with a hydrogen bomb.

It wasn’t just the government and the military that conducted experiments. Ordinary people more broadly were impacted by innovations from the ‘60s. Microwave ovens were becoming commercially available, Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution produced food for millions, people debated the merits of massive civil engineering projects.

The precautionary principle is now being invoked to stop people from drilling a hole in the ground to force up natural gas. Imagine learning about these innovations with the attitude of today. “Bring into our homes a machine that heats food by means of electromagnetic radiation? We need decades to study the effects of this.”  “Break the sound barrier? Why do we need to break stuff?” “Engineer new types of crops? Let’s stick with what’s natural.”

We shouldn’t detonate thermonuclear bombs in something we immediately discover. Still it feels like we’ve lost something important. In the ‘60s, people thought about how something should work in theory, designed experiments, and ran them to to test their ideas. Their successes were the bases for new inventions, and ordinary people were able to accept them for commercial use.

With so many leaps in technology what a thrill it must have been to live in the sixties and look forward to the things to come. But something changed, and it feels like we’re no longer so eager to run experiments or accept even not-so-radical inventions. Commercial flight hasn’t gotten faster for decades. Our kitchens haven’t changed much in 50 years. The most successful commercial applications of military technology, namely GPS and the internet, both came from the ‘60s. What a pity that the moon landings in 1969 marked not a new era for human ingenuity, but a capstone for the old one.