Monday, 19 October 2009

The Long Shadow #1

Neil Armstrong said, “We went to the moon on world war two technology.”

It’s tempting to assume that he meant the technology that Von Braun had developed, the V2 rocket. This had been adapted by both the USA and the USSR, and quickly developed into technology for delivering nuclear weapons.

It’s remarkable to me that only 25 years separates the first V2 fired on London and the first landing on the moon, and 40 years have passed since then. The moon landing seemed, at the time, to be of another age from what I then knew of the war. That so much had been accomplished in such a short time suggested that by 2001 we would be dancing around the outer planets.

Rocket technology, which with the V2 had been little more than an expensive way of delivering a small amount of high explosive, had suddenly become a viable means of delivering nuclear weapons. This had surprised sceptics who had assumed that 1. nuclear bombs would remain physically huge and heavy and 2. that the problems of automatic guidance over intercontinental distances would be too difficult.

Electronics, which had previously only meant radio, had now spun off into a variety of other areas. Radar, control electronics used in guidance systems and numerous types of navigation system.

Even the digital computer had its roots in wartime code breaking technology. Although this information was not common knowledge in 1969.

Strictly speaking, the transistor is absent from the wartime development list. But even this had its origins in work done at the Bell labs in support of radar. Semiconductor diodes were developed in wartime and by 1947, based on this research, the transistor was developed.

Pilots like Armstrong had flown high performance jet aircraft and were trained in the sciences.

Space medicine had grown out of wartime studies, with data gathered in shameful experiments on prisoners in Germany and Japan. Yet the data was useful, and it did contribute to the knowledge base that marked the beginnings of space medicine.

Numerous technologies: precision engineering of gyroscopes, electro-optics, magnetic tape recording, these were all wartime developments. They had all been the subjects of intense development in the guided missile race that commenced as soon as WW2 was over. These developments were relatively mature by the time Kennedy made his first announcement about a moon landing in 1961.

In order to reach the moon, ‘state of the art technology’ would be used. This expression became a euphemism for the hottest technology going. In its original form it was meant to indicate a measure of caution. State of the art meant the design of the space craft would be based on existing techniques. Nothing in Apollo would be dependent on technologies unproven and propulsion, structures, electronics, and re-entry systems had already been used in existing missile systems.

Despite the commitment to 'state of the art', there was left an enormous challenge, the need to coordinate the numerous companies that manufactured the Apollo spacecraft and systems. Many different companies would be used and all must work together to make a single, common system. This was quite unlike the typical aircraft build process back then. Airframe manufacturers were used to working in splendid isolation. As long as they could make all their bits fit together, and accommodate the engine and electronics, they could complete a structure in any way they saw fit. Aircraft manufacture was like low volume, luxury car making, expensive and very labour intensive. It was dependent, not on rigorously defined engineering processes, but on skilled craftsmen who tailoring the pieces together. All that would change for Apollo where different suppliers had to separately produce different parts of a tightly meshing system.

The Manhattan project, the wartime effort to produce the atomic bomb, had involved 130,000 people and cost, by today’s prices, an estimated 22 billion dollars. An international development, carried out in great secrecy, had successfully produced a weapon of unprecedented power. Kennedy and his contemporaries had seen what American science and industry could achieve when it set its collective mind to it.

Apollo would eventually employ over 400,000 people and numerous technology firms and academic bodies. Aside from its technical legacy it provided, at the time, a huge boost to an economy that was in recession. But this didn’t come cheap, it cost around $25 billion, or $145 billion in present day terms.

The legacy was an aircraft industry which achieved immense technical capability, working to hugely increased quality and production standards. It would subsequently decimate its European competitors and secure a technical lead that is still maintained 40 years on. European manufacturers eventually caught up in most areas, but it took much longer for them to recognise the need for the processes and standards that Apollo had demanded of the American aerospace industry way back in the sixties.

Apollo cost the US taxpayer plenty. Money up in smoke? I’m sure there were plenty who said so at the time. The tradition of public spending to jump start an economy, as used by Hitler with his public works program of the 1930s, is seen by some as backdoor socialism. The money spent on weapons, which gravitates towards a different set of rich capitalists, tends to be seen differently. With Apollo, the money trickled down and energised the economy, and consolidated a technical lead that the USA had made its first down payments on in WW2. It paid off with what Tom Hanks called, The exquisite achievement of landing a man on the moon, but it’s carried on paying back in jobs and capability ever since.

Now, at last, we have moved out of the long shadow of WW2, finally we are developing technologies which have only a tenuous connection to those started back then. The elements of our age, what Arthur C. Clarke called the Total Comm. Age, would have seemed incredible (in 1942) even to a visionary like Clarke. We haven’t made it to the outer planets, but things that are now essentials did not even have names back then, (the Internet is but one of them) and that is pretty amazing.

We have another great legacy of Apollo, the knowledge that when it gets the opportunity, science and engineering can quickly accomplish incredible things, and not just in the field of weapons of mass destruction. Yes, we needed to know that too.

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