Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Shuttle Fleet Lives On?

In order to put crew on the space station between the end of 2010 and … 2015, we will be buying rides from the Russians with their transportation system. Now that’s a concern on several levels. First of all, it’s money that we’re not spending on the U.S. aerospace establishment. Second of all, it means that the world’s space transportation system is down to one vehicle, and that vehicle could have an accident, has had accidents. Third, frankly … I find it unseemly for the United States to be dependent in a core strategic capability upon other nations, even if they are partners. It’s unseemly. ~ Michael Griffin, April, 2007

Well, it's taken a year, but NASA director Michael Griffin has evidently begun to take his own words seriously. The only question is what took him a year to realize that 2015 was five years after 2010. It would appear that some blue-sky types around NASA were thinking they could get Ares/Orion going by 2013 (which is still 3 years of hitiching rides with our partners). Not long ago, there was a quiet little announcement that things weren't going so well with Ares, along with some rather loud articles about NASA engineers who said, basically, that Ares stinks and that they had a better solution -- which NASA managers immediately shot down.

At any rate, in the quiet little announcement, it was admitted that there definitely wasn't going to be a shuttle replacement before 2015, a point we discussed some time ago. If we choose to be realistic, given the state of manned spaceflight these days, 2015 is probably a very optimistic estimate.

The problem here is the options are pretty limited. The shuttles for all their issues over the years, have proven to be pretty durable. But these vehicles are subject to the immense pressures of blast-off, the incredible heat and stress of re-entry, and the extremes of the environment of space. A shuttle can only take so much punishment. With only Atlantis, Discovery, and Endeavour left, the fleet is thin.

The obvious solution is to build a couple of more shuttles, which, of course, would break NASA's budget for the foreseeable future. It would also be an indictment of the entire Ares/Orion fiasco. Now, if our government could quit starting wars for a while and stop throwing trillions down that particular rat-hole, the money would actually be there. But, the shuttle is a dead end in that all it does is go up to orbit and come back. It can't go anywhere else, like, say, the moon.

An imaginative option would be to build a shuttle capable of interplanetary flight, but that would require a completely new engine technology. However, it would be incredibly exciting to imagine a shuttle going to the moon, launching a lander from the payload deck, retrieving it and coming home.

Another alternative is to turn the ISS into a way-station for building interplanetary rockets. If you don't have to escape Earth's gravity, an interplanetary ship becomes a different animal, capable, perhaps of using ion engines to get to Mars and deploying landers and supply missions. When a crew returns, they stop at the ISS, get picked up by a shuttle, and return to cheers all round.

There are many imaginative solutions out there, just waiting for someone to act on them.

Buzz Aldrin has a little ad on one of the science or history channels in which he says something to the effect that private enterprise could get us to Mars in 20 years. Now, I've had a beef with some of Mr. Aldrin's statements before, but this one is a doozy. Private enterprise has less imagination than Michael Griffin, and unless someone convinces Exxon that there's oil on Mars, no one has the resources or the will to send a commercial mission to the Moon, Mars, or any other place that doesn't involve a quicky up-and-down ride.

The only imagination private enterprise has shown is in coming up with novel interpretations of failure. Even Director Griffin isn't calling for them to come to the rescue of the ISS.

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