Leaving Earth cover

In 2019 I obtained from my former publisher the last 30 copies of the now out-of-print hardback of Leaving Earth. I sold about half of these, and with only a handful left in stock I have raised the price. To get your own autographed copy of this rare collector's item please send a $75 check (includes $5 shipping) payable to Robert Zimmerman to
 

Behind The Black, c/o Robert Zimmerman
P.O.Box 1262
Cortaro, AZ 85652
 

I will likely raise the price again when only ten books are left, so buy them now at this price while you still can!

 
Also available as an inexpensive ebook!
 

Leaving Earth: Space Stations, Rival Superpowers, and the Quest for Interplanetary Travel, can be purchased as an ebook everywhere for only $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit.

 

Winner of the 2003 Eugene M. Emme Award of the American Astronautical Society.


"Leaving Earth is one of the best and certainly the most comprehensive summary of our drive into space that I have ever read. It will be invaluable to future scholars because it will tell them how the next chapter of human history opened." -- Arthur C. Clarke

Starship: Old-fashioned American know-how

Starship about 2 minutes into its flight

Yesterday’s truly epic first flight of SpaceX’s giant Starship rocket illustrated several truths that bear repeating, in clear and forceful language.

SpaceX succeeded because its company philosophy is open-minded, fearless, and thus free.

The open-mindedness culture comes from Elon Musk’s insistence that they never settle on any design if they can find a better way to do it. It is this approach that drives the company’s developmental process. The first Falcon 1 rocket made orbit, but despite that triumph Musk quickly abandoned it for the Falcon 9 when it was clear that it wasn’t powerful enough to garner enough satellite business.

The Falcon 9 that first launched in 2008 was a very different rocket from the Falcon 9 that launches today, as shown by the two pictures below. In the 2008 Falcon 9 the engines were configured differently and it had no legs. The modern Falcon 9 has landing legs, a different engine arrangement, and much of the innards have been redesigned to give the rocket more oomph.

Comparing the early Falcon 9 to its modern version

We can see the same on-going evolution with SpaceX’s Dragon capsule. The first capsules were vastly different than the modern manned version, with many fundamental changes that have increased the spacecraft’s capability while making it more reliable and reusable.

In order to build things better it is essential you don’t become married to any single idea. You keep an open-mind, you innovate, and you rethink instantly if you see an idea that makes better sense. This has been SpaceX’s approach from the beginning.

The company’s fearlessness is illustrated wonderfully by yesterday’s flight. The company admitted that there was a 1 in 3 chance of failure, including a crash upon landing. Yet, rather than cower in their basements redesigning and redesigning in a vain effort to design out the risk, they went ahead anyway because they understand that a failure now was still the fastest way to get that redesign improved. Rather than run from their fear of failure, they pushed past it.

In fact, they put aside their fear so much the company was willing to fly this risky test flight in plain sight, live streaming it to the world so that everyone could watch.

To achieve great things you have to take risks. You can’t be afraid. SpaceX exemplified that fearlessness yesterday.

Finally, the Starship flight yesterday epitomized the importance of freedom. No one told SpaceX what to do. The company isn’t building this rocket to fulfill some grand government space program. It is doing it to fulfill the dreams of Elon Musk, and the financial hopes of his investors. Thus, the goals, designs, and effort are independent of government dictate. And because of that the effort is creative, innovative, inspiring, and breath-taking.

Freedom does that to you. You might take risks, but the success makes those risks infinitely worthwhile.

The consequences of being open-minded, fearless, and free are profound. They result in a level of competence that is awe-inspiring. As they say, the hangman’s noose tends to focus the mind. If you take risks that could produce catastrophic failure you work very hard to make sure you do the best you can, even as you drive forward risking catastrophic failure.

In his memoirs of World War II, Eisenhower tells a story that illustrates how common this attitude once was in Americans. The Allies needed an airfield during the invasion of Sicily on the island of Gozo, located near Malta.

[The island] was so ill favored in the matter of terrain that British field engineers … had given up any hope of producing a field there in time for use in the Sicilian campaign. Happily, just at the critical moment Air Marshal Park, in command of the air forces of the island, had as a visitor an American engineer who specialized in the construction of airfields. Park told the engineer of this particular problem and after showing him the projected site asked for an estimate on the time it would take to construct an operational strip.

The answer was a nonchalant “Ten days.”

This struck Park–who is a human dynamo himself–as so preposterous that he thought himself the victim of a joke. However, upon noting the thoughtful way in which the engineer was considering the problem, he asked, “When can you start?”

“As soon as my equipment can get here, which should take several days.”

The upshot was that messages began to fly through the air, and thirteen days from the time the first American construction unit stepped on the island the first fighter plane was taking off form the strip.

…This story was told to me over and over again by British officers on the island whose admiration for the American engineers was scarcely short of awe.

As Eisenhower’s story shows, Americans were once known worldwide for having incredible competence. If something needed to be done you knew that if you asked an American to do it it would happen, and fast. Americans were open-minded. They were fearless. They were free. Thus, they were also competent and very skilled.

This reputation even had a name. People called it good, old-fashioned American know-how.

That SpaceX demonstrates these same attributes makes it the archetypal American company.

Sadly, these attitudes are no longer as common as they once were among Americans. Too many now live in fear, close-minded to new ideas or facts. Freedom does not attract them, because the risks involved terrify them. They’d rather huddle in their caves, wearing masks and fearing the lightning and thunder and viruses that might kill them.

SpaceX however yesterday provided today’s fear-driven, generally close-minded Americans a glimpse into that past American culture, the culture I grew up in as a child in the 1960s when Americans went to the Moon. It was then expected you kept an open-mind, at all times. It was expected that you did things right. And above all, it was expected you did them fearlessly.

We were free. This is what freedom demands.

My deep hope is that the spectacular success of SpaceX in doing truly astonishing things will inspire young Americans to once again be open-minded, fearless, and free. The America that accomplished greatness almost routinely is not yet entirely dead, and can still return in all its glory. We need only embrace it, bravely, and with open-minds.

Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

 
Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

 
The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.


He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

 
Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit.
 

26 comments

  • Andrew_W

    American engineer who specialized in the construction of airfields.

    Wasn’t the side of a hill good enough?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YOTwJ1ASz1c

  • janyuary

    (Hat tip to Tom Selleck)

    RISK IS THE PRICE YOU PAY FOR OPPORTUNITY.

    “SpaceX however yesterday provided today’s fear-driven, generally close-minded Americans a glimpse into that past American culture …”

    Mr. Z, I beg to differ. What I watched and read yesterday gives us all a glimpse into our possible future.

    Our past is done, and while it has been and will remain instructive, its moment in time is behind us now and will stay there; we only have the present and the future to deal with.
    What will serve us best is our courage in embracing the future, pioneering 21st Century Liberty with a full understanding that those who take great risks and succeed, reap great rewards on many levels beyond financial.

  • Questioner

    Mr. Z: I beg to differ also with regard to your idea. No, it is because the company SpaceX as such is open-minded, fearless, and therefore free. No, this is alone because Elon Musk has these personal, entrepreneurial qualities and can transfer them to his employees (your “Cooperate Philosophy”). If Elon Musk were not there one day or no longer owns this company, SpaceX would mutate back into a “normal” company.

  • Call Me Ishmael

    “The first Falcon 1 rocket made orbit”

    Actually, the first Falcon 1 blew up within sight of the launch pad, and the second failed short of orbit. I think it was the third Falcon 1 that went all the way.

    Your point about SpaceX flexibility is also made by the Falcon 5, which ended up being superseded before it ever flew.

    “a 1 in 3 chance of failure”

    Maybe I’m misreading this one, but I understood him to estimate a 1 in 3 chance of total success.

  • Michael

    Mr. Zimmerman:

    You are correct. Period.

  • Gary

    At least Musk has the common sense to leave California. Unfortunately, many of my liberal friends are also moving to Texas in order to get them away from the high cost of living in the Bay Area. I’m pretty sure they will then do everything they can to make Texas like California. With a monolithic left-wing Hi-Tech media complex, that should be a relatively easy task.

  • Andrew_W

    I attribute SpaceX’s success to South African tenacity, and RocketLab’s success to Kiwi ingenuity.
    You guy’s can proudly bask in the success of ULA though.

  • john hare

    Good shot Andrew. It’s amazing to me how many forget that the achievements of those that CHOOSE to be Americans is high on the list of the things that create American exceptionalism. It is not the birthplace that matters so much as the ability, desire, and vision to accomplish that is still enabled here. I personally know a lot of foreign born that are living the American dream along with the native born. Unfortunately, I also meet a lot of native born raving about how others are keeping them down.

  • Phill O

    I am wondering what the spurious “smoke” is. It does not seem to come from the motors.

    Anyone want to venture a guess?

  • Andrew_W

    It’s amazing to me how many forget that the achievements of those that CHOOSE to be Americans is high on the list of the things that create American exceptionalism.

    Certainly the US forms the center of the Anglosphere, but all others things being equal that’s to be expected as it’s the largest English speaking 1st world population mass, with about 3 times as many people as the other “old” English speaking countries combined. That’s why Hollywood is the #1 movie center in the world (despite California) and why so many foreign actors end up there (as an interesting example, most of the leading rolls in the movie First Man were filled by Australia, Canadian and English actors). Also there is certainly a significant level of trade protectionism imposed that favors establishing ones self and ones company as American, Peter Beck really didn’t have an option other than to make Rocketlab a US company if he wanted to fly most of the US payloads that he does.

    Once it was the UK which filled that roll as the leading center of the English world, with the most skilled, intelligent and entrepreneurial that the colonies had to offer flocking to Britain, Ironically Air Marshal Keith Park being one, though there are many other better examples from when Britain was still the hub.

  • Questioner

    Phill O:

    That is evaporating oxygen. I’m not quite sure where in the overall LOX tank system (which includes two different tanks) it comes from.

  • janyuary

    John Hare, well said, excellent point.

  • pzatchok

    Andrew_W

    “I attribute SpaceX’s success to South African tenacity, and RocketLab’s success to Kiwi ingenuity.
    You guy’s can proudly bask in the success of ULA though.”

    I would consider anyone a full citizen of the country they are living in after 20 years of legal residency.
    And you must ask your self. Why did he build his car company in the US and not China or anyplace else? And the very same for his rocket company.

    And the same for Rocketlab. There are a bunch of other companies everyplace else in the world why did they come here to America?

    As Isaac Asimov often said.
    ‘When he was born he surprisingly found himself in Russia. He set out to change that as soon as possible and moved to America at the age of 3.’
    My guess is Elon Musk felt much the same way.

  • Andrew _W

    Pzatchok, why do you ask me questions that I’ve already answered?
    It took Asimov until he was 3 to move to a better country? I made that decision at just 6 months!

  • Jhon

    “The first Falcon 1 rocket made orbit”

    Actually, the first Falcon 1 blew up within sight of the launch pad, and the second failed short of orbit. I think it was the third Falcon 1 that went all the way.
    _______________________________________________________________________
    I think what he ment is the design, not the first one they shot into the air. They moved on from the 1 to the two then the three ect. even though they worked.

  • Chris

    After seeing the vids of the Starship maneuvers along with the many prior vids of the Falcon 9, I must say that the Buck Rogers et al science fiction special effects guys got it pretty much right.

    As for all the “who’s nation is the most innovative” debate I point you to the punch line of a prior BtB post:

    https://behindtheblack.com/?s=Three+little+pigs

  • wayne

    Chris–
    (tangential is my middle name)
    You might enjoy this:

    http://www.rolandanderson.se/comics/buckrogers/buckrogers.php
    (Links to 1,302 images of the Buck Rogers comic strip.)

    “In Worcester, Massachusetts, the Buck Rogers comic strip series was carried by the Worcester Evening Gazette, appearing six days a week – Monday to Saturday. These Buck Rogers comic strips were collected by Roland N. Anderson (1916-1982) while working as a paperboy. He was able to assemble an almost complete collection of the series from its start in the Evening Gazette on February 4, 1929 until March 25, 1933.”

  • wayne

    whoops, forgot the key sentence:

    “Twelve-year-old boys of all ages, looking for nifty rocket ships, can find some of them on strips 102, 175, 316, 368, 452, 584, 588, 613, 620, 747, 756, 762, 772, 930, 946, 970, 979, 1007, 1021, 1024, 1150, 1233, 1241, 1253, 1261 and 1268.”

  • Edward

    John hare wrote: “It’s amazing to me how many forget that the achievements of those that CHOOSE to be Americans is high on the list of the things that create American exceptionalism. It is not the birthplace that matters so much as the ability, desire, and vision to accomplish that is still enabled here.

    Many confuse American exceptionalism with the ability of Americans, with being better than the people of the rest of the world. Americans are not better than the rest of the world. We come from the rest of the world. We are the rest of the world.

    The difference is not innate ability but the freedom that is allowed here in the U.S, the ability to express our abilities, good or not. The attitude in America is that if it is not expressly forbidden then it is allowed. The attitude in much of the rest of the world is that if it is not expressly allowed, then it may be forbidden. The difference is the attitude of freedom that the Statue of Liberty’s lamp was supposed to light the way for the rest of the wold to follow. The rest of the world was supposed to take America’s example and become free, not seek refuge by coming to America (whoever chose that dratted poem did not understand the meaning of the statue).

    This attitude also allows for American ingenuity. We try new things, such as reusable first stages and reusable upper stages, because we are free to try. The government did not try it, We the People tried it, braving through public and humiliating failures in a way few dare.

    It is said that Elon Musk chose to came to the U.S. because great things can be done here.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elon_Musk#Early_life_and_family

    Although Musk’s father insisted that Elon go to college in Pretoria, Musk became determined to move to the United States, saying “I remember thinking and seeing that America is where great things are possible, more than any other country in the world.”

    American exceptionalism is that possibility for doing great things. It can happen anywhere that allows freedom and liberty, and it can be stifled anywhere that discourages freedom and liberty.

    This is why Elon Musk and several other companies are fleeing California. Musk is now choosing the much more free Texas over the tyrannical Socialist Republic of California. The more tyrannical California becomes, American exceptionalism becomes harder and harder to accomplish, even for individuals and families. The same is becoming true for the rest of America.

    In the 19th century, Americans were the free-est people in the world. Alexis de Tocqueville and others noted this freedom and how it enabled even the common man. They tried to inform the rest of the world of the virtue of freedom and the abilities for greatness. However, the progressives of the early 20th century and the Fabians began putting a stop to liberty and the independence from governmental supervision. After all, how can a free people be a blessing to the government when they believe that they did “ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America” with the purpose to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” Liberty and freedom are the foundation of America and are why in less than three centuries it went from a backwoods village (literally) to a nation that saved the world (twice).

    American exceptionalism is why America came up with a Wuhan virus vaccine in such a short time. Companies and their People were freed up to accomplish great things, reducing governmental restrictions. Can you imagine how long it would have taken to create such a vaccine if these people were locked down with the rest of us, under this tyranny of “safety?” How safe has it turned out to be, anyway, with so many testing positive and so many dying despite the government’s tyrannical interventions?

    American exceptionalism is not location, governmental supervision or individual know-how; it is the freedom to apply that know-how however we see fit.

  • George C

    I would like to know where I can find out more about the details that we all saw from the point of view of the cameras running during the flight experiment. For example, why did the number of engines in use go from 3, to 2, to 1, and then 0?

    Returning to the political discussion, note that the US Constitution mentions patents and copyrights and contracts, and that it is the people’s representatives who are responsible for working out the details. Also, obviously by induction, it is the people who get to decide the meaning of we the people, that axiomatic phrase from the preamble.

  • wayne

    George C–
    watch the Scott Manley video; very complete timeline with pretty much every question you might have, answered.

    https://youtu.be/egHxiX40eJY
    (12:14)

  • janyuary

    Edward, solid gold and worth repeating: “Many confuse American exceptionalism with the ability of Americans, with being better than the people of the rest of the world. Americans are not better than the rest of the world. We come from the rest of the world. We are the rest of the world.

  • Edward

    janyuary,
    Thank you for the compliment. I was proud of that line when I first came up with it, seven years ago, when Obama said something terribly stupid about American exceptionalism being the same as British exceptionalism, or something like that.

    George C asked: “I would like to know where I can find out more about the details that we all saw from the point of view of the cameras running during the flight experiment. For example, why did the number of engines in use go from 3, to 2, to 1, and then 0?

    I do not have any inside information about what we saw, other than what SpaceX has already released, but I spent a few years in test of satellites. Scott Manley (thanks, Wayne, for including that video in this thread, and while I’m at it, thanks Chris for the review of The Three Little Pigs) mostly gives an explanation of what happened without that much “why.” He does not know either. I may be in a unique position of just enough knowledge mixed with a lot of ignorance to give a reasonable sounding but wrong explanation.

    In all likelihood, the SpaceX engineers were eager to learn as much as they could about controlling Starship, and the launch phase was an excellent time to glean more information than they told we outsiders that they were after.

    Shutting down the first engine gives them plenty of information about performance in the case of an engine-out problem. It is clear that the software was able to keep control. Also, gimbaling the remaining engines would also result in the rocket being slightly tilted so that the thrust continues to go through the center of mass (which changes any time the propellants in the main tanks slosh around, such as during pitch over), and it continued to be under control despite the airflows and aerodynamics being slightly different than under nominal flight conditions.

    They only needed a single engine to perform the nudge that got the craft to tip over to its horizontal attitude — at slow speeds, the fins would be unable to do it — but it is difficult to be sure whether they shut down the second engine while the craft was still climbing at a fast enough speed to examine the aerodynamics when it is tilted to be “balanced” on just one engine. It looked like they had a bit of speed during single engine operation, though.

    Manley did say that they hovered for a while, as they translated sideways before the pitch over maneuver. Note that the white condensation clouds (from O2 venting) move sideways shortly before the pitch over, showing its direction of travel. The final engine is shut down just as the pitch over begins, otherwise it will push the craft far out of the test zone. All the engines had to be off during the fall phase of the test.

    The pitch over amazes me.

    First, it pitched over fairly quickly, suggesting to me that there were high stresses on the extreme ends of the craft. Second, I am shocked that the front fins were capable of stopping that much rotational momentum. Notice that the aft fins were fully tucked against the body as the momentum was being stopped. As far as I know, that puts all the responsibility for control on the forward fins. To me, they do not look large enough to do what they did.

    The pitch over shows that they have a large amount of control over their craft. I have much more confidence that they can make Starship work, at least up to low Earth orbit. The Russians have been transferring propellants in orbit for decades, so I am confident that SpaceX will be able to do that, too., thus getting Starship to lunar orbit seems likely, too. Landing on the Moon has some scary parts, because landing on a dusty gravelly field rather than a landing pad can result in rocks flying around and damaging the spacecraft. I expect an early objective for a lunar or Martian base would be to create a landing pad or two.

    My understanding is that the oxygen header tank is at the nose of the Starship test article (unit). I would expect that it would have had the problem that the fuel header tank had, low pressure, because during the second pitch over, back to vertical, and the re-ignition of the engines, the nose of the craft has tremendous centrifugal forces (or centripetal, depending on how you are looking at it) that would make it harder to transport the O2 from the nose header tank to the engines. The fuel header tank was closer to the center of mass, so centrifugal forces would be much lower, so pumping the fuel would be easier.

    Anyway, SpaceX’s engineers have plenty of data to keep them happy and busy for weeks. What a nice Hanukkah present for them.

  • wayne

    Stunning Views of Rocketlab and SpaceX Launches
    Scott Manley 11-28-20
    https://youtu.be/SR6Z85X8i4o
    11:36

  • Tom Gill

    Loved, never heard before, “As they say, the hangman’s noose tends to focus the mind.” First thought that came to me…is this origin of the term “deadline?” (Ha!) Anyone who’s faced one knows what happens to the mind/body/spirit as a big deadline approaches (especially if taking a risk with “untried yet TBT if TRUE” design (including equipment) and methods and even more so when you set it yourself!

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