Going To The Moon

(When we speak of space studies or spacecraft technology we usually end up discussing learning what we need to know in order to help other people get Out There. What if we really intend to go ourselves as residents of a space habitat or colonist on the moon, what would we study then? Having a bit of fun with this question and with a wry tip of my hat To Mr. Heinlein and Kip, winner of and friend to Oscar and Space Suit, I pose some questions on college selection and career planning in these seamlessly fused out-takes from a project in progress “Mistress of the Moon.”)

“Mom,” I said one evening after dinner, when we were sitting out in the peeling patio furniture in our backyard, both gazing just now, upward into the evening sky. “I want to go to the moon.”

Mom took a sip of her laced coffee.

“Then go,” she said.

“No Mom,” I said, “I mean it. I really want to go.”

“I mean it too,” she said matter-of-factly. “If you want to go, then that’s what you should do.”

“But how,” I wondered aloud.

“You’ve got a good head on your shoulders,” she told me, as so many times before. “Figure out how to get there if that’s what you really want.”

Crickets chorused approval from the bushes and a late-roosting songbird trilled from the old hawthorn tree. I looked back down at my book, not reading, just sort of strobing back and forth across the same paragraph, without really seeing the words, yet seeing well beyond.

My book was a Jack Williamson novel, The Moon Children, maybe the first science fiction novel about going to the moon. Initially anyhow, written after we’d actually gone there. It wasn’t the happiest book but was full of wonder, about mysteries that might still await us on Luna. I remember wondering how long it would be before it became plain silly to write science fiction about a planet so close as our own moon, with seemingly regular flights going there and back every few months. This was in 1974 though and I wouldn’t have believed at the time, how soon lunar exploration would stop altogether for an entire generation as it turned out.

“You look pensive dear,” Mom commented, Inhaling on her cigarette, riffling the Vogue she’d picked up from the little picnic table.

“Well,” I said, “I’ll be going away to college in less than two years now. I want to make sure that I choose the right major.”

“Still the moon?” She asked lightly.

“Sure!” I said. “Of course the moon.”

“Haven’t you any guidance counselors at school?” she wanted to know.

I knew what she thought of the psychologist the school had given us, but calling it Guidance seemed to somehow legitimize what school counselors did, or didn’t.

“Yeah,” I said. “But all they ever tell you to do is hit the Math books, then next year sign up for Mr. Hall’s Physics class if my grades are good enough.” The songbird trilled a little sadly now as if maybe we were keeping it up.

“That seems like sound enough advice to me,” Mom replied.

“But,” I protested. “it’s sound enough advice for somebody who wants to be an accountant too, or maybe a dentist.”

“Nothing wrong with those professions,” Mom said.

“No,” I agreed, “But I want to go into space.”

Mom frowned a little like she always does when she’s really thinking. “I know a woman at the health club I go to,” she said finally. “She’s some sort of big wheel in The Society of Women Engineers. I think I could make an appointment with her or maybe invite her over, to talk to you about what sorts of degrees are most likely to get you into space. Would you like that?”

“That would be great!” A bullfrog voiced agreement, crickets chorused back-up.

“Okay,” she said, stubbing out the cigarette and rising from her chair. “We’ll do that, real soon. Help me carry in the things?”

Mary Jane Kendall was surprisingly pretty compared to my preconceived notion of what a woman engineer would look like. She was tall, taller than Mom, taller than me, reddish brown hair cut short, fair skin; looked like she worked out often, had long artistic fingers like me, like Mom. This was another Wednesday night, the only evening Mary Jane was free for dinner, so by agreement, I was wearing my best dress with my hair fixed and the minimal make-up I was allowed and also required to use. She greeted Mom, smiled a friendly enough smile at me, gave up her suit jacket for me to hang in the hall closet, accepted a martini from Mom then sat on one end of the couch, gesturing me toward the other. “So,” she said without preamble, “I hear you’re interested in engineering?”

“I want to go to the moon,” I countered, the statement sounding sort of thin and silly in my own ears.

“Lots of people do,” she said. “Meanwhile a person’s got to earn a living.” (Hell, a school counselor could have told me that!) But then she said “Space is obviously one of the up and coming industries and if you want in on the ground floor or the launch-pad level I guess, you’re better off with an engineering degree than anything else.”

“How about physics?” I inquired.

“Well physics is a good, hard rigorous field,” she said, “but an engineer has two things physicists generally don’t.”

This certainly drew my attention since the literature, the science fiction literature would have it that there wasn’t too much in the world a physicist couldn’t do!

“An engineer,” she said, “has a broad base of introductory course work in college, which spans things like statistics and dynamics, the analysis of stationary and moving systems, the mechanics of solids, how things deform, stretch, compress and break, the behavior of fluids, heat the various forms of energy. A physicist can certainly learn all this stuff but doesn’t generally emerge from college with that broad base for further studies. Engineers learn about design and about the analysis of real world problems while a physicist’s training is primarily in research methods, how to find things out, discover how things occur but not necessarily how to make them occur. Again, physicists can learn all about design, but that’s not physics specifically, it’s engineering.

“So” I asked, when she finally appeared to be coming up for air, “if a physicist took those introductory courses and some design courses too, would that be like an engineering degree?”

“Yes,” she said, “in general. There is a field called engineering physics which would build on an academic program like you’re describing, but if you wanted to go on to graduate school, you’d need to decide whether you were primarily interested in research or engineering as such.”

“Would engineering physics but a good major for somebody who wanted to work on space stuff?” I asked.

Mary Jane considered.

“I can see how it would be useful for designing research instruments,” she said, “or analyzing data from space, maybe helping design better equipment, shielding for astronauts and guidance and control systems. Most of aerospace work isn’t physics though. Physics is cutting edge stuff, things not fully worked out yet. Aeronautics and rocket engineering are based on things understood in principle at least, decades if not centuries ago. You don’t need a physicist to build a rocket. You need at the same time, less and much more.” Mom slipped Mary Jane a second drink and handed me an iced ginger ale.

“What kind of engineer would build rockets then?” I asked.

“Nobody builds rockets as such,” she told me, “Not professionally. Teams build rockets. I’ve heard that the reason the Wright brothers were the first to build a successful airplane was that there were two of them. To fly you need knowledge about structures, propulsion, aerodynamics and stability-control, how to keep things level and in the right direction. Langley and other folks had superior education to the Wrights but hadn’t sufficiently mastered all four subjects. It took at least two guys to know enough to fly. Using that analogy I’d say to build a modern liquid-fuelled rocket, even a small one, you’d need at least six people, a propulsions/gas dynamics person to design the engine and nozzles, a chemical engineer to get the fuel combustion right, a mechanical engineer to design the pumps for the engine, a control systems specialist, either a mechanical or electrical engineer with competence in the other field, to design and program the guidance system, a materials specialist to select metals and ceramics to stand up to the extreme conditions encountered in the engine and on the outside of the rocket, an aerodynamicist to figure out the shape the rocket’s hull needs to be and what the modes of control need to be. Each individual would in reality be a group, a team, interacting with the other teams. In short, nearly any kind of engineer out there might get involved with designing or building rockets but nobody does it all.” She looked at me then to see if I understood. I must have looked nonplussed.

“What does an aerospace engineer do then?” I asked.

“Aeronautics” she said “is really a branch of mechanical engineering but where straight mechanicals generally know something about rotating machinery, gearing, linkages (things that connect one working part of a machine to another) aeronauticals generally focus more on things like air flows, lightweight structures, control problems, that kind of thing. Since spacecraft design pretty much grew out of aircraft technology, many schools have what’s called aeronautics and astronautics programs where a person can take courses which hopefully train you to work either on aircraft or spacecraft. The chances are fairly large though, that an aeronautical/astronautical engineer will end up working with airplanes because that’s where the money is, but it’s one way of working on rockets or at least, heading in that direction.”

“Are there other ways then?” I wanted to know.

“Oh sure,” Mary Jane said. “An electronics guy can get a job in guidance and control or satellite design. Computer specialists are always in demand. Ceramic engineers work on nozzle, nose cones, heat shield design and production. Human factors specialists work with displays, controls, cabin design.”

Just now, Mom announced that the roast was out of the oven and I reluctantly left to help her with the meat platter and the serving bowls, the table having been set previously.

“Let me ask you this,” Mary Jane addressed to me, once beef, Yorkshire pudding and asparagus had been served out and the salad distributed. “Are you interested in building rockets or going into space specifically?”

“I want to go to the moon,” I said, feeling as if I were beating a tom-tom lately.

“It occurred to me that those are different issues,” she said. “Lots of people work together to build rockets, but on the moon for instance, we wouldn’t need the rocket designers. Those issues would have been solved already or you wouldn’t be there in the first place. On the moon you’d but doing geology, construction, oxygen extraction from rocks, maybe manufacturing. I suspect the Big Show though, at least for a while, would be the business of keeping people alive and healthy in a strange environment.” She paused to think that over and “Someone like a flight nurse” she said, “The sort who fly on emergency rescue missions, A Doctor specializing in space medicine, a low-gravity physiologist or an environmental psychologist. People like that might go to the moon or Mars.” She took a bite of roast, chewed, swallowed, “You know what?”

“What?”

“It occurs to me that we won’t have any problem on the moon much bigger than how to feed ourselves.”

“Really?” I asked this time with some fascination.

“Well sure,” she said. “Think about it. We know how to build solar cell arrays for power. We know more or less how to bake oxygen out of rocks. We know various ways to recycle water, but food doesn’t get recycled except with either a lot of chemistry or photosynthetic plants, green plants I mean. Very few people are doing much serious work on how to grow food in enclosed environments, under out of this world conditions. I could see a chemical engineering major say, minoring in food science or maybe double majoring. For a master’s degree that person might get into a program in hydroponics or horticulture and take course work in microbiology or microbotany I guess that would be, to become expert in algae and yeasts and things like that which we could grow in space or on the moon with fairly minimum setup. I’d think NASA would snap somebody like that up when we start thinking about lunar bases. You’d be in a position to run the base’s food production processes which would require a lot of hands on experience.

“Another thing a person could do would be to become expert in greenhouse design. A mechanical engineering major could concentrate in air conditioning and solar energy for instance, then do a master’s maybe between architecture and environmental engineering.”

“You think then that a degree in some kind of engineering would be best to begin with?” Mom asked when there was a moment to intervene.

“I’d say so,” Mary Jane affirmed, nodding. The meat and potatoes degrees in engineering are civil, mechanical, electrical, chemical. I’d say mechanical engineering is probably the most inclusive, since we need to study materials as well as machine design, heat and other sorts of energy, solids, liquids, gases, even radiation. You’d have a better chance of branching out in one of the areas we’ve been discussing and if you don’t make it to the moon, at least right away,” she relented, catching a look at my face, “you’d have a good solid background to support yourself until your big chance arrives. Just be thinking about course work which would help you do something environment related human related. Start with a good background in engineering, add to that. Keep in mind that you’ll probably want a master’s degree and possibly a doctorate.”

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