I was born only a few months before the Geophysical year the space age was born, I have grown up and aged with its rise, its spectacular successes and its fatalities, watched the dream unfold before my very eyes, As children born today are of the computer age, I was part of a generation of the space age.
What a glorious race it was, exciting, fast, boundaries falling not by the year but by the month, first artificial satellite (Sputnik 1), First living being (Dog, Laika), First Man (Yuri Gagarin), First Group (2- Vostok 3&4), First Woman (V Tereshkova), Three people (Voskhod 1), Spacewalk (Leonov), Rendezvous ( Gemini 7&6A), Lunar Orbit (Apollo 8), Lunar Landing (Apollo 11), First reuseable Vehicle (STS Columbia), Space Station (Salyut 1), All this in under 25 Years, breathtaking, huge jumps in technology, distance, dimensions, human physical boundaries, awareness, totally different perspective of our home world and the Planets around us, It has been the ultimate ride and the greatest dream of humankind.
In fantasy it thrived as well, Mr S. Kubricks portrayal of the future in 2001: A Space Odyssey, showed us the immediate future as well, it swarmed around you, the real (Apollo 8 going around the moon) and the prediction of the next 20 years in the swirling revolving space station dancing to The Blue Danube, here was the future, and only a short period of time away, this was the evolution of the next step, the last frontier.
Only here now in 2008 its not, or maybe half of it….yes there is a massive space station circling around above us, almost complete, just like in the movie, a Space Shuttle flying up there every other month to service it and build more of it, its real and its exciting, the space truck worked, well maybe, If you asked the average American about the Space Shuttle they will say things like “Oh that”, or “Its costs a fortune”, “waste of money” or mostly “Its a failure”….so like Concorde another step forward it goes into mothballs in 2010, and humankind takes a step backwards, or in this case stops altogether, only problem is there is still a bloody big space station up there, and hundreds of satellites working or not, and a telescope, and god knows what else.
So what went wrong?, first lets get something clear, The Space Shuttle and its concept was not a failure, in fact it was a giant success, a giant leap forward, It delivered, pronto, only problem was it wasn’t developed, refined and was constantly restrained by funding, both Shuttle accidents was caused by the shortage of funds and NASA’s inability of quality control, and flying a vehicle way past its used by date, as to machine itself its a miracle of engineering, The Shuttle failed because of administration and vision, the two things that made NASA brilliant in the first place, it lost its way, and now it is paying the ultimate price, shutdown…..
The only way for Nasa to keep its doors open now is to use 1950’s aged technology to send cheap boosters filled with cannon fodder to get stuff hopefully up into space, after using for years a reuseable (If expensive) versatle vehicle, they are going back to throwaway capsules (Aries), and disposable boosters, and this is the cheaper option, only unlike the late sixties, Its a one small backward step for man, A giant leap backwards for about everybody on the planet..
The first debate is why the Shuttle is so expensive to fly, First it was built as a compromise, NASA wanted one thing and the US airforce wanted something to scare the Russians, So it had to be large enough to carry heavy spy satellites and laser guns to orbit over Moscow, Silly now the Cold War is over, but that is not a bad thing, the Shuttle’s capacity to lift full sized modules and telescopes into orbit, is amazing, plus unlike boosters, people can go along too, and that’s the difference, and its achilles heel, when people get killed (Challenger, Columbia), the country and the program goes into freefall, here is the point, everytime something goes wrong the money goes down….look people it will still go wrong, space is dangerous and will still kill people, no matter what you do, every person who steps aboard a Shuttle knows the risk, its their choice, the rewards are out of this world, but the disadvantages if it goes wrong is its over, your life, that is the risk, to date there has been 120 missions, think about that 120, 830 people have flown on the Shuttle with 14 fatalities, 5 to 7 people at a time that in itself is a amazing record, The Shuttle can bring down eleven souls if something goes wrong on the ISS, the new Aries capsule (yes a capsule) can carry three, and needs a ship to recover it, plus the amount of work the shuttle has done in space is phenomenal, launching and servicing sateliltes, launching and servicing a space telescope (1990, Hubble), space laboratories, and building a complete space station ISS, its service to the planet in research is uncountable, plus the old plain adventure of learning about ourselves, and furthering our knowledge of a place so extreme it is a human milestone in our evolution.
The second debate is why it went wrong, first and foremost is cost, its incredibly expensive to fly, but you shouldn’t blame the shuttle for that, first its the Thermal Protection System (TPS) that has given it the most headaches, little solid foam bricks (Tiles), stuck on the outside of the Orbiter creates a thermal blanket to protect the vehicle on re-entry to the atmosphere, problem is they are problematic, from Columbia’s first flight (STS 1) they broke or just plain fell off, after every mission hours are spent putting them back on or replacing these thousands of tiles, its time consuming and expensive, they work but are not very reliable, The SSME (Space Shuttle Main Engines) are a masterpiece of design, but require to much maintenance between flights, in fact the whole vehicle requires to much downtime, and to make things worse, poor standards of quality have broken its back, The Challenger accident was caused by poor O rings on the boosters sited on either side of the external tank to give the vehicle its first shove into orbit, a cold night plus poor workmanship & cheap materials, caused a disaster, an avoidable accident, Columbia was lost due to a chunk of ice hitting the wing, avoidable, maybe not, but a better design of the fuel tank could avoid the ice forming in the first place or form in a non impact area, The shuttle was and still is the first design of a new era, so ideas and engineering are going into new boundaries and areas never encountered before, its computers were last replaced in 1990, 18 years ago, think of the computer you used 18 years ago, so problems and design are going to come to the surface, and here is the basic failure of the Shuttle program, they never made a Mark II, its still the first, its old, its not refined, it was not made better, no new Thermal Protection System, no new better cheaper, more efficient engines, no better external tanks or boosters, they just patched it up and made it fly again, and are still doing so today, every new area of or mode of transport has had it’s refinements, cars, ships, aircraft, made better, cheaper, finding the faults, better design, more efficient, more cheaper to run, so the Shuttle cost more and more to fly, and they called it a dud, people should be shot for allowing that, because that sort of thinking can kill people and it did, in Challenger and Columbia, point is it would have been cheaper and safer to replace it years ago, they didn’t so the dream is over in 2010, and to make it worse there is nothing absolutely nothing to replace it, and the cost to do so is simply enormous, NASA has backed itself into a corner, and the only option is find a cheaper option not a better one, just cheaper, and are fooling themselves because soon or later they are going to have to fix the basic problem, you can’t have a Space Station Program or a Moon program or the dream Mars program if you can’t simply get stuff up there, cheaply and reliably, everyday any time you want to and 60’s style throwaway boosters is not the solution, nothing should be thrown away, nothing…… and nothing is going to go right for NASA until they fix this basic problem……
Once they had it right, with The Right Stuff, brave pilots once reached the boundaries of space and came down again, using and wasting nothing more than their fuel, The X15 program was canceled to allow the rockets to have their day, it worked, it got men to the moon, but it also set NASA on a course self destruction, Pilots of their day couldn’t believe that cutting back at the point of success of easy access to space was happening, the Shuttle was a fusion of both programs, Rocketry & Winged flight, but the failure is it still needs a whole lot of fuel to get a pound of weight off the earth, not to mention a few tons, and its here it still fails and with it a heavy cost.
So can it be done cheaply, yes, nothing is cheap about going into space, but technology has come a long way since 1970 when the shuttle was conceived, first to start the vehicle has to be smaller and many of them say twelve, two they have to reliable engines as reliable as commercial jet engines are today, impossible, no, because the most load on a spacecraft is at its launch, big thrust means big engines and lots of fuel, so the first point is to get the thing off the ground cheaper, a launcher body aircraft is needed to get the orbiter to higher faster point so it uses less fuel (and Weight) getting there, Commercial aircraft have engines today that can lift 300 tons or more and push to speeds of 8oo mph, the carrier aircraft can come home anytime to launch another orbiter, no waste, the orbiter uses an expandable fuel tank, not expendable, but expandable, to carry fuel to push it to an higher velocity then fold up when empty into a minimum space inside the vehicle or as part of the vehicle, can’t be done, nothing is impossible, then, it will require a better Thermal Protection System, new safer and above all cheaper, and very simple but reliable engines, every orbiter must be turned around on the ground as simply as a commercial aircraft, load in, slot into Carrier aircraft and fly, boost up to speed to obtain orbital velocity, dock with ISS or replace or repair satellites, and come straight back down the same day, Yes-the same day!, ready to again fly the next, a dream, no a commercial reality, and if NASA doesn’t do it soon then a private operator will, the commercial advantages are to much to ignore, but the cheap little Virgin Galactic joy ride will get better and bigger, with bigger and better vehicles, until NASA finds itself out of a job, they are not waiting around, there is money to made in thar hills (or space) in this instance, and the evolution of a sensible ground to orbit vehicle must be designed, if NASA’s head in the sand attitude doesn’t then someone else will, because we can’t function or go forward without it, we need a cheap reliable daily space truck into space, nothing less will do, the old “can do”attitude and not the “can not because its to expensive or to hard”, its not too expensive if you work smarter and be clever, but then that comes from the evolution of design, and on that one NASA failed….and the dream could die too, going back to the Moon, Mars, plus with an empty Space Station orbiting around us overhead, we need the basics fixed first, and we need that reliable everyday space truck….right now!