A different kind of space program

Recently, President Obama released his proposed budget, which strips away funding for the Constellation program, which was created during the last Bush administration to create a replacement for the space shuttle, and provide a means of returning to the Earth’s moon, and going to Mars.  At the same time, this budget increases funding for NASA, without specifying any goals for the agency.

In spite of the apparent contradiction, this is a rational and well thought out approach.  The Constellation program was a giant step backward for the United States, which would have returned us to recovering spacecraft from the ocean when they returned from orbit.  It provided a major defense contractor with huge sums of money for building a rocket which would duplicate the abilities of rockets which already exist, while leaving no money for developing any of the equipment needed to actually land on the Moon and explore it.  Worse, the investment that we have made into the International Space Station would have been thrown away, to allow funds to be diverted to the Constellation program.

The United States has never had a well-defined, sustainable space program.  We have sent people to the Moon, but with no intent of staying there.  We developed the most advanced spacecraft in the world, but refused to use it to its best potential.  We avoided building a space station until prodded by our allies.  Our plan for returning to the Moon was only a stepping stone for going to Mars, but we lack much of the knowledge of how to keep people alive long enough to make the trip there and back.

The most difficult part of space exploration is simply getting from the Earth’s surface into orbit, which requires accelerating to 5 miles per second, while traveling most of the way through an atmosphere which will destroy an object moving at half of that speed.  Returning to Earth means getting rid of all of the energy that was used to reach orbital velocity.  Once we are in orbit, traveling to other places requires very little energy.  It is when we want to land on another world that things get hard.

The technology to reach space is still in its infancy, and has hardly changed in 50 years.  Armies of people are required, perfect weather is needed, and everything must work flawlessly.  This makes it very expensive to get into space, and unreliable.  What we need is a system which would be like the airlines, operating in most weather conditions, with great safety, and without huge costs.  This is what the space shuttle was originally to provide, but the program was never developed properly.  The size of the cargo that could be carried into orbit was made much larger than what had been proposed, and funding for the development was repeatedly cut.

But we still learned a great deal, and we have an opportunity to build upon what we have learned.  By keeping the size of the payload, the cargo that is to go to orbit, small, we could build a space shuttle which would be much cheaper to operate.  By carrying this smaller shuttle to an altitude of 50,000 feet before we launch it, we can drastically reduce the amount of energy needed to reach orbit.  No breakthroughs are required to make this kind of spacecraft possible, no new knowledge must be gained.

For space exploration to progress properly, and for business to get established in space, people are going to have to go into space in ever-increasing numbers.  Currently, the space shuttle can carry 7 or 8 people into orbit, but we are going to retire the space shuttle.  The next biggest spacecraft can only carry 3 people at a time, and one them has to be the pilot.  To make exploiting space feasible, we need to be able to put at least 10 people at a time in orbit.

The United States is the only nation with experience operating a reusable spacecraft.  It has the most advanced technology on the planet.  We have a chance to develop a spacecraft which would be in use for many years, ferrying people to and from Earth orbit.  This is the kind of future we should be investing in.  This is the kind of technology that would make us money.  This is what is needed to open up space for development, not another rocket which can send 4 or 5 people to the Moon.

Before we start planning trips to other places, we need to learn how to get from Earth into space safely, cheaply, and reliably, with at least 10 people at a time.  We need to be able to go into space in all kinds of weather, and without having hundreds of people involved.  Space will be the setting for the next industrial revolution, for the creation of more wealth than has been created in all of human history.  People will have to go into space to make this happen, lots of people.  Sending them there 3 or 4 at a time is not going work.  We need to take the next step in space technology, to develop the next generation of space vehicle.  Once we master getting into space, the rest will be easy.


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