Apr 07 2010

Hanging on to the Shuttle?

Category: national security,Obama,Russia,science,shuttle,spaceharmonicminer @ 8:03 am

Could moon rocket demise bring space shuttle reprieve?

The demise of NASA’s Constellation moon rockets is bringing faint hopes of a reprieve for the space shuttle.

NASA’s decades-old shuttle fleet has been headed for retirement since 2004, and only four more flights are scheduled. Now the White House’s plan to scrap the Constellation programme, a pair of rockets capable of taking astronauts back to the moon, has prompted renewed efforts to keep the shuttles running until new vehicles can replace them.

Two bills have been introduced in the US Congress to keep the shuttle flying while NASA works to develop replacements. The hope is that a modest extension, involving just a couple flights a year, could help retain jobs and maintain access to the International Space Station without relying on foreign launchers.

“If the space shuttle programme is terminated, Russia and China will be the only nations in the world with the capability to launch humans into space,” says Texas senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who introduced the first of the two bills this month. “This is unacceptable.”

An extension to shuttle flights may struggle to win approval. Safety has been a concern, but a bigger hurdle may be money. The cost of a modest programme could exceed $2 billion per year, according to agency officials. “Where that money comes from is the big question,” shuttle programme manager John Shannon told reporters last week.

They seem to be able to find plenty of money in Washington for things that they think actually matter.  Does this matter?  Only if you think it’s fine for the USA to be dependent on Russia to get people into and out of orbit.

Obama obviously does.  Maybe he, too, has looked into Putin’s eyes and seen a man he can work with.

Or maybe Obama just doesn’t think it matters.

Jul 24 2009

The Once and Future Spaceman

Category: science,shuttle,space,technologyharmonicminer @ 8:41 am

The REAL beginning of the Space Age?

Forty years after man stepped on the moon, Mary Wakefield says that the technology now exists for truly astonishing space travel and a new era fusing commerce and romance

So begins a truly fascinating article on the Space Age that may be about to begin. It includes an interesting analogy:

the first step…. is to realise that Apollo 11 mission is analogous not to Columbus’s but to the Viking discovery of America. In the 10th century Leif Eriksson, son of Erik the Red, landed with 35 men on the coast of North America. But Leif’s boats were too cumbersome for trade and his people unprepared for the ruthless ‘skraelings’, so their community soon died out. So too the Apollo programme was doomed by rushed decisions and cumbersome craft. JFK and LBJ chose their mission at random and their ship with a single thought in mind: beat Russia. No thought for our space-faring future.

Yes. SOMEBODY is going to explore, and exploit, space, and the resources that are there. But that may or may not be the USA.   Europe, Russia, China, India, Japan, Brazil, even Israel, all have the capability to do what the USA may not get around to doing, if it is too complacent, too self-absorbed, too politically correct.

What we need is earth-to-orbit technology that’s more appropriate to the institutional scale of corporations, instead of governments. And that means space planes instead of rockets.

Once you’ve realised that the space age isn’t over, that it hasn’t even begun yet, the second step to understanding the point of space is to realise that like Columbus, we now have the right vehicles for proper exploration. All around the world right now light, cheap space planes (launched and landed horizontally) are rolling from the drawing-board to runway. Whereas a rocket-launched shuttle needs battalions of keepers to brush it up again ready for flight, space planes are more modest. They might even be as easy to maintain as jet planes and able to launch with a few days’ or hours’ notice, at the whim of an impetuous cosmonaut. Most of a rocket’s weight is taken up by the oxidiser, but clever space planes can suck in oxygen from the atmosphere to burn fuel at least part of the way to orbit. Space planes will offer a relatively cheap way of delivering cargo into orbit, and once that begins to happen, our universe begins to unfurl.

What’s maddening is that very much of what is now being proposed is OLD NEWS, and could have been done thirty or forty years ago. For example, solar power satellites:

There’s much vicious debate online between geeks about the efficacy of asteroid mining, but spaced-based solar panels are a given. Because there are no clouds in space (the sun always shines on ET) the panels will soak up more and more powerful rays, then they’d beam the energy back to earth. This isn’t science fiction, it’s future fact.

In April this year a company called Solaren signed a contract with the Pacific Gas and Electric Company in northern California. They plan to hoick a kilometre-wide panel into orbit in 2016 and beam back 200MW of energy.

G.  Harry Stine was writing about this in the 1970s (!) and his book, “Space Power“, is still available online.  Further, President Obama has been challenged to fund a national project building solar power satellites.  But it seems he’d rather spend trillions on reducing the average quality of healthcare in America, insead of funding a project that would earn tens or hundreds of trillions for the national economy.

So we’ll see.  Will the lingua franca of space travelers be English?  Or Chinese?  I’m not looking forward to buying electricty from Peking.

Oct 02 2008

Space, the USA, the future, the shuttle, and Russia

Category: Congress,Russia,shuttle,space,technologyharmonicminer @ 9:13 am

You may have seen this very interesting article on the future of space exploration featuring an interview with the head of NASA.

However, the NASA head lamented the end of the space shuttle program in 2010, concerned that in the interim period at least the United States will be reliant on other nations to reach the heavens.

“There will be a gap. I don’t like it but there it is. For the US to lose even for a period of time independent access to space, I don’t think it’s a good thing.”

In the time between the shuttle retires and the new generation of US spacecraft — Orion — gets off the ground, US astronauts will have to rely on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to reach the International Space Station.

“I think that is a dangerous position to be in,” said Griffin. “If anything at all in that five-year period goes wrong with the Russian Soyuz … that is a great concern.”

As much as it costs, NASA is a tiny part of the federal annual budget. It is really stupid for us to have worked ourselves into any form of dependence on Russia, given its rising bellicosity, its use of Venezuela as a wedge into the Americas, its rearming, and its obvious bad intentions.   We will have cause to wish that past Congress critters had been a bit wiser, a bit less parsimonious in NASA funding, and a whole lot more far-seeing.

Apollo was canceled because Congress wanted to spend the money on social program, essentially. The Shuttle was a bizarre compromise between the military and NASA. And Congress has continued to starve NASA of funding for research and development of new space transportation systems, while finding money for ever expanding entitlement programs costing HUGELY more.  Just the PORK in every annual budget for the last 30 years would have seen us already on MARS and exploring the asteroids for resources.

The name for spending money on social short-term political benefit, instead of on R&D, is “eating your seed corn”.  You can’t plant it after you eat it.

Maybe that’s part of the reason the price of corn has gone up.

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