Posts Tagged With: space travel

Into the Black

Remember 1981? Yes, it’s a bit fuzzy at this point, but that was the year that manned spaceflight became normal. On the 21st of April, the Space Shuttle Columbia rocketed into orbit. Over the next 30 years, 135 launches were made by the fleet. For the generations who grew up or were born during this era, astronauts traveling to and living in space (on board the International Space Station) became commonplace. This normalcy hid the difficulty and danger that were behind the curtain.

Rowland White‘s Into the Black recounts the epic effort to design and launch the shuttle. It took nearly as long and was every bit as difficult as the Apollo program. In some ways it was more so: Apollo components had to work once; the Shuttles had to survive the rigors of launch and space over and over.

White recounts how the shuttle program was the final project of the Apollo veterans. It was also a fusion of a canceled military space program – complete with astronauts and launch sites – that would be combined with the civilian side.  Technologies such as reusable rocket engines and protection from reentry were beyond state of the art. The drama that unfolded was every bit as exciting as what was told in From Earth to the Moon and Apollo 13.

Danger was never eliminated, but the later losses of the Challenger and Columbia were not, ironically, cause by failures of the orbiters. None of the shuttles ever failed, repeatedly surviving launch stresses and harsh environments that those of us earthbound cannot imagine.

While the shuttles never flew as frequently as envisioned, nor brought the costs of launch down, history will look back on them as making possible what comes next. We are already seeing the turnover of spaceflight to private companies. The International Space Station that the shuttles enabled is an orbital spaceport on the verge of becoming the staging point for new ventures. The government and politics often got in their own way in opening the frontier, but as Into the Black details, the astronauts of the Space Shuttles swung that door wide open.

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Categories: Modern History | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Pioneer Looks to Our Future

I’ve long been a supporter of space exploration. It is often one of the few bright spots in the world of government-funded programs. However, I have come to realize that it’s that same government that has crippled our ventures in the final frontier. Nearly every new president rolls out a new “vision” for NASA, often discarding whatever the previous leader had promoted. Funding is just potential “get votes” for visionless Congress and has largely been stagnate as they prefer to send money to other countries or bailout only the companies that support them. So space exploration moves along in fits and starts. I was pleased to see that Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin largely shares these views in his new book Mission to Mars.

For decades, Buzz has championed our expansion in space and in this new book discusses how our government-run program has both succeeded and failed. He also sees the recent growth in private efforts in space travel as a new turning point on the frontier. This is indeed correct, and creating an environment where these efforts can continue to thrive and expand is critical. NASA has already begun relying on private industry to supply the International Space Station. Soon they will deliver astronauts and companies have begun using the facilities that once launched the shuttles. NASA has laid the groundwork, now the people must take over. If they do, space will no longer be the realm of the few.

Buzz details how NASA shouldn’t be tied up in returning people to the Moon. Certainly they should be involved in technology transfer, training, design and U.S. participation, but their main thrusts should be elsewhere. They went to the Moon 45 years ago. Time to trailblaze elsewhere. And that place is Mars.

The Apollo veteran outlines his cycler design which would put spacecraft in continuous flight between Mars and Earth. It’s an ingenious design that uses physics and reusable vehicles. Is it the only option? No, and he briefly mentions the Mars Direct plan that Robert Zubrin laid out years ago. It uses current technology and in-situ use of resources on Mars to drastically lower costs of a mission. It was the baseline for NASA plans for a time. Buzz’s plan has some overlap with Zubrin’s, though I think both can be used. Mars Direct is still the simplest way for early missions to reach Mars. Later, it could be used in tandem with cyclers to increase travel opportunities to Mars (and I’m sure technology will improve both methods, see Case for Mars for more on Mars Direct).

We also read on the potential of mining asteroids and the real need to detect and deflect ones that threaten Earth. Buzz’s plan to first land humans on the Martian moon Phobos before Mars seems an unnecessary detour, though the satellite does have potential for the outposts he describes. He implores that whomever is president in 2019 to use the 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11 to commit to a Mars mission. I think this would be another empty vision from our politicians who cannot see past another election cycle. There is no Cold War to drive the project. Just as the people are taking over spaceflight, travel beyond our world will be up to them as well (perhaps Mars One).

NASA will surely be a part of it and maybe enough forward-thinking people exist in our government to support it. They can justify it anyway they want to: Jobs, technology, education, exploration, resources. It would certainly be a huge step forward against all of our steps backwards.

In 1989, Buzz stood on stage as President George Bush put forth a plan to reach Mars in 2019. The poorly conceived plan went no where. Now we are talking about announcing a mission in 2019 that won’t even happen for many years after. That, to me, isn’t very visionary. We need to get past the government-style pushing off the future to some indeterminate time that often never arrives. Buzz asks, “America, do you still dream great dreams?”

Do you?

Categories: Books, Modern History | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

But What of Our Future?

Here we often discuss history, but what of our future? I wonder this as the shuttle program ends and after reading the The Case for Mars. The exploration of space is adrift, blown about by the shallow whims of politicians only interested in making it to the next election.

Will the lessons of history that tell us of the perils of short-sightedness ever impact the feeble minds of Washington?

Rome. China. The Middle East. All, often for centuries, turned their backs on the future for many regrettable reasons. Space travel held so much promise in the 1960s to turn people away from killing each other and enter into a prosperous adventure exploring a new frontier. Even though Apollo was largely born out of Cold War politics and launched on military technology, it was of such scale that it had Earth-changing potential.

Then it was ended.

Nixon canceled the last missions even though most of the hardware was already paid for or built. Then started decades of going nowhere, trapped in low-earth orbit. Nearly each president releasing a “vision” for the future then abandoning it. Plan after plan with no purpose other than to secure short-term votes only to have the next leader trash it. Note how they put goals so far out in the future that it would not matter if it failed or not. One of President Obama’s current “visions” is men visiting asteroids by 2025.

2025? This could be done by 2017. Asteroids are rich in mineral resources, yet as long as the government runs the show with their fake plans, we will never get there. The Moon has enough helium-3 to fuel the world for generations. Yet we still fight over gas and oil and hope for the best.

When will a politician come along with real vision? Not worried about making it to the next election? Someone who can explain why the final frontier is valuable and attainable? A person who pushes the government out of the way and lets the people take control?

Certainly the shuttle had its successes. It was an amazing vehicle that flew for three decades. It was also an engineering nightmare with too many compromises. Too much promised and too many eggs in one basket. The technical marvel, the International Space Station, is also an achievement. It also is underutilized and without direction. It almost became like, “Let’s get it finished, have it orbit a few years, then figure something out.” Its value as proving ground for private space efforts or Mars exploration is grossly unused.

Not that it is needed to go to Mars. The Case for Mars proved that. It also proved it doesn’t take decades or unimaginable amounts of money. NASA briefly pursued it and for a few short years began to embrace simpler, commonsense approaches to exploring Mars and the Moon. Then the superbrains of Washington intervened once again.

The government bailed out companies and banks that did everything wrong, but what of the space workers? The people who invested in our future? The people that did everything right and what was asked of them? The people who wanted to do so much more?

There are glimmers of hope as the private space industry finally emerges from underneath the crushing weight of the government and industry giants (i.e. SpaceX). But will someone in this election year actually stand up and provide a real vision? Not another fabricated feel-good plan that requires us to start from scratch again?

This isn’t new or hard. We did it over 30 years ago. Let’s leave our children something other than crushing debt and a legacy bereft of any forward-thinking.

Who will answer the challenge?

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