The great American architect Louis Henri Sullivan (who influenced Frank Lloyd Wright) developed the concept that "form ever follows function." This optimization principle stresses the primary goal of any design: the device should—first of all—work. Sullivan's concept also unites the operational with the aesthetic; after all, he was designing buildings that were both efficient and beautiful.
Although much has been written about the meaning of "form follows function," we will take the simple interpretation of "don't put the cart before the horse."
In the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, NASA took a completely operational, logical approach to getting a man on the moon. They looked at the major obstacles: surviving in space, walking in space, and rendezvousing in space. The one-man Mercury capsule tested whether a human being could even survive in weightlessness. Some experts thought you would choke to death if you tried to eat when there was no gravity to move food through the digestive tract. The two-man Gemini program proved that astronauts could spacewalk—allowing transfer of a crew from one vehicle to another if docking the two craft together ever failed. Gemini proved that rendezvous of two vehicles traveling at 17,500 miles per hour around Earth was possible—it paved the way to lunar rendezvous. The Apollo program put it all together. Astronauts could live in space long enough to travel to the moon and back. Lunar rendezvous enabled a smaller craft to land on the lunar surface and to return to the orbiting mother ship.
The shapes of the space vehicles derived from their functions, as Louis Henri Sullivan would have it. Blunt capsules for reentry into Earth's atmosphere; a spindly spider-like vehicle for landing on the airless moon. The problem of landing a man on the moon and bringing him back safely was approached by looking at the final goal and working backward through all the smaller steps that had to be accomplished.
Now let's contrast the highly successful moon project with the subsequent situation at NASA.
At one time there was a plan, before the completion of the Apollo program, to establish a lunar base that would be a stepping stone to Mars exploration. The lunar base would be supported by a space station in orbit around Earth, which would be supported by a shuttle. In Stanley Kubrick's classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey, we see a beautiful representation. A sleek Pan American shuttle takes Dr. Haywood Floyd up to the rotating space station, a wheel in the sky, and docks majestically to the tune of the Blue Danube; then a nonaerodynamic lunar transfer vehicle, an immense sphere, takes the good doctor to the lunar base. Stanley Kubrick was not a rocket scientist, but he had the advice of Dr. Arthur C. Clarke, who was. Their picture is not bad at all—it adds up to a credible depiction of how it could actually be done.
But in the 1970s, President Richard Nixon put the kibosh on the shuttle-station-moonbase program. He canceled the Apollo program (after making his historic phone call to Neil Armstrong during the first moon walk), canceled the space station, but kept the shuttle. Mr. Nixon's decision has hobbled our space program ever since. Without a space station, the shuttle had nowhere to go. And now that we are in the middle of building a space station, we have no lunar base that it would support.
Our politicians have seized the form of space exploration, but not the function. Congress funded the shuttle with no clear purpose. It is funding the space station with no clear future. The shuttle itself is a classic case of breaking the form-follows-function rule. Here we have an airplane (a glider really) that carries wings into space—at the cost of $10,000 per pound. It lands on a runway with the "dignity" of a high-performance aircraft. Pilot-astronauts seem to enjoy the pomp and circumstance of flying this winged-and-
Chapter 40 Let Form Follow Function wheeled craft. Some of these pilot-astronauts might dismiss the Spam-in-the-can capsules of the Apollo days. But why should we care what the style of the vehicle is? It is the mission that matters— not the looks of the vehicle.
When Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins returned to Earth from the moon in their cramped capsule—which landed in the Atlantic Ocean under the canopy of three parachutes—no one complained about the indignity of this ending. They had participated in the first human landing on the moon! It was the mission that mattered.
The trouble with NASA's shuttle program is that it had no clear mission. Unless we set a clear goal, Louis Henri Sullivan's form-follows-function guideline cannot help us.
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