Space, what do we do now?

(Pictured above is an Atlas V rocket launched from Vandenburg)

The Space Shuttle Endeavour will begin its trip from LAX Friday morning, arriving Saturday afternoon at the Discovery Science Center in LA.

People often ask what is NASA going to do now that the space shuttle has been decommissioned. As a space junky, I find it appropriate to talk about this topic this week. For years we have been taught that the Space Shuttle represents US supremacy in space. The last Space Shuttle to be retired, Endeavour, is seen below landing at LAX in September. None of the space shuttle fleet will ever fly again, marking the end of an era.



Why Go into Space at all?

The Space Shuttle represented the culmination of the US space-race, a national pride endeavor to establish the ultimate in military high ground. Space doesn’t just represent a mysterious place for Astrophysicist to explore, it represents strategic military prowess. The ability to go into space means that you can go anywhere and see anything on the planet. Also, it represents resources. In the 1940′s and 1950′s it became apparent that whomever controlled space controlled the globe. Two super powers, the US and the USSR had the know how to be successful in a space program. This was made possible by German rocket scientists, the most advanced rocket science team of the time, who through the persuasion of allied operatives defected during WWII. Most of the engineers who worked with large rockets come to the American front lines, while many of the engineers who specialized in medium sized rockets went to the Soviet front line. The influx of fully trained rocket engineers as well as the many rockets and rocket parts they brought with them boosted these two countries decades ahead of the rest of the world in rocketry.

Space Fever

Why did the USA land a man on the moon first? Many people feel that we were in a race with the USSR, but the reality is that the US was the only country in the race to land a man on the moon at all. Russian technology was dependent on medium sized rockets. They were the first to launch a satellite into orbit, first to launch a man into space, first at many “smaller” mile stones. But this was because the technology used already existed. If you need a large rocket, strap 4 or 5 smaller rockets together and ta-da! Blast off! Getting 4-5 rockets to fire together, while still an engineering feat, is doable. The problem comes when even bigger rocket, say five times larger is needed. If 5 of these large rockets which consist of 5 smaller rockets are strapped together, there are now 25 rockets that must all fire together. This is what the USSR tried, but it left the Russians with a very temperamental large rocket. After launching a lunar probe to the moons, the Soviets pretty much pulled out of the manned space race. The Americans, on the other hand, already had experts on large rocket technology. This advantage, while not apparent for low earth orbit became crucial for the success of the Apollo program.

Space Shuttle: The Next Generation

Towards the End of the Sixties, Scientist and Engineers conceived of the idea of a reusable rocket. Designing and building a reusable rocket would amortize the development cost over many launches. This would require a huge leap forward in engineering and manufacturing technology. Many critical parts had no survivable failure mode. The failure of any one of many of the parts would lead to a lethal failure, which would be unacceptable. To counter this, many parts had to be overhauled between every single launch, making the shuttle very slow and very expensive to operate. If NASA had a budget similar to 1960′s this would have been acceptable, but they didn’t. In order to justify this large expense, NASA grouped all of the launch missions into the one project, turning them into a representation of space supremacy, and most of the budget was used just operating these large, amazing flying machines.

The cost was close to half a billion dollars per launch. There was no money in NASA’s budget  to do any other projects. NASA needed to cut the Shuttle Budget just to get anything else going. Admittedly, it is a shame that we do not currently have a viable launch vehicle yet, however the next space capsule is just around the corner.


Spacecraft replacements

NASA’s next manned spacecraft is called the Orion capsule. Originally this was called the Crewed Exploration Vehicle when it was part of George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration. Unfortunately, big projects require big funding which require leadership approval, and the approval never happened under that administration.

Despite being severely underfunded, The Orion Space Capsule did manage to make its way into the next administrations space policy. This capsule is designed to allow humans to explore for longer, allowing us to go deeper into space than ever before. Unlike previous spacecraft, Orion will have extensive recycling technology, which will reduce the amount of supplies needed for any mission.

The test capsule was recently completed, and is expected to begin it’s first spaceflight test in early 2014. It is designed to be either crewed or uncrewed, allowing for transport of both people and supplies, independently. Really, this is a very exciting time in our space exploration history.

In the future, I will be writing an article about the current commercial spacecraft either being used (as with the Falcon 9) or being created (such as the the Lynx).