Fulcrum Ruminations

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Shuttling off to Buffalo

The space shuttle is up.

No wait, it's grounded . . .

No, wait, it's good to go!!


NASA arranged the most thorough launch coverage ever for the lift-off of space shuttle Discovery this past week. All seemed to go well, until review of the truckloads of video showed pieces of stuff breaking off of the external fuel tank again. Oh, and the shuttle seems to also have hit a bird, of all things, a second or two after launch.

A careful inspection of the shuttle, first from on-board equipment and then from the vantage of the space station as Discovery executed a slow "backflip," has revealed no appreciable damage. Ship and crew should be safe from the tragic accident that befell Columbia two years ago.

But here's the thing: the space shuttle is old. It's late 1970s - early 1980s technology. The airframes are still in good shape, but the computers are ancient, the instruments somewhat dated, and the whole contraption a good deal more rickety than is generally appreciated.

Don't get me wrong, I think the shuttle program has been an amazing, historic success overall. Tons of useful science has been done, the state of the art of aerospace engineering advanced by leaps and bounds. Mission after mission of pure scientific achievement. In my view, it's been well worth the money spent on it.

But it's old. It's creaky. It's more dangerous than anyone really thought. Time to retire the remaining ships (that would be Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour for those of you keeping score at home) and build the new, improved Space Transportation System.

From my layman's perspective, I'd say have a dual-track arrangement. First you've got some variant of Big Dumb Booster for slinging cargo, instrumentation, fuel, and whatnot up to orbit. We should probably work with the Russians on this idea as their approach to space launchers seems to be somewhat more robust than ours. Then a small vehicle for sending crews and minimal cargo, something along the lines of the European Space Agency's Hermes space plane perhaps. The small size of the space plane makes launching it less expensive than the current shuttle (you might even be able to do a Pegasus-style launch if you get the engineering right) and also means we can have a bunch of them instead of just four. The low-tech, non-man-rated Big Dumb Booster is also relatively cheap to operate and if you lose one, it's not such a big deal. You can essentially crank those out like toasters since they're not crammed full of ultra-high-tech bits.

Then I'd add some facilities to the Space Station to make it into a Mission Control Light, as it were. Give it the capacity to do everything Houston Control can do, only it's up in orbit. It could also serve as a "construction shack" for putting together segments launched via BDB for interplanetary missions or manned trips to the Moon and Mars.

Recent developments in the private sector indicate to me that the tech and imagination to do big things in space is ready and available. We just have to get the dead hand of the government as out of the way as is practical. Put NASA back to doing pure R&D, then turn it over to private enterprise to make it work, perhaps with government seed money to get things started.

That's how I see it, anyway.


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