Thursday, March 18, 2010

Now Downright Lost In The Archives


So loving this. Still eyebrow-deep in the Popular Science archives, and stumbled across the most wonderful treasure...

The issue was printed in May of 1958. The formal North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) agreement had just been signed between the US and Canada. The Soviet Union launched Sputnik 3. America's first satellite, Explorer 1, had been in orbit for 3 months. The space race was on!

35 cents in May 1958

Dr. Israel Monroe Levitt (1908-2004) wrote a fascinating account of how America might plan and execute the monumental lunar landing... by the year 2000. Wow, we beat that by 31 years! Was he a negative nancy or what?? ... NASA was established July 29, 1958 -– three months after the article was published. Had he known the plans and resources of the fledgling agency and their contractors, his predictions may have been different.

It's still a real eye-opener to see what the bright minds of the mid-20th century thought of potential space exploration. My favorite excerpt:
"The Moon as a military base: Pentagon planners are already calculating the wartime advantages that could result from control of the moon."

Like, ouch. Anyway, the full article is split into two parts in the archive, beginning on page 102 and ending on page 246.

Timetable to Reach The Moon by I.M. Levitt
"Manned flight cannot be initiated in the immediate future. A tremendous volume of preliminary work must be completed first. Before we can think of landing on the moon, it will be necessary to establish a manned space station circling the Earth as a base of operations."

Not so much. Levitt goes on to discuss escape velocity, guidance systems, fuel calculations, and exploding an atomic bomb on the moon as a 'marker' by 1962.

By 1968? We should deliver power supplies and instruments to the moon, to measure gravity, atmospheric density and the expected magnetic field. Heh.

By 1975? Lunar dust should be harvested, via two rockets launched together: one to crash and create a plume, then another to sweep up the samples and return them to Earth (nevermind that the A-bomb made the dust radioactive).

By 2000? Our space station would serve as the assembly point for a moon rocket, after which astronomers would finally have their "field day resolving the moon's mysteries." In that era, knowledge of the lunar surface could only be surmised from the study of reflected sunlight. Scientists deduced the powdery dust, but were perplexed by crater formation, surface streaks, and actual rock composition.

Levitt Books
Levitt was Director of Fels Planetarium at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute, and wrote the books: Star Maps for Beginners and A Space Traveler's Guide to Mars.

The former is still in print, though the latter has been discontinued, perhaps because his predictions for the Red Planet (and it's "astonishingly different plant and animal life, based on different chemistry and severe conditions") were even less accurate.

But hey! The important thing is, they set goals based upon evidence of the time, and I can only hope that 50 years from now, someone is equally delighted in hindsight at what a short time it took us to get to Mars in comparison to what we predict today. Fingers crossed.