Space May 2009

Across the Universe

Intelligent life surely exists on some of the planets beyond our solar system. But we’ve scarcely begun to look for it. With NASA dithering and corporate titans more interested in space tourism, a serious exploration of the stars is limited more by a lack of vision than of technology. But a few scientists think they can use the sun’s light to cheaply propel an unmanned craft deep into the interstellar ether. Their vision may be quixotic, and their first attempt failed. But what will it mean for our solipsistic species if they succeed next time?

As Friedman, Schurmeier, and Kerzhanovich sat talking in the carriage house, none of them knew that far away, in Sri Lanka, Arthur C. Clarke, 90 years old and one of solar sailing’s greatest advocates, was living the last week of his life.

According to the third of Clarke’s three laws, promulgated in the early 1960s, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But even magic requires money, and corporate sponsorship has eluded both Cosmos 1 and 2 for any number of reasons that Friedman can suggest. They include a reluctance to be associated with possible failure and an aversion to being associated with Russia. Kerzhanovich will joke about how the project should ask for support from “the other Friedman,” a Russian oil billionaire who spells his name without an e. But even he, or some risk-friendly American businessman, wouldn’t be able to get his company logo emblazoned on Cosmos 2’s giant Mylar blades: the temperature variations that would result from the application of huge words and images make the idea infeasible.

For most of the past 10 years, solar sailing’s chief fund-raiser has been the writer and film producer Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan’s widow. In the first years of their marriage, Druyan oversaw the crafting of the recorded greetings from Earth that went along on the Voyagers Bud Schurmeier dispatched through the solar system. She has known Friedman for decades, and when he called on her during Cosmos 1’s early financial difficulties, she decided: “Come hell or high water, I would find a way to do this.” She would, she says, make Cosmos 1 her Taj Mahal to Sagan.

Druyan provided the project with funds from her own Cosmos Studios, hoping to make some of the money back by producing films and programming about the mission. She also secured big donations from Joe Firmage, the Internet entrepreneur, and Peter Lewis, an insurance billionaire and left-leaning philanthropist from Cleveland. But conventional corporate sponsorship proved impossible. “What really struck me was the paucity of vision in American business,” Druyan said.

Nonetheless, she is still at it for Cosmos 2, seizing opportunities to talk up the project with figures like Sumner Redstone at venues like the Seoul Digital Forum. The Discovery Channel did put up a quarter million dollars to jump-start the renewed effort, and she has her fingers crossed for a few big potential donors she can’t really talk about. Even so, she can’t get over the general timidity and lack of imagination she keeps encountering, and she’s particularly aghast at the scads of cash some ego-tripping big-money men seem willing to spend on personal space tourism: “Isn’t the whole planet enough for them?” Google’s Sergey Brin—whose company the project also appealed to, unsuccessfully, years ago—is yet another billionaire who hopes to romp around in orbit.

Cosmos 2 does have a few practical selling points, most of them unfortunately far down the line. It could lead to the launch of a solar-sailing ship toward Earth-Sun L1—the “libration point” between the two bodies, where the gravitational pull of one is in balance with the other, allowing a spacecraft to hover as a kind of solar weather station, providing valuable notice of when the sun’s flarings might next disrupt power and communications grids back on Earth.

The green appeal of solar sailing—traveling by light, once chemical propellants have done their dirty job of orbital insertion—ought to be powerful. A project like this, Druyan says, could ultimately point humanity away from its whole “spoiled, choking, polluted, tragic future.” But when she was pitching Cosmos 1, she could not get support even from Qwest, the communications company that up until 2002 used “Ride the light” as its slogan.

Lavochkin, the storied Russian aerospace company, is located on the northern outskirts of Moscow, along the congested road to Sheremetyevo airport, near where the German army’s advance was halted in late 1941. A lot of the company’s buildings are grim and battered, like worn shipping containers, and a bust of Lenin near the visitors’ gate remains on its pedestal, not far from a pretty, new, onion-domed chapel for the use of employees who are believers. This coexistence of gods, like so much in Putin’s Russia, where the sullen young lean against subway walls still heroically festooned with the hammer-and-sickle, seems less peaceful than simply unresolved.

When I follow Lou Friedman around on a trip to Moscow some months after our conversation in Pasadena, both of us are mindful of how much a reinvigorated Russian space program would help restore the country’s stature and swagger. The U.S. will soon be depending on Russia’s rockets, but as Kerzhanovich puts it, the Russians “don’t want to be just the horse for somebody.” Where Cosmos 2 is concerned, they are horse and cart—designated to build both the rocket and the payload. The Americans, having designed the mission, are supposed to come up with the money, but on this visit Friedman seems like a member of the land-poor nobility, way short of the cash required for the rig he’d like to have.

The engineering model of Cosmos 1 still sits in a clean room at Lavochkin, and after donning lab coats and protective footwear, Friedman and I pay it a visit. Seven of the spacecraft’s sails are tightly wrapped, attached to it in containers the size of shaving kits. Only one of the blades lies unfurled on the ground, a huge silver isosceles triangle edged by transparent yellow tubing that’s designed to fill with gas, extend the sail, and keep it taut. The spacecraft’s motor is then supposed to turn and orient the eight enormous sheets. Cosmos 2 will require some design modifications for a ride atop the Soyuz instead of the Volna, but the goal is to keep changes to a minimum, since everything on this model had already passed thermal testing, strength testing, electrical testing, and all the rest.

Slava Linkin, with his long curly hair and graying beard, has traveled across the city from IKI, the space-research institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, to meet us. He and Friedman go back two decades, to the time Linkin was developing a balloon experiment for a Soviet mission to Venus. Friedman stays with Linkin whenever he comes to Moscow, and between the two men one can see a genial tenderness, as well as occasional exasperation. “Lou! Lou!,” Linkin will sometimes cry—the words sounding more like “Low! Low!”

But right now it’s Friedman who has to make something clear. “The ball is in your court. You understand that expression?” he asks. His conversations earlier in the day with Lavochkin’s general director and his deputy were less than encouraging. “We have no agreement and no firm plan.” The Planetary Society may still be “absolutely committed to its goal of flying the first real solar-sail mission,” as Friedman put it, but he confessed to a certain helplessness. TPS is “not a technology-development organization. That’s the Russian space agency, that’s NASA, that’s industry, whatever. All this technology stuff is something beyond the capability of the Planetary Society.” Everyone involved would agree with that, but what the society is supposed to bring, along with the mission design, is money, and Friedman hasn’t got it yet.

“We had an original estimate, right after Cosmos 1,” he reminds Linkin, “that on paper was 1.7 [million dollars], between IKI and Lavochkin. Later on, in later meetings, we came up with this new plan, and your estimate was about 1.2 … Plus launch vehicle.”

“Launch is separate,” Linkin says.

“Slava,” Friedman says, forcing himself to confront Lavochkin’s bottom line. “The real situation is, can they work on it? If we had all our money today, could they work on it for next year? I think the answer is no.”

He’s right. What the Russians will no longer do is enter into a fixed-price contract—not with the dollar’s value fluctuating unpredictably.

One can feel Cosmos 2 turning from an absolute commitment to a “primary goal,” the term Friedman will soon be using in the long discussion. All at once, it appears that Cosmos 1 isn’t about to be replicated so much as scaled down. Friedman says the currently available money, only several hundred thousand dollars, is “not enough to do the whole project,” but “too much to fritter away on nothing.” So he’ll keep studying other, cheaper options than Cosmos 2 (now called the “nominal” option), one of which could involve deploying four blades, instead of eight.

“Everything else,” Friedman wanly admits, “is less satisfying” than launching Cosmos 2 as originally planned, and maybe that self-evident fact will somehow keep the full mission alive. Ann Druyan “remains strongly optimistic,” he tells the Russians. She thinks “enough is cooking” so that good news about funding will arrive soon, perhaps even in a few weeks. “But who knows?”

“We are waiting several months,” Linkin says—as in “already waiting”—for money that could get things moving.

Later in the week, in the bleak offices of IKI, Freidman and Linkin and Sasha Lipatov, the leader of the Instrument Development Team, will spend a long, listless day having intermittent conversations and receiving occasional updates from other project participants. One can’t help but think of them as a celestial variant of Chekhov’s three sisters, wondering not if they’ll ever get to Moscow, since they’re already there, but if they’ll ever get into Earth orbit and finally beyond. Still, one knows that the hours are at some level not misspent, that the desultory face-to-face conversations are all part of keeping the team together and keeping the project alive. Over dinner, at a club decorated with souvenir kitsch from Soviet times, Linkin will offer the first toast of the evening: “To sailing in space!” And Lipatov, with a smile, will override him: “No, to the contract!”

Friedman can always turn the discussion toward a folder he carries labeled LIFE. It concerns two little canisters he’s also brought to Moscow, the technology model for another collaboration—funded and so far on schedule—between the Planetary Society and the Russians: the Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment, which this October will carry nonpathogenic microbes on a trip to Phobos, one of Mars’s two moons, aboard a spacecraft built at Lavochkin. The samples will stay on the surface of Phobos for a few weeks before the probe returns them to Earth for a look at how they’ve fared—a sort of reverse test of the particular “transpermia hypothesis,” that Martian life came to Earth long ago inside meteoroids.

In fact, the Phobos mission is the main business of Friedman’s current trip to Moscow; solar-sail discussions have been piggybacked onto the agenda the way Cosmos 2 hopes to catch a ride on a Soyuz devoted primarily to some other mission. The LIFE experiment is a textbook small-scale TPS project, and it’s not without its own excitement, but even the name of the spacecraft that will carry it, Phobos-Grunt, suggests extending the human reach into space by another three yards and a cloud of cosmic dust. Cosmos 2 would be a Hail Mary pass, an audacious leap.

In Leninsky Prospekt, not far from Linkin’s IKI office, a statue of Yuri Gagarin is having its pedestal refurbished. In most respects the figure of the first man to reach space, rising atop a giant titanium column, is typically craptastic socialist realism: oversize millenarian muscle, chiseled to world-dominating perfection. And yet, in his sculpted spacesuit with his arms extended, the metallic Gagarin is also something more: not quite a bird, but some abstract new shape, a living figure that’s tending toward the geometric. The artist, called upon to produce propaganda, strayed beyond the bounds of representation because what Gagarin did required it. In 1961, the human species looked as if it were beginning a metamorphosis into something new, no matter what geopolitical rivalry might have been driving the transformation. When Michael Collins, the command-module pilot of America’s Apollo 11, pondered the meaning of the early space missions, he had no doubt as to what they were ultimately about. “Leaving,” he said. Life would be stepping off this planet just as surely as it had once crawled out of the ocean and up onto land.

The Voyager probes are traveling out of the solar system. Asked if he sometimes considers where those ships are now, Bud Schurmeier, who helped send them on their way, says, “Oh, yes, I occasionally do,” though he laughs when pressed to name their location within a billion miles. In fact, late in the summer of 2007, Voyager 2 passed into the last gusts of the actual solar wind and moved farther toward interstellar space, its 30-year-old computers sending back data that confirmed the solar system’s irregular, “dented” perimeter. The spacecraft still carries the “golden record” of Earth images and greetings that Ann Druyan and Carl Sagan helped to compose.

The record was an idea that briefly captured the public imagination, however little chance it had of an “outcome”—that is, our learning that someone had received its messages. (One joke went that, after extraterrestrials played the disc, with its samples of human music, their first message to Earth would be: “Send more Chuck Berry.”) The long-term implications of Cosmos 2 may be as thrilling as its sci-fi enthusiasts have always suggested, but for all the beauty of its open sails, its first orbital mission will still suffer from being “just a test.” And that’s assuming the “nominal” option even gets carried out.

“Basically, you’re asking somebody to fund an idea,” Friedman admits. He has good science at his back. But if 50 years ago Slava Linkin could not have imagined the disappearance of the U.S.S.R., it’s fair to say that Friedman would not have imagined his own country, the Cold War’s victor, with a space agency so blinkered and elephantine that he has to mount a long guerrilla operation to get his plausible vision off the ground.

He has had the same bellyful of talk about private entrepreneurial funding that Ann Druyan has, and he shares her contempt for the thrill-seeking, space-touring fat cats. But even so, a fundamental optimism survives in him, nourished not just by faith but by disbelief: “You come back to that $4 million, and the chance to take the first step to the stars—how can that not be funded?”

In the sharp teeth of the new recession, Druyan is still offering potential donors the chance “to enter history,” to make possible the “Kitty Hawk moment” for solar sailing, and she often points out that the price, $4 million to $5 million, is about what you’d pay for “a nice New York apartment.” But so far she’s been pointing this out to an audience that would rather stay home.

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Thomas Mallon’s books include the novels Two Moons and Aurora 7, as well as Rockets and Rodeos, a collection of essays.

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