Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Intrepid once, but no more

"We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, President of the United States of America, September 12, 1962


There was a time when anything seemed possible. When scale and ambition, and the scale of ambition, seemed limitless. When Kennedy made his speech 51 years ago, promising to put boots on the moon, the world was emerging from its World War economic hangover. After a first half dominated by the tectonic shifting of old empires, the second half of the 20th Century was to be dominated by technological possibility.

In America, the impossible was being embraced firmly as the possible. Fuelled by the ideological pissing contest that dominated our lives for the better part of four decades, the Americans and Russians threw stuff into space because they could. And then it seemed to stop, an a major scale at least.

This fell into perspective during my recent visit to the USS Intrepid, the aircraft carrier-come-floating museum moored permanently on the Hudson in New York. Perched on the stern-end of its flight deck is the Space Shuttle Enterprise, the first of NASA's 'orbiter' spacecraft that were designed to travel into space with the relative regularity that an Eddie Stobart truck ventures down Britain's M1 motorway.

 © Simon Poulter 2013
Science fiction special effects designers have led us to believe that space travel involves vast vessels, but the first thing you notice about the Shuttle is how small it is. I'm sure there are bigger SUVs in the US. And yet there was the simplicity of its 'launch-like-a-rocket, land-like-a-plane' principle, having the same shape and dimensions as a small airliner. But despite this relative normality, seeing it up close - an actual space ship - merely grinds away at the imagination, and how we're no longer using it.

© Simon Poulter 2013
Although Enterprise - unlike its television namesake - never went anywhere bolder than being hauled around on a Boeing 747 to test its design, it still represents a major sum of human capability.

133 Shuttle missions - including two tragic disasters - may not sound much compared with the 90,000 commercial aviation flights that take off and land every day - but none of them challenge gravity as the NASA shuttles did, even if George Clooney's character in Gravity- the film - is of the opinion that flying them "is not rocket science".

Sir Richard Branson's sub-orbital Virgin Galactic venture might be at least one worthy attempt to keep manned spaceflight going, but the abandonment of the Shuttle programme, and very little intent from anyone else to put people into space, means that we, as a species, have done no more than stepped outside the door, sniffed the air and gone inside to watch Homes Under The Hammer with a packet of Hobnobs.

One deck below the Enterprise on the Intrepid is evidence of when space was shiny and new, and Kennedy's belief in doing things, not because they were easy, but because they were hard and made "the best of our energies and skills".

© Simon Poulter 2013
In Intrepid's main hangar is a replica of the capsule that took Scott Carpenter into space in May 1962 as part of the Mercury missions, NASA's program to test manned spaceflight as a precursor to, ultimately, the Apollo moon landings itself.

The capsule is tiny, resembling the cap of a large toothpaste tube, with an interior space about the same size as the cockpit of a small family car. What it lacks in transporter rooms, a spacious bridge and photon torpedoes it more than makes up for in terms of human advancement.

So, where is the Mercury mission of 2013? Why could we choose to go the moon in the 1960s but, 50 years on, can only um and agh about returning there, let alone committing to a mission to Mars.

It's not, however, just space where we appear to have lost our ambition. Parked next to the Intrepid is one of British Airways' decommissioned Concordes. Another product of an era when governments had something to prove and were prepared to sink millions of taxpayers' money into doing so, Concorde is still a source of wonderment, an icon of a now dwindled era of envelopes being pushed.

© Simon Poulter 2013

Concorde might have been, ultimately, a political folly - a final act of two colonial powers (Britain and France) to demonstrate their aviation virility - but what a stunning folly it was. And practical. Three-and-a-half hours between New York's JFK airport and London (one record-setting flight did it in two hours and 55 minutes), it literally shrunk the world. It enabled celebrities like David Frost to work from London and New York almost simultaneously, and famously allowed Phil Collins to perform at Live Aid twice.

In service, Concorde was the most beautiful sight in the sky: growing up under its flight path into and out of Heathrow, a sighting was a minor event in its own right. Planes might take off or land every two minutes at Heathrow, but nothing - then or now - could replicate the appearance in the West London sky of that distinctive white arrow. Nor could anything replicate the aspiration it represented. As commercial air travel became ever-more accessible to the masses, Concorde remained deliciously out of reach, delightfully anachronistic in representing the era of luxury trans-Atlantic travel. It was a plane that people still dreamed of travelling on.

It wasn't, however, quite the luxury liner of the skies that Concorde tickets might have suggested: 100 passengers squeezed into an aluminium dart just over two and half metres wide, travelling at twice the speed of sound. Today's business class sections offer considerably more comfort. But not the convenience.

Crammed into a Boeing 757 for my trip to New York earlier this month, I couldn't help feeling how passenger aviation had regressed. Business models - like those of Ryanair and EasyJet - may have put air travel in reach of millions - but their planes are little more than flying buses. Airbuses, indeed.

Seeing a Concorde sat, incongruously, next to a World War 2-built aircraft carrier with a Space Shuttle on its deck, seemed to reduce Mankind's greatest air and space achievements to a novelty, a Ripley's Believe It Or Not! freakshow for the winged. I couldn't also, help noting the irony that a plane New Yorkers once tried to ban for being too noisy was now parked on the western end of their own 44th Street...

© Simon Poulter 2013

Yesterday, November 26, marked the tenth anniversary of the last commercial flight of a Concorde. Ten years of nothing. What a tragedy. Instead of going faster, we have gone further but slower, lumbering through the air in technologically superior Airbus A380s and the cursed Dreamliner, but slower and with less wonder.

"It was probably more advanced than Apollo 11, which put the first men on the Moon," Jock Lowe, Concorde's longest-serving pilot recently told BBC reporter Richard Westcott. "No military plane came anywhere close. It was so manoeuvrable and there was so much spare power, even ex-fighter pilots weren't used to it."

Despite its negative image as a fuel-guzzling ├╝ber noise polluter, Concorde was also one of the most technically advanced planes developed in the 1960s and 1970s, with innovations like fly-by-wire technology long before it became Airbus's big thing. Maintaining such complexity was given as one of the reasons British Airways and Air France withdrew their Concord fleets.

Profitability, however, was never an issue: despite plenty of harrumphing about the exorbitant sums of development money pumped into Concorde by the British and French governments, it didn't do too badly for making money, earning more than £500 million over its operational lifetime.

This is something Sir Richard Branson is acutely aware of. At the time British Airways halted flights of their Concordes, Branson offered to buy them. BA turned him down. Branson lobbied then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, claiming it to be "a scandal" that the taxpayer-funded plane was being axed when there was "a company" - Virgin Atlantic - willing to keep flying.

© Simon Poulter 2013

"As well as losing a uniquely beautiful and capable aircraft, it seemed like human ingenuity and technological innovation and had taken a backward step," Branson wrote recently on his blog. "We actually fought hard at Virgin to keep Concorde flying. I still have a wonderful desk model of the plane in full Virgin Atlantic livery but despite offering one million pounds for each aircraft (they were originally sold to BA by the British Government for a pound), sadly our friends at British Airways were having none of it and decommissioned the planes in a way that makes any chance of them flying again an unlikely prospect."

Despite campaigns to get at least one Concorde airborne as a 'heritage flight' - much like the Royal Air Force's Battle Of Britain flight so popular of air shows and royal events - the Anglo-French marvel remains grounded, rooted to the spot like the French Concorde on display at Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport, or the British Concorde at the Intrepid.

"We firmly believe that the technical and safety challenges of returning a Concorde to the skies are absolutely prohibitive," says a spokesperson for BA. Others, though, disagree. The Save Concorde Group believes that £20 million is all it would take to get one flying again. That's roughly what Johnny Depp got paid for the last Pirates Of The Caribbean instalment. And I know what I'd rather see flying...

For now we must be resigned to the fact that air travel will not be getting any quicker or, for the majority of us, more luxurious. The mega plane deals being struck last week at the Dubai Airshow were for the latest behemoths from Boeing and Airbus, lightweight, carbon-fibre giants like the 777x designed to move as many people from one place to another as fuel-efficiently and cost effectively as possible. Which means being crammed in, ironically, as Concorde passengers once were. Except without the champagne.

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