The Saturn Five Rocket and Human Suffering

Saturn_v_space_rocket_at_us_space_and_rocket_center

Look upon the Saturn V rocket. It is 110.6 meters tall, taller than the Statue of Liberty. It’s 10 meters in diameter, weighs nearly 3 million kilograms and cost 700 million dollars in today’s money. The first stage of this rocket created more than 3.4 million kilograms of thrust and consumed 2.3 million kilograms of rocket fuel in just 165 seconds. It released 150 gigawatts of power, which probably doesn’t mean much to you until I further explain that the United Kingdom’s entire electrical grid has a capacity of 85 gigawatts.

F-1 engine. REF# 3-1324-3 (MIX FILE)

Perhaps no detail amazed me more about these machines than their fuel pumps. This will seem odd if you’ve ever worked on a car. In even the most powerful automobiles the fuel pump weighs about a kilogram, makes a gentle purring sound and generates about as much flow as a garden hose. Totally mundane, low tech and boring – these are the terms in which I am used to thinking of fuel pumps. Bear this in mind when you appreciate the fact that each of the four fuel pumps in a Saturn V is taller than a man, wider than a pickup truck and more powerful than the engines on a Boeing 747.

A Saturn V rocket delivered each of the Apollo missions into space. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and the Spacelab owe their fame to the Saturn V’s ability to turn all that energy into safe, reliable thrust. I cannot imagine sitting on top of a bigger bomb and living to tell the tale.

The magnificence of these machines beggars belief. I shiver to imagine touching one. I fall silent imagining the immense work that went into crafting each of the 3 million component parts. I look upon these glorious creations and regret that I wasn’t alive to feel the ground shake beneath them.

I sincerely feel that the Saturn V’s purpose – putting human beings into space – was and is the greatest work our species has ever undertaken. To behold a Saturn V rocket is to see civilization at its zenith, to hope for the future and to embrace a humanity very much worth loving. But nothing I just mentioned has anything at all to do with the reduction of human suffering.

The hundreds of thousands of gallons of kerosene and liquid oxygen could have been re-purposed to heat homeless shelters or fund medical treatment in Somalia. Neil Armstrong could have been re-assigned to fly relief missions in the Ukraine and those billions of dollars in construction costs could have gone to building housing projects for the urban poor.

Indeed, if anything, the Saturn V rocket was a very expensive way to increase human suffering. The astronauts perched atop a Saturn V faced the very real chance of being vaporized, leaving behind grieving family members and distraught fellow citizens. If they survived the launch, the Saturn V put these same men into the vacuum of space, where they had thin sheets of aluminum as their only defense against being frozen, exploded or asphyxiated.

Even if the launch and expeditions go perfectly, the Saturn V rocket still imposes countless sleepless nights on engineers, scientists and – I cannot even imagine the stress – quality assurance professionals. Thousands of man-years of toil, sweat and pain will go into the Saturn V rocket regardless of how well it performs. How, then, are we to justify the immense suffering, danger and expense of these machines?

I think our answer necessarily goes back to Eve before the fall. Monsters can be anything, but to be human is to suffer, to strive, to struggle. Eve the pre-fall monster might – I guess, since her psychology is so weird as to completely escape my grasp – be content to merely avoid suffering but Eve, the real life person who ate, who sinned, who felt the pain of child birth and the bite of serpents against her heel, this Eve isn’t. We live long after the fall. We have partaken of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We are built to fight, to suffer the bloody noses and keep going.
The majesty of the Saturn V rocket is born from this characteristic. It is a monument to suffering and struggle almost incomprehensible in scale but it is meaningful suffering. It the delirious smiles of a championship basketball team writ large, blown up to encompass the striving of an entire species. It is the expansion of our constructed systems of meaning beyond the earth and into the vastness of space. It is another step towards Sagan’s self-conscious universe. It is reflective of my observation that most people, most of the time, would rather have purpose than comfort.

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2 comments

  1. The Saturn V was impressive technology. It’s taking us forever to get that kind of heavy lift capability back.

    On alleviating suffering, that’s definitely true. On the other hand, most entertainment, desserts, or many other pleasures in life do nothing to alleviate the suffering of our fellow humans. If that’s the way we judge every endeavor, we will see the world as a very dark place.

    A more troubling issue for the space program is that the economics for it don’t currently work. Until they do, the space age will likely remain stuck in neutral. (It’s worth remembering that the Apollo program was largely a very expensive Cold War public relations campaign.)

    1. Hey, thanks for stopping by. 🙂

      I have been thinking about the problem of human suffering a lot recently and I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t want to escape suffering. I don’t think I’m alone on this for a number of reasons: first, pain and pleasure are defined relative to each other. Eternal pleasure without contrasting pain is just a resting baseline. Second, overcoming pain is almost always the path to meaning. If everyone could go to the moon, for example, there would be nothing to celebrate in the Apollo program. Third, suffering is the best means I know of to toughen oneself, to prepare for the future, to grow.

      When I see people like Neil DeGrasse Tyson saying that we should focus on the reduction of human suffering, I think we very quickly end up, as you see, viewing the world as a very dark place.

      As for the space program, I agree with your appraisal. That said, as far as expensive PR programs go, what a smashing success. The inspirational power of such endeavors, I feel, has a generation-long positive impact on the goals young people choose. How many people born in the 1960s dreamed of becoming astronauts and ended up driving the tech boom of the 80s and 90s?

      It might be my early onset curmudgeon showing, but I feel like that’s a significantly nobler influence than Facebook or the Kanye-Kardashian thing.

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