Weekend meanderings: rockets, Apollo 13 and development

Outer space and rockets were what first sparked my interested in science. My 4th and 5th grade GT teacher, Wanda Holland, taught a summer model rocketry camp for 5th grade science students in my hometown in Arkansas. I went to the camp, fell in love with rockets, and built so many in the next year that Mrs. Holland invited me back as an “assistant” the next year. I kept assisting, then co-teaching the camp through 9th grade and along the way acquired an immense knowledge of mostly useless trivia about astronomy and rocket science. By the time I reached 9th grade I had a collection of hundreds of rockets — including multiple stage rockets, gliders, scale models, and onboard cameras. I even remember asking a friend once why he would spend money on clothes when he could buy another rocket kit. Needless to say, I was cool.

At some point in high school I discovered interests in travel, in playing guitar, in cars, and in girls. Rocketry slowly fell by the wayside. In 10th grade I was building a greater-than-full-scale model of the AIM-9 Sidewinder missile in the family garage (the real thing is 9 feet tall, mine would have been 14′). I had already done the composite reinforcement on the main airframe body tubes when I calculated out how much the construction supplies, avionics, and solid fuel motors would cost, and I realized it would take much more money than my part-time job as a grocery bagger would provide. Then good fortune struck: I won $500 in a regional grocery bagging competition (seriously) which would have let me complete the rocket and buy the fuel to fly it once. But by that point my priorities had shifted and I chose to use it towards a trip to Ghana. That decision is one of many small steps that led me from wanting to be a rocket scientist or astronaut to an interest in global health. The experiences I had in Ghana, and later in Zambia and South Africa, led me to my current interests, and rockets have been a sideshow ever since.

While rocketry hasn’t been my primary interest in years, I still try and keep up with my rocket blog, especially when I get around to flying one of my own projects. The old urge to be an astronaut, still strikes now and then. I was a bit bummed that I didn’t make it down to the last ever Space Shuttle launch since I always told myself I’d make it to one of them. So this weekend I indulged myself by re-watching Apollo 13, one of my all-time favorite movies.

Apollo 13 holds up surprisingly well 16 years after its release. The casting, the acting, the writing — it’s all excellent. The special effects hold up well too. The soundtrack fits the movie perfectly, especially the triumphant horn riffs during the launch sequence (which I used to watch over and over for hours when I was in junior high). The movie manages to sneak in a surprising amount of jargon, but it works because it’s a compelling human interest story focusing on the astronauts and their families. And director Ron Howard managed to infuse the movie with considerable suspense despite everyone knowing how it ends.

Since this is a blog (mostly) about international health and development, I feel it’s my duty to draw a few extremely tenuous connections between space flight, this movie, and my current interests:

  • Computers are older than I often think. I mean, they’re relatively new in the grand scheme of things, but in my head I often date the importance of the computer to the wide availability of the personal computer. The first Apple home computer I had access to in the early 90s had an operating system contained entirely on a floppy disk, and a separate drive for another floppy disk on which you could load programs and files. Computers have come a long way since then, but even that little Apple was an incredible advance over the computers of the NASA era. Still, they were good enough to take us to the moon in the 1960s. Though you do get the distinct impression that Lovell sure could have used a USB thumb drive to transfer the ‘main operating program’ from the command module to the LEM at the height of the crisis.
  • Organization as technology. Part of my summer reading is Charles Kenny’s optimistic take on global development, Getting Better. In an early section describing the history of theories of economic development, Kenny discusses how some economists have argued that institutions are as important for development as any given technology. Example institutions include specialization of labor, “double-entry bookkeeping, just-in-time management systems,” etc. There’s an early scene in Apollo 13 where Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) is giving a tour of the massive Vehicle Assembly Building and describes astronauts as only the most visible part of a massive system. Having just read about institutions — and economists’ attempts to predict national growth rates — I couldn’t help but think of the massive specialization of labor that allowed us to go the Moon. One of the delights of being a hobby rocketeer is that you can do it all, at least the fun parts, yourself. But real NASA engineers are part of massive systems that work together to do much more than any individual could. That’s one reason that disasters like Columbia and Challenger are almost always ultimately traceable to problems in how those systems of people work together, rather than a single failure in materials or a single mistake by an individual. The question “what caused the Challenger disaster?” can be answered on as many different levels as “what sparked the recession?”
  • Why did we win the space race? Relatedly, if economists or engineers had tried to predict who would win the race to the Moon in 1950 or 1960, there would have been any number of reasons to pick the Soviets over the Americans. Both sides had natural resources, large numbers of engineers, and rocket scientists poached from the Germans after World War II. While we got the better German, the Soviets had an early lead in rocket development. Then the 60s were particularly rough for the Soviet rocket program (see the Nedelin catastrophe). Arguments abound as to why the US eventually got to the Moon first, but my impression is that US institutions, and especially the engineering systems (not just the particular technological fixes) developed by the US played a significant role.
  • Rubella. Astronaut Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) was supposed to be on Apollo 13, but he was exposed to a virus and bumped to the flight lest he become sick on his back to the Moon — his removal from the flight set the stage for Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) to take the third spot just 72 hrs before launch. In the movie they just say “measles,” but in reality it was German measles — a synonym for rubella. The other astronauts had natural immunity because they had had rubella as kids, but Mattingly hadn’t, so he got bumped. The rubella vaccine (see graph at right) wasn’t introduced until the 1960s, so Mattingly’s kids would have gotten the vaccine, but he hadn’t. Oops. Rubella is also one of the few vaccines not developed my Maurice Hilleman. OK, that’s a slight exaggeration, but Hilleman did invent vaccines for eight diseases: measles, mumps, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, chickenpox, meningitis, pneumonia and Haemophilus influenzae bacteria. Incredible.

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07 2011

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