The Future of Spaceflight: Part One

We are, it seems, entering into a new era of space travel and exploration: private, commercial spaceflight. Space travel was always the domain of governments: mainly the United States and the Russians, but others are now joining the club. For this series of articles, I thought we would take a look at where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going, both near-term and a little bit longer out.

The Past

Everyone hopefully knows about the spaceflight programs the United States has had in the past: Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and the Shuttle. Our spaceflight programs seemed to soar to ever higher and higher heights and most thought we would have gone right from the moon on to Mars. But that’s not what happened. Humans have not left low Earth orbit since December of 1972 during the Apollo 17 mission to the moon.

Apollo Cancellations

Apollo was originally designed to be 20 missions, not just 17. Missions 18, 19 and 20 were cancelled for (*gasp!) budget reasons. The cancellations began in 1970. First, NASA cancelled mission 20 to use the Saturn V rocket from that mission for the long-planned Skylab project. Skylab itself was very important because it proved that humans could survive for extended periods in space, but that’s a different article.

That left 19 missions in two different groups after the success of Apollo 11.  Apollo 12 through 15 were H1 through H4, with precision landings, two-day stays and moonwalks.  Apollo 16 through 19 were J1 through J4, with three-day stays and the lunar rover. Then Congress cut NASA’s budget again and NASA cancelled the H4 and J4 missions, bringing the total Apollo missions to seventeen.

In an interview with Scientific American, David Portree, a space exploration historian who has worked extensively with NASA, stated that the cancelled missions would have further explored the long-term habitability of the moon for a possible lunar base. There were several other proposed missions using the Apollo hardware, but none of those came to fruition.

Space Shuttle: A New Objective

Planning for the space shuttle began even before Apollo 11 had landed on the moon. The main objectives were to have a regular, reuseable shuttle that had payload capacity for satellites, the ability to restock a space station and have short-duration manned missions in orbit.  The general principles for the shuttle were laid out in the latter half of the 60’s and Richard Nixon authorized the development of the shuttle on January 3, 1972.  A full, very detailed design history of the shuttle is available at NASA’s website.

The first manned shuttle mission (STS-1, for Space Transport System-1) launched on April 12, 1981. You probably know much of the major history of the shuttle program; its successes (the launch of Hubble, the repair of Hubble, the construction of the International Space Station) and its failures (Challenger, Columbia). On July 21, 2011, Shuttle Atlantis returned from STS-135.  This was the final shuttle mission and all the shuttles were officially retired.

One of the many criticisms of the shuttle system was its lack of scope.  Humanity has clung pitifully close to the surface of the Earth since the lofty heights of the Apollo program.  Michael Griffin, Administrator of NASA from 2005 to 2009, wrote an op-ed in Aviation Week during his tenure as Administrator that encapsulates a lot of the feelings many have expressed about the shuttle program.  One of Griffin’s main points is that NASA should have continued using the existing Saturn V and other launch systems instead of completely discarding them and staffed rotating crews in space.  Then, we could have established a moon base, or some other such, and had many more manned missions to explore, all within the budgets that NASA actually had.  He goes on:

“If we had done all this, we would be on Mars today, not writing about it as a subject for ‘the next 50 years.’ We would have decades of experience operating long-duration space systems in Earth orbit, and similar decades of experience in exploring and learning to utilize the Moon.  This essay on ‘the next 50 years’ would be quite different than the one I am offering here.  I think most of us will agree that it would have been a better one.”

Whether or not things would have actually panned out this way, who knows.  We still have yet to overcome one of the biggest problems of long-term spaceflight outside of the Earth’s magnetic field: radiation.  The whole mission to Mars won’t work if the astronauts are too sick from radiation to do anything when they arrive at the red planet.

What few people realize is that the shuttle program far outlived its planned life.  As originally designed, the shuttle program had a life of 10 years or 100 missions.  Considering that the shuttle started service in the early 80’s, that means that the initial design life of the shuttles expired in the early 90’s.  Yet we used them all the way through 2011, almost 20 years longer than designed.  Any engineer can tell you that you are treading on thin ice by using something for much almost three times as long as it was intended to be used.  So, in that respect, it was long past time for the shuttle to retire.

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