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Slipping The Surly Bonds Of Earth:

William Samuel Henson and the Birth of Aviation


by Chris Oakley


Part 23




Summary: In the previous chapters of this series, we explored the history of aviation and spaceflight from William Samuel Henson’s first experiments with powered flight during the mid-1840s to the inaugural manned orbital flights to Mars. In this segment, we’ll look back at the growth of space exploration during the 1970s and 1980s, the beginnings of the modern private space industry, and the development of the first nuclear spacecraft propulsion drives near the end of the 20th century.


By the time Jimmy Carter was inaugurated as the 39th President of the United States in January of 1977, the world had started to envision a day when human spaceflight would no longer be the sole province of government agencies. While commercial satellites had been built and operated for years, it was during Carter’s term in office that people truly started to take seriously the notion of human space travel as a paying business venture; a Wall Street Journal editorial published shortly after Carter took office bore the prophetic headline "There’s Gold In Them Thar Rockets".1

 That editorial was one of the first published items to coin the now-familiar phrase "space tourism" to describe the concept of people traveling into space purely for the fun of it. Although it would take nearly a decade for the idea to become reality, the seeds for it had already been planted. In the deserts of Utah and Nevada, private companies were testing experimental rockets they hoped would one day soon power the first generation of commercial space vehicles. In London, a young entrepreneur by the name of Richard Branson was setting aside a share of the profits from his then seven-year-old record company, Virgin, to be used as "seed money" for establishing what he expected would become Europe’s first major commercial space enterprise. In Paris, Brussels, and a host of other cities in continental western Europe considerable ink and airtime were being devoted by the media to reports on how human spaceflight could be used as the engine that drove Europe’s economic train in the 21st century.

Even in the Soviet Union, where it was taught as a matter of course that good socialists were supposed to be above such petty  things as profit, Kremlin officials were studying the notion of forming so-called "space clubs" to encourage the masses to take a greater interest in human space travel. A reported submitted in late 1976 by the Soviet economic ministry to CPSU First Secretary Leonid Brezhnev had suggested that space tourism might be a handy tool for boosting the USSR’s economic standing in the world; the so-called "space clubs" could therefore be regarded as a means of laying the cornerstone for a full-fledged Soviet commercial space industry.

Not that government was getting out of the space business entirely; right about the same time that the notion of space tourism was first starting to catch on for keeps, the world was experiencing a renewal of interest in manned explorations of the Moon and Mars. And the talk didn’t stop at just lunar landings or orbital flights passing the Martian icecaps-- serious thought was being given to the notion of establishing permanent outposts on both worlds. The concept was particularly popular with the White House, where Jimmy Carter had made it a key item on the science and technology agenda for his presidential term. Although Carter would be long gone from the Oval Office by the time the first of such colonies were established, they would be regarded by many historians as one of the more positive legacies of his tenure in office.


In March of 1978 President Carter signed an executive order creating the U.S. House of Representatives Sub-committee on Lunar Colonization, the first formal government body in any nation that was focused specifically on organizing the establishment and day- to-day operation of permanent lunar outposts. A few of Carter’s more vocal critics started dubbing him "the Space Cadet-in-Chief" in response to this decision, but the sub-committee’s purpose and scope were hardly a joke. Its mere existence suggested a renewed U.S. commitment to lunar exploration.

Carter’s supporters hailed the House Lunar Colonization Sub- committee’s creation as a forward-thinking act. From the moment Carter first announced his intention to run for the Oval Office, they had been lobbying him to make returning to the Moon a major part of his administration; they regarded the establishment of the sub-committee as a fulfillment of their dreams. Even some of those who disagreed with Carter on other issues supported him on the matter of permanent lunar outposts.

The Lunar Colonization Sub-committee in turn paved the way for the establishment of another sub-committee, this one devoted to addressing the challenges of safeguarding the United States from orbital or sub-orbital attack by its adversaries-- the USSR in particular. Ever since Charles Yeager’s history-making Mercury debut flight twenty-six years earlier, it had been understood on both sides of the Iron Curtain that outer space would be one of the Cold War’s final and most important battlegrounds. And the White House was determined not to let Moscow seize control of it.

One fear which particularly haunted the White House in those days was the prospect of the Soviets mounting successful nuclear strikes on U.S. soil from orbital missile platforms. Carter’s national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, spent much of his first year on the job lobbying Congress to appropriate the funding necessary to expedite the development of orbital defense systems by the Pentagon.

Much to Brzezinski’s disappointment, however, his efforts to convince the Carter administration to commit itself to producing a working anti-missile defense system repeatedly collided with Carter’s own reluctance to escalate tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. Despite his best efforts to sell the White House and Capitol Hill on the need for America to safeguard itself by any means necessary against Soviet missile attack, it would take Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency in November of 1980 before Washington began making any serious investment in Brzezinski’s proposed ABM shield development program, officially designated the Strategic Defense Initiative(SDI) by the Pentagon and irreverently nicknamed "Star Wars" by the mainstream media.

What few people in the West realized at the time was that the Soviets’ own military space research efforts were hitting a rough patch thanks in no small part to Russia’s notoriously inefficient bureaucracy. Bureaucratic snafus had been a part of Russian life since at least the days of Czar Alexander II; it could take weeks for Soviet space technicians just to get the OK to change a light bulb, never mind carry out a weapons test. It can be a bit tough to schedule a test firing when you’re sweating over endless heaps of paperwork. And the precarious state of the Russian treasury in the waning days of the Brezhnev era certainly didn’t help matters much...


Next to SDI, the chief beneficiary of Reagan’s election to the U.S. presidency in 1980 in terms of space science was NASA’s quest to establish permanent bases on the Moon and Mars. Reagan was an even greater enthusiast of the Martian settlement project than Carter had been; to him, such a venture represented a golden opportunity for America to once again reassert its greatness on the world stage-- or, to be more accurate, the off-world stage.

Reagan brought the benefit of the skills he’d learned in his former profession, acting, into play when he started his PR blitz to sell his vision for America’s future in space to Congress and the public. Living up to his nickname of "the Great Communicator" and then some, the 40th president beat back opponents of his space agenda with a charm offensive that impressed even his most severe political critics. He’d need every ounce of his rhetorical talent to sell one particular part of his vision for America’s future in space: his program for the next decade of NASA manned spaceflight included a controversial proposal to develop, build, and operate long-range spacecraft that would be equipped with nuclear-powered engine systems. The concept of putting nuclear reactors in manned spaceships had been controversial enough even before anti-nuclear sentiment in America was inflamed by the infamous 1979 Three Mile Island atomic power plant accident; in the political atmosphere of post-Three Mile Island Washington, this idea had turned into a "third rail" few politicians were brave enough or reckless enough to so much as think about touching. The second-most controversial aspect of Reagan’s space agenda was his proposal for awarding tax credits to private companies that made substantial investments in commercial space transport technology research and development; with the U.S. government running one of its biggest deficits ever and the American people beset with so many earthly problems, many of Reagan’s political opponents questioned whether it made sense to be throwing money at Big Business for the sake of indulging in what they considered Buck Rogers daydreams.

Conversely, Reagan’s supporters argued that the tax credits would be a valuable tool for stimulating both the U.S. economy and technological development. Yet even as the debate over these credits was raging on Capitol Hill, corporate America was already preparing for the next step forward in the evolution of civilian space travel. One business titan who was an early standard-bearer for this charge was Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot, who’d made a lifelong habit out of succeeding in unusual business ventures and would one day campaign to occupy the post-Reagan Oval Office. In October of 1985, amidst the glare of klieg lights at a videotaped press conference in his Dallas corporate headquarters, Perot and his most senior business partners announced the formation of HRP Space Commercial Ventures Inc.-- soon to be better known simply as HRP Space. From day one Perot had grand ambitions for his new company; in his official press release on its creation, he said that he envisioned HRP Space as "a cross between Greyhound, U.S. Steel, and McDonnell-Douglas".2


One of the major reasons Perot decided to take the plunge into the commercial spaceflight industry was his conviction that the key to America’s next great economic boom lay beneath the sands of Mars. His long-term vision for HRP Space included the creation of mining outposts to tap the planet’s untouched mineral resources and solar power relay stations to transmit solar energy back to Earth and help reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil as the 21st century approached.

Perot was hardly alone in his thinking that Mars held a great deal of promise for America’s-- and the world’s --future; public and private entities all over the world were putting forth a wide variety of proposals for economic and scientific projects based on the premise of establishing a long-term human presence on the Red Planet. The same week that Perot incorporated HRP Space, the Soviets unveiled plans to dispatch robotic probes to Mars in the coming decade to scout for traces of water on the Martian surface as a precursor to human colonization.

There was considerable pressure from the Kremlin on Soviet space scientists to get a manned landing mission to Mars as soon as possible; although publicly the Communist establishment was continuing to brag about the superiority of the USSR and the ultimate inevitability of Marxist world domination, behind closed doors the Kremlin overlords were beginning to sense that their empire’s days were numbered. They were desperate to gain one last triumph in space for the Rodina(motherland) before the window of opportunity for such an accomplishment was forever slammed shut by history.

Unfortunately for Brezhnev and his peers, that already narrow window would shrink still further when, in the spring of 1987, a Mars manned launch vehicle prototype exploded during test firings of its primary engines. Since the tests were conducted by remote control from an observation bunker, there was fortunately no loss of life and only a handful of injuries, but the disaster further shook a government that was still trying to recover its bearings after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster the previous year.

And not only were the Soviets’ Mars plans in serious peril, but their entire space program was in danger of coming apart at the seams. About a month after the Mars launch vehicle prototype explosion, two highly respected veteran cosmonauts who the Soviet government had been grooming for a future lunar expedition to scout possible locations for a permanent Soviet base on the Moon abruptly resigned from the program in protest of what they viewed as lax safety standards regarding long-term manned space flights. The two cosmonauts were particularly upset over Kremlin attitudes regarding the use of nuclear reactors in Soviet spacecraft engine propulsion systems; they felt their superiors in Moscow seemed to place a higher priority on being the first to build a nuclear- powered spaceship than on protecting the crew from radiation or even on making sure the nuclear drive would actually work once it was turned on.

By the summer of 1989, the Soviet space program had gone off track to the point where its own director was publicly admitting it needed a massive top-to-bottom overhaul. But before the Soviet government could do anything to get this overhaul started, events in her old World War II adversary Germany intervened: on November 9th, the Berlin Wall finally came down after twenty-eight years, signaling the end of the division of the ancient German capital-- and the beginning of a political and social chain reaction which would end with the collapse of the Soviet Union itself barely two years later. The long-cherished dream of a Russian manned landing on Mars was, if not dead, then certainly in suspended animation until the political situation in Moscow had been sorted out; some space experts believed it would be years-- maybe decades --before Russia could mount another serious effort in human spaceflight. A dissenting group of such experts, on the other hand, were just as sure that the demise of the Communist regime would open the doors to a rebirth of Russian space science.


As it turned out, both the United States and Russia would have to wait a few more years to put a man on Mars. Reagan’s successor as president, George Herbert Walker Bush, scaled back NASA’s Mars project in favor of the "space glider" and an expanded commitment to setting up a long-term human presence on the Moon; meanwhile, the post-Cold War administration of new Russian president Boris Yeltsin had its hands full simply trying to get his country back on its feet socially and economically. In this climate, the Red Planet was decidedly a secondary priority-- at least in the short term.

But research into nuclear spacecraft propulsion systems would go steadily on; despite what had happened at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, there was still considerable interest in more than a few quarters in the concept of nuclear-powered space vehicles. In fact, some people believed that the successful introduction of a nuclear-driven spaceship might help to foster renewed support of the commercial use of nuclear energy back on Earth. The European Union in particular was keen to harness the possibilities which nuclear space propulsion offered, and thus in 1996 the EU created the Atomic Space Propulsion Sciences Research Academy, the first scientific institute devoted exclusively to the job of conceiving and developing nuclear-fueled spaceship drives.

Among the researchers at the Academy were more than two dozen British nationals who had first cut their teeth in space vehicle research working at Sutherland & Sons. Some of those researchers were descendants of the same people who had made the old Aerial Transit Company’s earliest aviation triumphs possible back in the mid-19th century, so in a sense it could be said that the history of aerospace development in Europe was coming full circle...


On October 7th, 1999 BBC-TV interrupted its usual afternoon programming lineup to break what might well have been the most important aerospace-related news story since Explorer VII’s 1963 moon landing: the European Space Agency had successfully test- fired a nuclear-powered rocket engine in earth orbit. The engine, installed on board an unmanned experimental capsule, propelled the robot vehicle as far as the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars without any evident strain on the vehicle’s main propulsion systems; the capsule got as far as Saturn before its engines were shut down by remote control from a research station back on Earth to prevent the craft from being lost. Though manned nuclear space vessels were still a few years off, an important corner had been turned in humanity’s quest to expand its presence in the heavens. When news of the capsule’s test run reached the United States, it lit a fire under NASA to accelerate its effort to perfect its own nuclear space drive-- and the Russians wouldn’t slack off either when it came to their quest for nuclear-powered spacecraft....


To Be Continued



[1] From the February 8th, 1977 edition of The Wall Street Journal.

[1] Quoted from a story in the October 17th, 1985 edition of the Dallas Morning News:


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