Reaffirming a Vision

By Curmudgeon

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?

– Robert Browning

Here am I sitting in my tin can, far above the world.  Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do.

– David Bowie (Space Oddity)

space_shuttle

Next year, the three remaining Space Shuttles will be decommissioned, and for the first time in almost 50 years, the United States will lack the capability to put a human into space.

I am a baby boomer.  My young formative years were shaped in no small way by the so-called Space Race of the 1960s.  I was eleven years old when one evening I watched a scratchy black and white broadcast and heard the words live: “It’s one small step for man, one giant leap for Mankind.”

I watched astronauts die; I saw the Space Shuttle Challenger explode.  I saw the initial report of the loss of contact with the Space Shuttle Columbia on reentry, and knew immediately it was lost.

I met Neil Armstrong, the first to set foot on the Moon; and John Glenn, the first to orbit the Earth, in person.  I knew Air Force colleagues with astronaut wings, because they flew outside of the reach of the atmosphere.  I myself applied for training as a Space Shuttle mission specialist (alas, I was rejected).  Astronauts were rock stars, and rock stars composed lyrics in praise of astronauts.

It pains me to see us as a society give up on space exploration.  What has happened to subsequent generations, to not appreciate the sacrifices made by those who paved the way, and to build on those experiences and sacrifices to reach just a little bit farther?

We can reasonably offer a great many justifications for abandoning human space exploration.  It is too expensive, too dangerous, we have too many other priorities closer to home.  All are true, but none is a reason not to reach for the sky and beyond.

There many practical and farsighted reasons to continue that reach, starting with the fact that curiosity is a survival trait.  The more we understand of the world around us, and beyond, the better prepared we are to live in an unforgiving universe.  We can’t say today how we may apply this knowledge in the future, but there will come a time when we wish we possessed it.

Most of us don’t look at life as particularly easy.  Today, we may face the prospect of being unemployed, employed in a boring dead-end job, losing our home, having health issues, or even simply frustrated with our lot in life and our seeming outlook for the future.  Space exploration can seem like a trivial and unforgiveable luxury when we are just trying to get through the next day.

It is to the credit of humans that we have the ability to look beyond our individual issues to abstract concepts that define us as a society and a species.  We need the knowledge, the experience, and the courage of those who are willing to push the boundaries of our existence still farther.

What we need, much more than solutions to our own individual problems, is heroes again.

photo by jurvetson

32 comments

  • What happened was the Space Shuttle. It's a mindbogglingly expensive, inefficient, and dangerous way to put a man in space, and I'm glad they're moving on to something a bit more realistic.

  • corporatebarbarian

    I know that the space budget could be better spent on Earth, but I share your disappointment. You never want to take a step backward. It's like when your baseball team throws in the towel and starts liquidating its roster. The wait 'til next year attitude is disheartening.

  • A hero with a strong charisma that can motivate a vast number of people to do some changes for good, indeed, that's what we need…

  • NASA needs to be completely retooled from the top-down. The 60s are over and so is the technology they are using. Strapping people onto a bomb and lifting tons of liquid fuel off the ground is completely ridiculous. It's a shame how they lost those two brave crews and it should never happen again.

    They need to build a rail gun up the side of a mountain or create a horizontal lift vehicle to carry the space ship to the edge of the atmosphere. Re-entry is a much trickier problem. But, there has to be a better solution than the heat tiles which fall off. NASA should take some pointers from the X-Prize winners.

    • X-Prize? Do you even know what the X-Prize was?

      The goal of the X-Prize was to reach orbital altitude, not orbital velocity. The latter requires 30 times as much energy, which the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation tells us requires over 200x as much fuel.

      Comparing an orbital flight to the X-Prize is like comparing a jet plane to a trampoline. Yes, they both get you airborne, but that's where the similarity ends.

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  • Dude, we left that rail gun idea behind in the 19th century with Jules Verne. It's impossible for several reasons. First, the accelerations experienced by the crew would be lethal. Second, the atmosphere is far too thick, and would dissipate most of the energy delivered by the rail gun before the craft reached space.

    Just do the math. If you're going to reach a velocity of 7000 m/s required to sustain orbit, and you want to limit your acceleration to 10 G, then that's at least 70 seconds of acceleration, meaning you need to accelerate over a distance of at least 245 km. Good luck finding a mountain that high.

    Even if you ran the first 240 km of the rail gun along the ground, then somehow turned abruptly up a mountain for the last 5km without killing the crew, and managed to overcome air resistance at Mach 25 somehow, there's one more problem. You'll execute not even one orbit before crashing back into the Earth. You can't just reach orbital velocity and automatically find yourself in a nice round orbit that doesn't intersect the ground.

    Face it. We need rockets of some sort. The problem with the shuttle program is not the rockets. It's the immense, unnecessary complexity surrounding them.

    • Patrick,

      BTW do you work for NASA? You seem to know a lot about propulsion and trajectory. And, you seem to have taken offense to my comments.

      It's not my intention to disparage anyone from NASA. I'm just saying that we need new ideas for manned space flight. And, that's why they offered the X-Prize, to spawn new ideas.

    • Hi Bret. Nope, just an armchair rocket scientist. 🙂

      And hey, guess what? Turns out you're right after all: the X-Prize for an orbital launch was already claimed in September 2008: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falcon_1

    • Bret and Patrick – you guys are having a fascinating side conversation here in the comments – thanks! As a bit of an armchair observer myself, like Patrick mentioned, I'm loving the back-and-forth 🙂

    • Patrick,

      Dude, I noticed that you have a lot of reasons why things can't be done, but you don't seem to offer any solutions of your own. If everyone thought like you, we would still be living in caves. And, since it's so easy to be a critic, maybe you could get a job in Hollywood.

      I'm not a Rocket Scientist. But, I have taken Physics and I understand plenty about orbital trajectory and escape velocity. I also agree that rocket propulsion is the only current method that will attain escape velocity. Although, we will likely find a better propulsion source in the next 20-50 years. I don't agree that you need to lift vertically off of a launch pad with huge tanks containing tons of liquid fuel. Whether you do this with a rocket or a shuttle, it's both dangerous and inefficient.

      Regarding the rail gun; it can be modulated at any speed, just like we do every day with MagLev trains. And, although it may not be practical to accelerate humans to escape velocity, it could be used to launch a vehicle into an altitude where a solid rocket booster could take over. It would also be very useful for launching freight, instead of manned rocket flights.

      Regarding the X-Prize; of course I am familiar with it, which is why I mentioned it. The reason Burt Rutan and his team were able to claim this prize, is because they thought up new ideas, which were safer and more effective. For example, they used a horizontal launch vehicle, instead of launching vertically. Then, they used an innovative feathering device to return to Earth, without burning up in the atmosphere.

      Although the feathering device wouldn't work in a re-entry from outer space, perhaps similar technology could be used to reduce the intense heat, which burned up one of our crews. The horizontal lift option is proven and viable, dating all of the way back to the X1. It would greatly reduce the weight and energy requirements of a launch vehicle. And, it would reduce the probability or blowing up our crew.

      If you have any better ideas, I would love to hear them.

    • Ok, fair enough. My solution is to go back to “straping people to bombs”. (That phrase is a bit like saying a car is like “strapping people to a molotov cocktail”.)

      It has worked hundreds of times in the past. By my count, about 340 people have flown the Soyuz and not a single one has been killed by the rockets. (One died when parachutes failed to open, and three when undocking from a space station left them exposed to the vacuum. There has not been a single Soyuz fatality since 1971.)

      Like I said before, the danger in manned launching is not the rockets. It's the complexity, and the Shuttle has that in spades.

      I agree though that alternatives to chemical rockets are certainly worth investigating. Space elevators would be cool, as would alternative kinds of rockets.

    • Hey, don't forget about the Pinto. A number of people burned up in those.

      Seriously, if I hadn't watched that crew blow up, I may feel differently. But watcing the shuttle launch is bizarre. There are all those sparks and all of that fuel, then a huge cloud of smoke and fire. Just look at the picture in this post and you can see why I consider it a bomb.

      Not only that, the inefficiency is mind-boggling. To lift all of that fuel up in the air is like launching a whole gun just to shoot a bullet. It just doesn't make sense.

      The Soyuz is pretty reliable, but rockets still fail regularly. A satelite got burned up just a couple of months back. I hope we can find something better.

  • Patrick,

    Dude, I noticed that you have a lot of reasons why things can't be done, but you don't seem to offer any solutions of your own. If everyone thought like you, we would still be living in caves. And, since it's so easy to be a critic, maybe you could get a job in Hollywood.

    I'm not a Rocket Scientist. But, I have taken Physics and I understand plenty about orbital trajectory and escape velocity. I also agree that rocket propulsion is the only current method that will attain escape velocity. Although, we will likely find a better propulsion source in the next 20-50 years. I don't agree that you need to lift vertically off of a launch pad with huge tanks containing tons of liquid fuel. Whether you do this with a rocket or a shuttle, it's both dangerous and inefficient.

    Regarding the rail gun; it can be modulated at any speed, just like we do every day with MagLev trains. And, although it may not be practical to accelerate humans to escape velocity, it could be used to launch a vehicle into an altitude where a solid rocket booster could take over. It would also be very useful for launching freight, instead of manned rocket flights.

    Regarding the X-Prize; of course I am familiar with it, which is why I mentioned it. The reason Burt Rutan and his team were able to claim this prize, is because they thought up new ideas, which were safer and more effective. For example, they used a horizontal launch vehicle, instead of launching vertically. Then, they used an innovative feathering device to return to Earth, without burning up in the atmosphere.

    Although the feathering device wouldn't work in a re-entry from outer space, perhaps similar technology could be used to reduce the intense heat, which burned up one of our crews. The horizontal lift option is proven and viable, dating all of the way back to the X1. It would greatly reduce the weight and energy requirements of a launch vehicle. And, it would reduce the probability or blowing up our crew.

    If you have any better ideas, I would love to hear them.

  • Ok, fair enough. My solution is to go back to “straping people to bombs”. (That phrase is a bit like saying a car is like “strapping people to a molotov cocktail”.)

    It has worked hundreds of times in the past. By my count, about 340 people have flown the Soyuz and not a single one has been killed by the rockets. (One died when parachutes failed to open, and three when undocking from a space station left them exposed to the vacuum. There has not been a single Soyuz fatality since 1971.)

    Like I said before, the danger in manned launching is not the rockets. It's the complexity, and the Shuttle has that in spades.

    I agree though that alternatives to chemical rockets are certainly worth investigating. Space elevators would be cool, as would alternative kinds of rockets.

  • Patrick,

    BTW do you work for NASA? You seem to know a lot about propulsion and trajectory. And, you seem to have taken offense to my comments.

    It's not my intention to disparage anyone from NASA. I'm just saying that we need new ideas for manned space flight. And, that's why they offered the X-Prize, to spawn new ideas.

  • Hey, don't forget about the Pinto. A number of people burned up in those.

    Seriously, if I hadn't watched that crew blow up, I may feel differently. But watcing the shuttle launch is bizarre. There are all those sparks and all of that fuel, then a huge cloud of smoke and fire. Just look at the picture in this post and you can see why I consider it a bomb.

    Not only that, the inefficiency is mind-boggling. To lift all of that fuel up in the air is like launching a whole gun just to shoot a bullet. It just doesn't make sense.

    The Soyuz is pretty reliable, but rockets still fail regularly. A satelite got burned up just a couple of months back. I hope we can find something better.

  • Hi Bret. Nope, just an armchair rocket scientist. 🙂

    And hey, guess what? Turns out you're right after all: the X-Prize for an orbital launch was already claimed in September 2008: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falcon_1

  • Patrick,

    BTW do you work for NASA? You seem to know a lot about propulsion and trajectory. And, you seem to have taken offense to my comments.

    It's not my intention to disparage anyone from NASA. I'm just saying that we need new ideas for manned space flight. And, that's why they offered the X-Prize, to spawn new ideas.

  • Patrick,

    BTW do you work for NASA? You seem to know a lot about propulsion and trajectory. And, you seem to have taken offense to my comments.

    It's not my intention to disparage anyone from NASA. I'm just saying that we need new ideas for manned space flight. And, that's why they offered the X-Prize, to spawn new ideas.

  • Hey, don't forget about the Pinto. A number of people burned up in those.

    Seriously, if I hadn't watched that crew blow up, I may feel differently. But watcing the shuttle launch is bizarre. There are all those sparks and all of that fuel, then a huge cloud of smoke and fire. Just look at the picture in this post and you can see why I consider it a bomb.

    Not only that, the inefficiency is mind-boggling. To lift all of that fuel up in the air is like launching a whole gun just to shoot a bullet. It just doesn't make sense.

    The Soyuz is pretty reliable, but rockets still fail regularly. A satelite got burned up just a couple of months back. I hope we can find something better.

  • Hi Bret. Nope, just an armchair rocket scientist. 🙂

    And hey, guess what? Turns out you're right after all: the X-Prize for an orbital launch was already claimed in September 2008: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falcon_1

  • Hi Bret. Nope, just an armchair rocket scientist. 🙂

    And hey, guess what? Turns out you're right after all: the X-Prize for an orbital launch was already claimed in September 2008: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falcon_1

  • Bret and Patrick – you guys are having a fascinating side conversation here in the comments – thanks! As a bit of an armchair observer myself, like Patrick mentioned, I'm loving the back-and-forth 🙂

  • Bret and Patrick – you guys are having a fascinating side conversation here in the comments – thanks! As a bit of an armchair observer myself, like Patrick mentioned, I'm loving the back-and-forth 🙂

  • Bret and Patrick – you guys are having a fascinating side conversation here in the comments – thanks! As a bit of an armchair observer myself, like Patrick mentioned, I'm loving the back-and-forth 🙂

  • Bret and Patrick – you guys are having a fascinating side conversation here in the comments – thanks! As a bit of an armchair observer myself, like Patrick mentioned, I'm loving the back-and-forth 🙂

  • Ok, fair enough. My solution is to go back to “straping people to bombs”. (That phrase is a bit like saying a car is like “strapping people to a molotov cocktail”.)

    It has worked hundreds of times in the past. By my count, about 340 people have flown the Soyuz and not a single one has been killed by the rockets. (One died when parachutes failed to open, and three when undocking from a space station left them exposed to the vacuum. There has not been a single Soyuz fatality since 1971.)

    Like I said before, the danger in manned launching is not the rockets. It's the complexity, and the Shuttle has that in spades.

    I agree though that alternatives to chemical rockets are certainly worth investigating. Space elevators would be cool, as would alternative kinds of rockets.

  • Hey, don't forget about the Pinto. A number of people burned up in those.

    Seriously, if I hadn't watched that crew blow up, I may feel differently. But watcing the shuttle launch is bizarre. There are all those sparks and all of that fuel, then a huge cloud of smoke and fire. Just look at the picture in this post and you can see why I consider it a bomb.

    Not only that, the inefficiency is mind-boggling. To lift all of that fuel up in the air is like launching a whole gun just to shoot a bullet. It just doesn't make sense.

    The Soyuz is pretty reliable, but rockets still fail regularly. A satelite got burned up just a couple of months back. I hope we can find something better.

  • Hi Bret. Nope, just an armchair rocket scientist. 🙂

    And hey, guess what? Turns out you're right after all: the X-Prize for an orbital launch was already claimed in September 2008: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falcon_1

  • Bret and Patrick – you guys are having a fascinating side conversation here in the comments – thanks! As a bit of an armchair observer myself, like Patrick mentioned, I'm loving the back-and-forth 🙂