Building a bridge to the other side of the sky

Way back in the 1960’s, the engineers at NASA realized that throwing away a huge rocket every time that they sent something or someone into space was poor publicity.  So they set about designing a reusable space craft, one that could land like an airplane at a regular airport.  The concept became known as the shuttle, or the Space Shuttle, and it was to be the next big step in space exploration.  The original design was very elegant, two vehicles that were very specialized.  One was a giant carrier wing, which would haul the orbiter on its back up to about 50,000 feet.  The orbiter was designed to reach an altitude of about 180 miles, where it could meet with true space craft, the kind that can never enter atmosphere.

This design was focused on making access to space routine, with launches that did not require complete perfection in every detail, and huge numbers of people.  Because the vehicle did not launch straight up, there were ways of aborting the launch that made safety possible without multiple redundancy in every system.  Going into space was to become as commonplace as flying across the country, which would bring the cost of sending mass into orbit down substantially.

Of course, all of this never happened.  The shuttle became victim of endless compromises and design changes, until it bore practically no resemblance to what had been originally proposed.  Launching straight up was selected over horizontal launching, an external tank had to be added, and booster rockets to lift the external tank.  The only part of the design to survive was the spaceplane configuration, so that the vehicle could land on a runway.

Instead of building a better shuttle to replace the one that we have, we are going to take a huge step backward, and build a step-rocket, which will be thrown away each launch.  And the vehicle will launch straight up, with all of the demands that it requires.  Even landing might have to be done the old fashioned way, in the ocean, which means Navy task forces being on station for days, waiting for a capsule to fall out of the sky.

The Russians already build a very good step rocket, which has been proven time and again.  Instead of duplicating that capability, I believe that we should spend our money on designing the space shuttle that NASA originally wanted, a horizontally-launched, two stage to orbit system with a fly-back carrier wing as the first stage, and an aerospaceplane as the second.  While that is being developed, we can hire the Russians to haul us into space.

Technologies not available in the 1960’s and 70’s would make it possible to build the carrier wing and the orbiter out of composite materials, which would make them lighter and stronger than was possible before.  These vehicles would be just for carrying people into space, not big loads of cargo.  That can still ride on old-fashioned rockets, at least for the time being.  If they don’t have to be man rated, rockets can be built fairly cheaply, especially if they are mass produced.

We currently have the most advanced space craft in the world.  Replacing it with a less advanced technology does not make any sense, when the only way to cut the cost of getting into space is to use the most advanced technologies.  As long as it takes hundreds of people and perfect weather to launch space craft, it will never become sustainable.


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