Across the Universe
The Volna rocket had risen out of the water, flown through the sky, and pierced the low-lying clouds. The Volna, a Soviet-era ICBM, had been refitted for peaceful duty, and on this first day of summer, it was lifting Cosmos 1 up from a Russian submarine and toward Earth orbit. If the spacecraft got there, it would deploy eight tissue-thin â€œblades,â€ 600 square meters of Mylar that would catch the sun and begin propelling the craft, on nothing but light, through humankindâ€™s first solar-sailing voyage. The ship, beautiful as a flower or firework, would be controlled from the ground by two teams, each so small that Mission Operations Moscow was called MOM and Project Operations Pasadena was POP….
In fact, the spacecraft never made it into orbit. The Volna, that formidable Cold War sword, had proved a less than reliable plowshare, making for a failure that was bitterly beside the point: the chemically propelled brute-force rocket was the trouble, not the beautiful Icarian blades that never got a chance to be tested.
Friedman put the best face on things in a report to members of the Planetary Society and the larger space communityâ€”â€œWe conducted the first space mission by a privately funded space-interest groupâ€â€”but nearly four years later the memory of the false signals still taunts him. Solar sailing, probably the only means by which manmade vehicles will ever travel to the stars, still awaits what believers call its â€œKitty Hawk moment.â€ Friedman continues to work in Pasadena and rack up mileage to Moscow, determined to keep his Russian-American team together, to raise another $4 million, to build Cosmos 2, and, if possible, to unfurl its silver sails beforeâ€”well, a little afterâ€”this decade is out.
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