Losing the Moon

The final straw came when Slayton announced that he would never assign any scientist-astronaut to a lunar mission - or to any other mission - if he could help it. Chapman had no expectation of going to the Moon himself, but geologists Jack Schmitt and Tony England were clearly the astronauts best qualified to investigate lunar geology. They were both very competent pilots, and Chapman stated that excluding them for no better reason than blind prejudice was tantamount to sabotaging the space programme.

''I had always tried to be a team player, disagreeing with Deke only in private, but this was much too much. After some soul-searching, I discussed the issue of scientists on the Moon directly with Jim Fletcher, the NASA Administrator. I don't know whether what I said influenced his decision, but in any case Deke was overruled, and Jack Schmitt went to the Moon on Apollo 17, the last Apollo mission.''

Chapman's efforts to maximise NASA's science potential also led to success on other fronts. Shortly after the conclusion of the Apollo 14 mission, he gave a talk about space flight at a meeting of the Ninety-Nines, the international association of women pilots. He shared the podium with Sheila Scott, a well-known British aviatrix who had just arrived from Fiji in her single-engine Piper Comanche. She told him that she was getting ready for a flight from equator to equator, over the North Pole.

''I knew that NASA had developed a transponder that gave a position report to the Nimbus weather satellite. It was intended to be hung around the neck of a caribou - a North American reindeer - to track their migratory patterns. I persuaded NASA to lend one to Sheila. This meant that the Goddard Spaceflight Center in Washington would get a fix on her every ninety-six minutes, when Nimbus passed over the Pole. If she came down anywhere in the Arctic, we could tell rescuers where to find her.''

Chapman was at Goddard with Dick Hoagland, another friend of Sheila Scott, when she left Norway in a twin-engine Piper Aztec, heading for Point Barrow in Alaska. It was a strenuous flight, which she later described in her book On Top of the World (to which Chapman contributed a foreword). At Goddard, between Nimbus fixes, he and Hoagland discussed a request by Dave Scott, Commander of Apollo 15. According to Chapman, he wanted something interesting that he could do before leaving the Moon, ''to be one up on Al Shepard's demonstration of lunar golf!'' The suggestion that Chapman and Hoagland came up with turned out to be one of the most memorable but simple exhibitions of science ever carried out in the Apollo programme.

Towards the end of his lunar visit, Dave Scott told a live television audience back on Earth that he was hoping to demonstrate how Galileo Galilei had been right. Galileo, an Italian physicist and inventor born in 1564, had stated that objects of different weight always fall with the same acceleration under gravity. Scott produced a hammer and a falcon's feather (taken from the mascot of the US Air Force Academy), held them out, and dropped them at the same instant. On Earth, the ultra-light feather would have floated down, but on an airless Moon, both objects fell together. Because lunar gravity is only one-sixth that of Earth, they fell quite slowly and hit the lunar soil simultaneously. The video of this simple experiment is now widely used in schools to demonstrate the nature of gravitation.

By the time Apollo 15 flew, the American people were beginning to lose interest in the programme. President Richard Nixon did nothing to stem this decline, or to help NASA find the best direction for the future. Chapman's lack of enthusiasm for the man is quite evident. "Despite the fake enthusiasm he displayed during his phone call to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin while they were on the Moon, he had no real interest in space flight, and he was already sinking into the paranoid preoccupation with his political enemies that would lead to the Watergate break-in and his eventual resignation." Lacking strong support from the White House, the NASA budget was decreasing each year. The overwhelming enthusiasm when Apollo 11 landed had been replaced by uncertainty about the future.

Crippling budget cuts led to the cancellation of Apollo missions 18,19 and 20, and also to a protracted debate within NASA about its future programmes. Skylab A, the first space station, was scheduled for launch in 1973, but it was not designed for re-supply of consumables such as oxygen, and would cease operating when initial stocks were exhausted. Three crews would spend months aboard the workshop, but after that it would be abandoned. Each crew included one scientist-astronaut, but none of them were from Chapman's group.

A second workshop, Skylab B, was planned for 1975. Chapman was a member of a committee, headed by Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman, advocating simple changes that would permit repeated re-supply and refurbishment, to give the station an indefinitely long life on orbit. It would be supported initially by Saturn rockets, using Apollo Command Modules to carry crew, but a series of incremental changes were suggested that would, over time, replace them with reusable vehicles that were much cheaper to operate.

There was, however, another influential faction in NASA, which urged the development of what became the Space Shuttle. They claimed that a space station was unnecessary, because the Shuttle would be so cheap to fly that astronauts could sleep at home and commute to orbit each day. Chapman had no faith in these claims, because in his judgement the estimates used to support them "were simply fraudulent'' and, in any case, the radically new technologies needed by the Shuttle precluded any meaningful prediction of costs. He believed that NASA should work on advanced technologies as relatively low-cost research projects, and not commit to using them in an operational vehicle until they had been proven. "Economy could best be achieved by incremental improvements, rather than by another 'Giant Leap for Mankind'.'' While the necessary research was under way, NASA could use Skylab to establish a low-cost, permanent space station. That would permit work to begin in areas such as free-fall agriculture, aimed at enabling large numbers of people to live and work off-Earth.

Chapman suspected that the real problem with a space station, as seen by Deke Slayton and his supporters, was that it just sat there in Earth orbit. ''No flying had to be done, and therefore there was no compelling reason to staff it exclusively with pilots. If it were supported by Saturn technology, the role of the pilot would essentially be reduced to monitoring the automatic guidance systems that controlled launch, docking with the station, atmospheric re-entry and descent on parachutes. The Shuttle was much more appealing, because it had wings and could actually be flown manually, at least during the final descent to a landing. The space station was a step towards a future in which all sorts of people would be needed in space - engineers, scientists, high steel workers, doctors and nurses, even farmers and cooks. That prospect was very threatening to those who were more interested in retaining control of the programme than in a growing human enterprise in space.

''It seemed obvious that extraterrestrial operations could not become a significant part of our civilisation if they were funded only by NASA. The NASA budget will always be determined by political considerations, in competition with other demands on government revenues. Substantial growth would be seen as an unacceptable burden on taxpayers, and it simply cannot happen unless some dire national emergency demands it. On the other hand, exponential growth in the private sector is highly desirable: that's what economic progress means. Like the early American colonies of Great Britain, outposts in space can grow until they dwarf the motherland - but only if we can engage the engines of free enterprise.''

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