Archive for March, 2011

Losing the race to survive


The United States, the most technologically advanced nation in the world, is surrendering its access to outer space.  With the retirement of the space shuttles, the U.S. will be totally dependent upon Russia for getting people into space.  Only the refusal of the U.S. government to fund NASA adequately can be blamed for this debacle.  The shuttles have many more missions in them, they are safe when operated properly, and they are the first of what I hope will be a long line of reusable space planes.

Getting people into space is the biggest challenge we face right now, one which the U.S. has decided to avoid.  In spite of doing all of the work necessary to build a safe, reliable, economical way of accessing space, the U.S. is not taking the next step.  Outer space is the key to the survival of the human race, because only there can we find the resources and the energy to lift the human race out of poverty, disease, and eventual extinction.  Everything that we need is out there, in vast quantities, just waiting for us to come along and make use of it.  We can process materials out there without fouling our air and water, or putting more strain on our energy production system.

Getting into space means accelerating to 17,500 miles per hour, or 5 miles per second.  Every pound that goes into orbit requires large amounts of energy to reach that velocity.  Coming back to Earth, that same energy must be dissipated somehow, so that the vehicle is slowed enough to land.  We are going to give up landing on a runway like an airplane for landing in the ocean, like a rock falling from the sky.

Because the space shuttle was vehicle designed by Congress, it was horribly expensive to operate.  But the basic principles that it pioneered are sound, and should be the basis for the design of our next space vehicle.  But we must avoid the problem that the space shuttle faced, and that was trying to do too many things with one vehicle.  We need a space plane that is designed to carry about 10 to 15 people, and only people, into orbit, and to bring them back and land on a runway at the place where the vehicle takes off.

We also need to get beyond vertical launching.  We now have the technology to build an aircraft that would serve as a first stage, taking off horizontally, and carrying the space plane to an altitude where most of the atmosphere is below it.  This would utilize the oxygen in the atmosphere for burning the fuel, instead of having to carry it onboard, and it would take advantage of the thick atmosphere to provide lift.

Building such a system would take less than 100 billion dollars, and could be accomplished in a few years.  We already know everything that we need to now, all of the science has been proven, all we need is the wherewithal to make the future possible.