Spaceplanes

Prof. Kosta Tsipis

Professor Kosta Tsipis, my MIT thesis advisor, had no qualms about biting the hand that fed me. Kosta is a brilliant nuclear physicist, a world-renowned arms control expert, and a major pain in the rectum to anyone who thinks the world needs more weaponry. He and I were suffering through a presentation by a recruiter from Rockwell International, a defense contractor the size of Neptune. As a Rockwell Fellow, my attendance at this meeting was the one obligation I had to the company that funded my graduate education. Kosta was there to throw spitballs.

“Rockwell also manufactures the inertial navigation system for the Peacekeeper ICBM,” the recruiter said.

“The Peacekeeper?” said Kosta, “I suppose it carries peaceheads, not warheads.” I kicked him under the table. I loved Kosta’s sardonic wit, but wanted to at least appear gracious to the company that had forked over $20,000 on my behalf.

The recruiter cleared his throat and continued, “Let’s move on to our crown jewel. As you know, Rockwell is the prime contractor for the fleet of space shuttle orbiters, the only launch vehicle with a perfect reliability record.”

Just then the recruiter’s assistant entered the room, his face as pale as Marilyn Manson. They conferred briefly, then the recruiter grasped the table to steady himself and ended his pitch with, “There’s been an accident at the Cape. The Challenger just exploded.”

I’ll never forget where I was at 11:45 a.m. on January 28, 1986—indelibly learning that timing is everything.

#

Six months earlier Kosta had persuaded me to do my master’s thesis on a new joint NASA-Pentagon project called the National Aerospace Plane (NASP). Depending on whom you talked to and what day of the week it was, the NASP was going to be either a space launch vehicle capable of taking off like an airplane and flying directly into orbit, or a civilian hypersonic transport capable of flying from New York to Tokyo in two hours, or a scramjet-powered military bomber. It probably sliced and diced too.

I was eager to take it on because by examining both the technical feasibility and the policy implications of the NASP I could fulfill the requirements for two master’s degrees—one in aerospace engineering, the other in public policy—with a single thesis. I’m not one to pass up a two-for-one deal on toilet paper, so I sure wasn’t going to pass it up on master’s degrees.

Plus, I smelled blood in the water. The entire aerospace industry was licking its sharky chops and gearing up for a good old-time defense contractor feeding frenzy at the taxpayer’s, uh, wounded swimmer. Okay, that metaphor spun out of control. What I’m saying is the NASP’s nebulous justifications made it clear this was a project in search of a mission. I’m all for research and innovation, but the more I dug, the more I realized this wasn’t science; it was science fiction. To withstand the searing heat of flight through the atmosphere at Mach 25, this beast needed a hull made from that rarest of elements, unobtainium. Hundreds of millions of dollars were being spent with little more than viewgraphs to show for it. Congress was being asked for billions of dollars to build a vehicle that was utterly dependent on nonexistent technologies. The whole thing looked like a giant boondoggle, but I knew that if I criticized the project I was going to anger a lot of people who were suckling at the NASP teat and virtually every potential employer of an aerospace engineering graduate. The smart thing to do would be write something safe, insipid, and wishy-washy. On the one hand, NASP might work. On the other hand, it might not.

But I’ve never been one to do the smart thing. So, in my thesis, I ripped the National Aerospace Plane a new one. I shot down its technologies, skewered its cost estimates, and savaged its utility. I wrote that NASP advocates were guilty of “hypersonic hyperbole,” an obvious choice of words perhaps, but soon it was getting quoted all over, from technical journals to The New York Times, The Washington Post, Science, and Fortune. One day a batch of European press clippings arrived from Amsterdam and lo and behold, a whole contingent of Dutch relatives whom I never knew existed were smoked out of hiding. It wasn’t that “hyper-hyper” was so clever, it’s just that journalists have to balance proponents with opponents, and I wasn’t ammunition for the opposition. I was the opposition.

The House Committee on Appropriations used my thesis to lambaste Department of Defense officials in hearings. Maybe Kosta’s gadfly sensibilities were rubbing off on me, but it was fun to be the guy who says, “The emperor has no clothes.”

Technology Review magazine asked me to adapt my thesis as a cover story. I did, then that article won a science journalism award. I didn’t know it had been nominated. It was never my dream to become famous for Pentagon-bashing, but I became the media’s go-to guy for an anti-NASP sound bite.

And then, something really bizarre happened. James Fallows reviewed my thesis in The New York Review of Books. Never before and never since have they reviewed a college thesis. But in December 1986, they did.

What’s the point of all this self-congratulation? A simple question: was all this attention due to my scintillating writing? Or was I in the right place (with a report on the future of the U.S. space program) at the right time (one year after the Challenger disaster)? I gotta go with timing.

#

As expected, by graduation I’d pretty much pissed off the entire aerospace industry. Criticizing their most grandiose plans is not a skill they tend to value highly. So I decided to apply to the one place that valued dumping on technological white elephants, the now-defunct Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). OTA’s mission was to give Members of Congress nonpartisan analyses of scientific topics, and occasionally inform them that gene splicing has nothing to do with mending a pair of ripped Levis, or that it’s nuclear, not “nucular,” energy that they are violently opposed to.

I called OTA to verify the spelling of the name of the person in charge of their aerospace branch, Richard DalBello. Rather than spell it for me the receptionist just patched me through to him. Our conversation went like this:

“Hi, my name is Steve Altes. Could I get the spelling of…”

“Did you say Steve Altes?”

“Yes.”

“That’s amazing because this very moment I’m reading your Technology Review article about the National Aerospace Plane. I agree with everything you wrote and I’d like you to come work for me. How soon can you start?”

Did I mention it’s all about timing?

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About Steve Altes

Steve Altes is the author of several humor books, dozens of humorous adventure essays, and the comedic graphic novel Geeks & Greeks, set at MIT and inspired by MIT's culture of hacking and Steve's own experiences with hazing.
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