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The Space program has brought us all kinds of technological improvements, but in just a year, America will have no way of sending astronauts into space on its own, when the Space Shuttle is retired.  For the sake of preserving our lead in technology as well as the space program itself, here is a cheaper and better plan to go to Mars, the next step in the great frontier.

*** UPDATE ***

The NY Times today had an article stating that a review panel "were reluctant to change NASA’s current plans for human spaceflight after the space shuttles are retired from service, beyond giving more money to the agency."  In the article, the panel, and NASA, also concluded that they should neither extend the Shuttle program, because of safety concerns (though why the Shuttle should suddenly become more dangerous in a year than now was never explained, nor were any safety comparisons made between the alternate option of using Russia's spaceships considered), nor should they use commercial vehicles to shuttle astronauts to the space station (let alone beyond).  In the words of Dr. Griffen, that would be "risky in the extreme.  That day is not yet and is not soon."
To me, this is quite a disappointing and unimaginative result.  See below.
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(Previous article)

I am sending the following letter to NASA's new Administrator, Charles F. Bolden, Jr. and to the President etc. in hopes of setting a new course for the moribund Space Agency. It is a long-shot, I know, but I remember when the Moon Mission was too, when that was proposed by J.F.K.

Dear Mr. Bolden:

As I write this, the Space Shuttle Discovery is preparing for the 128th shuttle mission. It is also the countdown to a far less inspiring deadline: the retirement of the entire 3 shuttle fleet in 13 months.

I grew up with the space program, watching and rooting for Americans to go "where no man has gone before," to quote the perhaps over-worn Star Trek lead-in. I can scarcely believe that in about a year, America will have gone from the nation that invented the manned space program, to not being able to send men and women into space at all. (The private endeavors are thus far barely able to penetrate the upper atmospheric boundary and are, frankly, stunts designed to awe gullible, and rich, paying passengers for a joyride). The idea that we will only be able to reach the International Space Station by hitching a costly ride on Russian Soyuz Spaceship, despite the end of the Cold War, strikes me as both foolishly complacent, and an abrogation of our national ambition. Is it any wonder we are slipping behind the world in math and science when we are telling our children that being able to launch Americans into space is somehow a task better left to others, outsourced to anyone who will do it, even to countries who may not be our allies in the future?

I realize that the economy is reeling, and times are difficult, but as John F. Kennedy said in 1962, "We choose to do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard." Besides, no one ever said the Apollo program, or the Space Shuttle, or any of the other many successful NASA programs were a net American loss. The benefits of the space program, not just for our national image, but in real, tangible payoffs are as numerous as they are well-documented, and I won't rehash them here.

I am equally disturbed, and a bit alarmed, at the concentration of effort on the under-funded and behind-schedule Ares Rocket. At best, this will not be ready until 2016, and most objective observers who also look at the lack of funding, would put its ready date much farther into the future than that, perhaps 2020. This week, a blue ribbon panel of scientists concluded that we may not re-reach the moon until 2030! They also concluded – correctly, albeit understatedly – that it makes no sense to throw away the then-completed Space Station in 2016, in order to use the "use the freed-up money to develop the heavy-lift Ares V rocket."

I humbly propose a different scenario. One that will:

  1. Get Americans to Mars by 2020
  1. Keep America's current and only means of practical orbital space travel – the Space Shuttle – working until there is a suitable replacement.
  1. Utilize the Space Station, and even expand it, with a new and highly exciting mission; a mission that will inspire people young and old with its ambition and its periodic progress.
  1. Enable the development of next generation space ships to reach not just Mars, but the entire inner solar system, faster, better, and cheaper.

It is a well-established fact that escaping the Earth's Gravity Well is one of the main reasons for the ponderous multi-stage rockets, including the Space Shuttle. Every rocket, from Apollo onwards, has dropped most of its fuel weight just for escaping Earth's gravity. Well, what if we could start the journey to the planets, or the Moon, from orbit? Then we would not only not need such powerful, but clumsy chemical rockets, but it might make more sense to use space ships capable of flying longer distances, but with less raw acceleration power. After all, a ferry is fine for crossing the river, but you board an entirely different kind of ship to cross the ocean, one that might even need to be tugged into open water to begin traveling under its own power.

We already know how to get to the space station, and how to transport heavy components developed here on Earth to add to the space station. Why not take the next logical step, and actually assemble a next generation Space Ship, perhaps a magnetoplasma drive vehicle like the Vasimir, or even something more advanced, designed specifically for the long reaches of space, not the short but draggy hops to the orbit. This, as you probably know, was the idea behind building the fictional Star Ship Enterprise in the wildly popular Star Trek series. We're already halfway there – with a working Space "Truck" (the Shuttle) and a functional, albeit in need of expansion, Space Station.

A new mission of building a true interplanetary Space Ship – one that would never touch ground, but which could send out reusable manned probes – would be observable, inspiring, logical (and not just for Spock), doable in a shorter time frame, and cheaper in the long run than setting up a Moon Base which would have little other purpose (since we've already been there), in order to go from that not inconsiderable gravity well to Mars and back to – where – the Moon(?). It is both more direct, and more sensible to use a modified space station as the launching pad to Mars than the Moon.

Ten-year Space Missions, like ten-year economic forecasts, tend to get twisted beyond recognition by the time they are executed, and it's very likely that the idea of using the Moon as a stepping stone to Mars will become the goal of simply reaching the Moon – again. Americans have been there, done that, and they are unlikely to be so enamored of returning to a place that while once a challenge, is now known to be a sterile barren place of moondust. It is unlikely they will be keen to fund such a mission knowing it is just a "Yes, but what we really want to do is reach Mars – someday" stepping stone. Certainly, two decades is way beyond the average Americans' infamous short attention span.

Assembling a Mars Ship at the Space Station could begin in just a few years, right here on Earth, with components snapped together like Lego blocks, as each component is flown into place by the revitalized Space Shuttle.

I hope you will consider this Earth citizen's perspective in the hopeful manner it was presented. We are all in this mission together.

Sincerely,

Scott Baker

Originally posted to Scott on the Spot on Mon Aug 31, 2009 at 12:23 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I thought you could send astronauts into... (6+ / 0-)

    ...space on Missiles?

    The shuttle is huge and massive and can take large payloads, but the Russians don't have one and they manage to get astronauts out to the space station all the time.

    You are entitled to express your opinion. But you are NOT entitled to agreement.

    by DawnG on Mon Aug 31, 2009 at 12:30:24 AM PDT

  •  Sorry, Mars Direct fails... (4+ / 0-)

    Zubrin sells some books here and there, but I think it is better for us to look to the long term for a full-out space presence rather than simply tagging Mars on a high-tech relay circuit.

    Now, the core concept of looking at the solar system as one potential energy surface with gravity wells stuck in it is a good one.  I definitely agree that an interplanetary cruiser, perhaps serviced with depots, is a sound node in any serious and persistent space transportation network.

    The Earth to space node of the network is still a surprisingly tough nut to crack, economically speaking.  A couple of launches a year to the Station aren't enough to support the operations crews needed to keep things flying.  I think the Space Tourism folks will be doing yeoman's work there, flying up a lot of little payloads and getting used to doing that job.

    Meanwhile, we should continue to work on increasing the robustness of our space presence.  Space is, after all, at its record high number of permanent occupants.  There is some small measure of progress there.  The trick is to keep it moving and find meaningful and sustained activities to layer on top of the more daring trips.

  •  Bring back the Saturn V!! (6+ / 0-)

    Forget using a vehicle loaded down with environmental support for a crew of 9,  17-fold redundancy to qualify as "man-rated",  and enough tiles to remodel the kitchens of a small town for safe re-entry.

    Buy a couple of defunct car factories,  and use them to crank out Big Dumb Boosters that can not only haul bulky components to orbit,  but become bulky components (fuel and O2 tanks,  structural members,  and cargo holds) for the Mars ship.

    Use the Shuttle only to transport assembly crews,  and fragile/expensive parts that would be hard to repair or replace if something went awry with one of the dirt-cheap BDBs.

    •  Amen!! (5+ / 0-)

      The Shuttle can haul what, about 25 tons into LEO?  If you really want to build an interplanetary spaceship (or a bigger, better space station), you pretty much have to revive the Saturn V (120-ton payload), get the Russians to bring back the Energia (95-ton payload), or come up with some new equivalently-sized rocket.  

      There's no point in using the Shuttle to build a space station.  You need too many launches because the pieces you can lift are comparatively so small, and the Shuttle is a hell of a lot more expensive per launch than a big rocket.

      "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist." -- Dom Hélder Câmara

      by SLKRR on Mon Aug 31, 2009 at 05:08:24 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Better idea - Improve it with 21st Cen. tech (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      SLKRR, ProgressiveTokyo

      We can vastly improve the Saturn V launcher with our current technology. We don't need a space "pickup truck" as much as we need a space "semi-tractor trailer."

      I wonder just how much an upgraded Saturn V with SSME's would be able to pitch into LEO?  

      "Ridicule may lawfully be employed where reason has no hope of success."

      by QuestionAuthority on Mon Aug 31, 2009 at 07:09:40 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Although I wasn't being completely (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        SLKRR, Neon Vincent

        literal when I said bring back that particular BDB,  I'd say it should be seriously considered:  it's a proven design,  and wouldn't need to go through extensive evaluation and qualification.

        The specific Saturn V implementation might turn out not to be suitable for my idea of using the LEO launch vehicles as parts of the Mars ship:  it was designed to drop that big first stage back into ocean,  for example.  But the engines are proven,  the concept is proven,  and I'd rather see an unglamorous tweak of "boring old tech" than a long effort to come up with a complete replacement that may not be enough of an improvement to make it worth the cost and delay.

    •  I'd change this (0+ / 0-)

      to be mass production of the EELVs - you can do plenty with an EELV class vehicle.  And you could get the price point even lower

  •  Not a bad letter... (4+ / 0-)

    But it needs to go to the White House, not NASA. Bolden will advise the President on what should be done - based on Augustine options and budget realities - but NASA is an executive agency and does what the White House tells them to do. NASA executes the direction the White House gives them with the budget the Congress appropriates.

    "You can fight ignorance, but you can't fight stupid." -- My mother, on CPAC

    by Sarbec on Mon Aug 31, 2009 at 04:43:48 AM PDT

  •  A small, but important, point: (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    SLKRR

    The US didn't 'invent' manned space travel. That would be the Soviet Union, if by 'inventing' we mean who did it first.

  •  Additional Observations (0+ / 0-)

    There are many great comments here.  Frankly, I was afraid all of America had lost interest in the Space Program.  I'm glad that is not the case.
    I will point out one more thing I may not have stressed enough in the original article.
    We are running out of time to do anything if we are to keep any space capability at all.  I think that pretty much rules out building any kind of new spaceship, and probably re-configuring the old Saturn 5 from the Apollo days.  Virtually all of the engineers, as well as the components for that have long been put out to pasture.
    Also, as I stated in my article, the current crop of private launch vehicles can barely lift a pilot (I really can't bring myself to call them astronauts yet), and a very, very, rich passenger into suborbital space - for a minute or two.  Lifting significant payloads and docking with the space station is years, maybe decades away, by which time there will probably be no space station, the way things are going.

    For those who say this is just macho, jingoistic posturing, I can assure you that is not my intent. I am really alarmed by the terrible state of math and science in America (upper twenties out of 30 industrialized countries in most surveys), and I see from experience that if we don't have a "mission" the American people have a very hard time focusing on accomplishing a goal.  My goal in the article was to inspire, while also proposing a practical and manageable program to take the next step into space - not the last one, again.

    •  Re: (0+ / 0-)

      Also, as I stated in my article, the current crop of private launch vehicles can barely lift a pilot (I really can't bring myself to call them astronauts yet), and a very, very, rich passenger into suborbital space - for a minute or two.  Lifting significant payloads and docking with the space station is years, maybe decades away, by which time there will probably be no space station, the way things are going.

      That is just wrong.  That may seem harsh, but it is wrong.

      1.  Currently, all private astronauts (IE space tourists) have flown orbital, to the station - none have flown suborbital.  It is true they've flown on Russian hardware, that was originally governmental hardware, but it was to ISS
      1.  Already, one private company has flown hardware to ISS - ArianeSpace and EADS developed and flew the ATV to ISS, which launched on Ariane V - these do involve private companies
      1.  NASA has cargo delivery contracts with Orbital Science Corporation (OSC) and SpaceX, that are contingent upon actually delivering the cargo ie they don't deliver the cargo, they don't get paid
      1.  Both OSC and SpaceX are planning for first flights of their full up vehicles to happen in the next 2 years or so.  Both have rockets that have placed satellites into orbit, and SpaceX has already placed its Falcon 9 rocket on the pad.  This is not decades away, and certainly not after the end of station.  
      1.  As for crew, SpaceX's is designed to be human rated from day 1, and will only require minor investment to make it fully human capable.  In addition, the Atlas V vehicle, which is also privately available and already developed, could easily be human rated for a small investment.  And Atlas V is manufactured by ULA, which is a subsydary of Lockheed Martin, and has heritage dating all the way back to the beginning of the space age (John Glenn flew on an Atlas rocket)

      The best way to move forward on spaceflight is engaging the commercial sector.  

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