The Mal Iles Innovation Award

A Journey to the Savage Heartland of an Astronomical Dream (Part 1)
by Mal Iles

The Countdown Starts in New Mexico

For me, the countdown began early in the week when I flew to the Los Alamos National Scientific Laboratories in New Mexico to do some research work. Even then, there were some strange omens of thing to come.

Outside Albuquerque, housing developers were laying out gravel roads and driveways for new subdivisions in the desert. The patterns nearly stretched from horizon to horizon, and they reminded me of the designs of South American Indians.

I wondered if all people who live in the desert suffer from this compulsion to decorate the ground with vast geometric symbols which can only be recognized from the skies. This suspicion was later reinforced as I watched the space shuttle land amidst the patterns on the dry lake bottom at Andrews Air Force Base.

Flying into Los Alamos is no less weird, because the weapons lab people like to have plenty of privacy to do stuff out in the desert. They build long dead-end roads over the mesas which terminate into silos, hatches and manholes covers.

Looking down, it seemed as if I was flying over a land of giant trapdoor spiders–insects that might leap out of the ground and prey on something the size of trains.

After landing, the people at the Los Alamos lab were very sympathetic to my desire to get on to the shuttle launch in Florida, and they aided me in doing a week's worth of work in a few very, very long days.

I was in a high security area so I had to have an escort to go to the bathroom. And I assumed that going on to the shuttle would be a vacation where I could relax from 18-hour days and too much Coke (a cola).

Considering how strange the environment was–and how bent I was from a lack of sleep–I figured there was no way life on Earth could get much more weird.

I was wrong.


I flew into Melborn, Florida, which is roughly 30 miles south of Cape Canaveral. As we flew down the coast, the space shuttle complex was visible 35,000 feet below. The passengers spontaneously switched off their reading lights and exchanged places to that everyone could have a chance to look. Most of the people seated on one side of the plane stood to get a good view. There was clapping and cheering as everyone expressed hope for the success of the next day's launch.

I waited for my backpack to be unloaded from the plane and made a sign with which to hitchhike. I was first given a ride by two Luftwaffe pilots who had come to Florida to see the shuttle launch. They dropped me off at a McDonald's restaurant 10 miles south of Gate 2 of the shuttle area. Gate 2 is where I had to enter to establish my press credentials.

Suffering from over-work, jet lag and loathsome food, I hobbled to the curb and got another ride using my sign.

When I got into the car, the driver saw my L-5 button and asked if I happened to be Mal Iles.

Bizarre... It turned out that he was a man named Randy– the national director of the L-5 Society. He heard during a recent L-5 bash at the Florida Institute of Technology that some people who had driven from Iowa intended to pick me up at the airport. But, cleverly, I had escaped their clutches by flying standby on an earlier flight.

Randy gave me a ride past Gate 2 and on to the press area south of the Vehicle Assembly Building and west of Pad 39–the launch area. The press area consisted of a large parking lot with a couple of access roads and an area behind a rise on which the press bleachers were located. Immediately behind the bleachers was a group of semi- permanent buildings that housed the networks, briefing areas, power, communications, food and toilets.

As I walked by the press area, I observed something odd. A crew of workmen were madly installing a window on the one side of the ABC-TV building that was unobstructed by the bleachers.

Apparently, the ABC building had just been put up– backwards. The picture windows in their studios commanded a spectacular view of the parking lot. So they chainsawed- out part of the wall of one of the transmitter/equipment rooms so particularly gung-ho TV reporters could see the scene with their naked eyes.

Since the launch was scheduled for 6:50 a.m. (Florida time) most of the press arrived the previous evening to avoid the congestion which reduced roads to a state of bumper to bumper traffic by 3 a.m. I arrived at approximately 11:30 the night before, and by this time most of the press had also arrived.

The press existed on several levels. The God-like network heavies never left their air conditioned buildings– even to go to the toilets. As a consequence, they were always getting their information on a second or third-hand basis and became completely detached from the reality of the event.

Radio, nationally prominent newspapers and magazines fought it out with small-time TV for space in the press bleachers. The alternative to the bleachers was, of course, the ground. This was a fairly intimidating proposition, as the ground in front of the bleachers was right on the edge of MOSQUITO LAGOON–on the Banana River... so named for obvious reasons.

But, lo! Your humble narrator was not reduced to such a bleary and desolate state. With a like-minded band of thugs–with surprise on our side–we were able to capture the raised wooden briefing platform in front of the bleachers where NASA personnel sit during press conferences.

This was a vast improvement over the ground, as it is partially lit by the bleacher lights. It's also flat, raised–and dry. Foraging expeditions "found" some folding chairs and the evening was spent in modest comfort with the exception of several mosquito attacks that had to be fended off with tripods and chairs.

Either the mosquitoes, working as a team, or a particular subtle alligator carried off several of the smaller southern European journalists during the night. Those who knew them suggested they had probably succumbed to terminal existential despair and wandered off to die in the swamp...

The print journalists on the scene had nothing better to do than interview anything that moved in the Great and Desperate Search for a New Angle.

Whether this was to sharpen their journalistic skills, or to keep them from dying of boredom, I don't know. It was one of those tense nights when you might pass out, but you certainly couldn't sleep.

It became apparent that 40 to 50 percent of the people on the ground with press credentials were completely bogus. They had gotten their passes with documents as obscure as museum letterheads. I was surprised to find myself fairly legitimate by comparison, as I did intend to write something for the Daily.

The reporters first established whether the interviewee was a real person, or a science fiction fantasy-lander. Real people tended to be either fairly uninformed civilians, or space groupies–mostly of the flag- waving sort. I had many fun and animated conversations during the evening with those around me, and acquired the image of the local heretic.

The fact that I had started to grow my hair out and tended to look like a tired Charlie Manson didn't help any. As the dew set in during the early morning I put on a black bandana to keep from getting too wet and dirty. And I resolved to look like a deranged pirate rather than a bomb- throwing anarchist for the rest of the time of the launch.

Ranting and Raving

One could hardly find someone more concerned with the importance of getting in to space than I. But, I advanced the thesis that I would have rather seen industry go to the moon in 1985, or `990, than see the government go for the moon in 1969 as a political stunt. Space would have been perceived by the public as an accessible industrial domain instead of a showcase for politics and state of the art technology.

I argued that when the government pushes a technology for political reasons, it destroys that technology.

The government pushed civilian nuclear power for political reasons. This was necessary to pay for the massive investments required to produce enriched material for weapons. Our reactors were derived directly from the submarine program, and burn enriched fuel. Most of the rest of the world's reactor technology–which evolved separately from a weapons environment–were derived from heavy water reactors that burn unenriched uranium out of the ground.

In the same way, NASA has pushed the building of the shuttle before its time. Though sold as 'economical,' it is interesting that every private study prior to the shuttle program concluded we should use some kind of cheap, off-the-shelf, non-reusable booster technology for at least another decade. Then the technology would be available to build a fully reusable shuttle.

There are many logistic and economic (ignoring technical) criticisms of the shuttle that are not being heard. I found myself pointing to the shuttle saying 'That is a perfect example of what is wrong with the space program.' If the shuttle flew perfectly, how could we establish the true economies of operation? How might we prevent the shuttle from being militarized and guarantee civilian access? Worst of all, NASA has perpetuated the myth that space is strictly the domain of high technology, and will forever be the fiefdom of big government and military.

Needless to say this was a minority opinion...

A Special Place in Hell

I had the haunting fear that some bureaucrats who made a manned landing on the moon seem dull to the American people will deliver a space program as effective and economical as the post office or the railroads. In some sense the government, ineffectively doing the job, will preclude someone truly making access to space possible and economical.

Personally, I hope that there is a special place in Hell being prepared for the committee of spineless bureaucrats that named the first shuttle Columbia. I'm sure there was a WASP team of administrators that spent many man years searching for the blandest and least controversial name that still had federal connotations... Why couldn't they have continued the tradition of mythological names and called it the Pegasus? It is this change of attitudes, about things as simple as names, that highlights the bureaucratization of NASA in recent years.

A Random Walk Through the Morning

I spent a good part of the early morning talking to an Air Force major, discussing how much easier it was to maintain an F-15 or F-16, than an F-4 Phantom. There was a loud group discussion regarding the meaning of low kill ratios in the engagements between second and third generation fighters–and what this meant in terms of NATO fighting with a more numerous, but primitive, Russian Air Force.

Around 4 a.m. the sun began to light the horizon and people started moving around recovering from the cold. People gave up the pretense of trying to nap or get any rest before the launch. We grimly sat it out past sunrise when the computer problem made itself known at the T-minus- 20 minute point. A nerve-wracking series of holds and false starts continued for several hours.

It was at this time I was introduced to Keith Lofstrom, another L-5 member, who was a project manager at Tektronics in Oregon. He turned out to be a fantastically creative and talented individual who worked on advanced lift technologies in his spare time. He and I went to the VIP area to look for a busload of L-5ers from Minnesota and Iowa.

If you had a press pass you could cross the bridge between the press area and the VIP area. If you had a VIP pass you could only come into the press area with a NASA escort. This meant that the press was free to interview anyone they wanted, while publicity hungry VIPs had to work pretty hard to get into the press area.

A good example of this was California Gov. Jerry Brown, who showed up repeatedly on TV by getting an escort to take him across the bridge. He never penetrated very far into the press area, as people would start calling "Where's Linda? Where's Linda? Where's Linda?"

During the time I was in the press area, I didn't meet anyone I didn't like–with one exception. As Keith and I crossed the bridge, a man in a three-piece suit tried to cross the bridge in the opposite direction–without showing a pass. The NASA representative asked for a pass. The man told him he didn't need a pass, he was from Washington. When the NASA security guard politely insisted on a pass, the man verbally abused him, finally identified himself as a National Security agent, abused him again and stormed off.

I was stunned to see such intolerant treatment of someone in public in front of members of the press. These lunatics are supposed to protect us from who?

When we returned to the press area I learned Keith was working as a computer consultant for Herbie Hancock (the musician). Hancock had been standing about 20 feet to my right, operating some video equipment for the L-5 society.

I saw that he was wearing a gold coin, and as several of my friends wear Kruggerands, I asked him about his medallion. It was a 50 peso Mexican gold piece.

End of the Dry Run

From about that point the morning dissolved steadily into chaos as the holds continued. We heard either the backup computer was bad or the code was bad. Word spread that this section of the code had not been tested. Attempts were made to reload and reload and reload the code to no apparent avail.

Keith and I had differing ideas about what was wrong. He correctly predicted that is was some kind of timing or handshake error. This was quite odd, as I had been making jokes about the computers saying "I/O ERROR–TRAP 4" and the shuttle dropping like a rock. This was nearly what happened.

Finally the count got to the 10-minute hold at T-minus nine minutes. People were getting more and more twisted as the morning went on. When the count finally resumed, the man on the intercom made a very positive statement, something like: "This time it's it. We're going to go. This is the one..." As a consequence, people dashed madly around to their camera equipment and stood nervously trying to anticipate whether they would wet their pants.

The man came on the air and said "We have the computer problem again." At that point everyone in the press area realized the mission would be scrubbed. It was too late in the morning. Whatever it was, they weren't going to be able to patch it together. Within a minute or two the scrub was announced. People looked around dazedly at each other and sadly asked "Well, are you going to be able to stay 'til Sunday?"

Tomorrow – The launch.

go to Part 2

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