As if held together by duct tape and coat hangers—OK, I exaggerate--Discovery gimped back to Earth Tuesday and landed in California. What a relief. It was nearly a continent's width away from the primary landing site in Florida, but at least it was down.
At last most of us agree it's time to put the shuttle fleet in mothballs—if you can call three decrepit spaceships a fleet--before another one blows up. We'll likely see a few more launched sometime within the next five years, but the government is calling for new spaceships with missions worthy of that romantic phrase—“space mission.” It's about time.
Other than the successful mission to repair the Hubble Telescope several years back, I challenge you to tell me the mission of just one of our scores of shuttle flights. What did those Columbia or Challenger astronauts give their lives for? It was something on the order of testing the effects of weightlessness on fruit flies--make-work missions on which this nation has squandered half a trillion dollars and a dozen astronauts' lives—chasing our own tails in low earth orbit during the past 30 years. What a waste.
I'm not one who believes we should abandon space travel. Nearly everyone who flies there returns home a visionary. Former moonwalkers I've spoken with talk about the apparent lack of boundaries on this beautiful globe. They speak of the earth as a living entity, and point to the environmental decline that's apparent from space. They speak of the necessity to work for peaceful coexistence in order to prevent the world from lapsing into endless violence and despair and, perhaps, another dark age. Many return to Earth and write books, paint pictures and give talks about the need to love one another and preserve the Earth. Who knows, maybe it was the inspiring vision of moonwalkers who helped us survive the Cold War. Such is the Apollo legacy.
The moon landings represented only the beginning of an unending mission worthy of the name--spreading life to the dead moons and planets of our solar system in a grand movement onward and outward. Many of us believed the ability to see the Earth from millions of miles away would be its own reward. We believed other worlds held vast resources that eventually would pay for such lofty goals. Limitless solar energy and substances like helium-3, plentiful on the moon, held promise. What lay on the surface of Mars or beneath the surface of the moon, or the scores of other worlds in the solar system? What recycling technologies and ingenuity would be summoned to make the most of precious human resources in settlements on the moon or Mars?
As early as 1969, this nation possessed the bedrock technologies to answer such questions. We had a heavy launch vehicle in the Saturn V rocket, which packed enough punch to send payloads anywhere in the solar system. We had a true space vehicle--the lunar module--built to operate in low to near-zero gravity and atmospheric pressure. We had a moon car, the lunar rover, which, with minor adjustments, might have traversed the surface of Mars or the moons of Jupiter as well. By the early seventies we had a roomy space station—Skylab—built from a hollowed out Apollo rocket shell.
At a cost of $35 billion, spent over ten years, America had developed virtually all the tools needed to lay claim to worlds. With steady improvement we might've built a program that would have given us Mars by now.
Instead, we put Apollo in mothballs and built space shuttles. Advertised as a cheaper way to go, flying them over the years turned out to cost about FIFTEEN times the $35 billion that Apollo cost, and the price is climbing. Rather than aiming for monumental achievements like moon bases and Mars voyages, we settled for a busy, mundane program of forever chasing our own tails in low earth orbit.
But that's all about to change.
The government recently released illustrations of its planned new spacecraft. Making use of existing technologies, they would be configured like the old Apollo spacecraft. On the boards is a heavy launch vehicle, and wingless capsules that would parachute to the ground, as in the old days.
Better yet, one of the great stories of our times occurred last year when the makers of SpaceShipOne, the first privately launched vehicle to carry human beings into space, announced plans for a new, larger spaceship that, within five years, could begin lofting customers into sub-orbital flights.
During three decades NASA managed to strip the wonder from space travel. Endless flights to test the effects of weightlessness on fruit flies left us cold and indifferent with few exceptions. Flights to repair the Hubble Space Telescope opened soul-stirring vistas that still have us wide-eyed at the wonders of deep space, but mostly NASA let us down with a thud. But those days are ending. SpaceShipOne, the first privately launched vehicle to carry human beings into space, has inspired plans for a new, larger spaceship that, within five years, could begin lofting customers into sub-orbital flights.
, according to an announcement by Richard Branson, chairman of Virgin Atlantic Airways.
The notion has space enthusiasts buzzing with an excitement NASA hasn't matched in years.
No wonder, literally.
During three decades NASA managed to strip the wonder from space travel. Endless flights to test the effects of weightlessness on fruit flies left us cold and indifferent with few exceptions. Flights to repair the Hubble Space Telescope opened soul-stirring vistas that still have us wide-eyed at the wonders of deep space, but mostly NASA let us down with a thud.
Where are the lunar colonies and voyages to Mars promised in our youth? Where the ships that would open the heavens to armchair astronauts? Where are the payoff for space troopers who sat up nights watching astronauts gambol and bounce across the hills and plains of the moon in the late sixties and early seventies?
To cite budget cuts doesn't answer the questions. Over 35 years NASA's spent more than 10 times what it cost to explore the moon a quarter-million miles away on shuttle flights that seldom go higher than 500 miles.
Meanwhile, at a tiny fraction of NASA's budget, Burt Rutan has been loudly reinventing space travel. You might remember Rutan as the designer of the plane called the Voyager that circled the earth without stopping to refuel in December, 1986. That success, which many regarded as a stunt, gave Rutan the motivation, clout and financial backing--largely from billionaire Paul Allen--to accomplish the following:
On June 21, Mike Melvill piloted SpaceShipOne, an egg-shaped cockpit decked out with fins, nosecone and a rocket, more than 60 miles high. He was carried aloft inside the craft attached to the underbelly of a larger plane named the White Knight. Once safely airborne (above the blanked of air at ground-level) the White Knight released SpaceShipOne. Melvill fired its rocket and went vertical fast.
This space system is ingenious and elegant in a way NASA's space shuttle is not. Built to fly into space like a rocket-plane, SpaceShipOne changes orientation to re-enter the earth's atmosphere, using aerial drag like a badminton shuttlecock to slow down, before re-extending its wings to land. With Melvill at the controls, SpaceShipOne became the first privately funded manned spacecraft to leave the atmosphere, putting it's 62 year old pilot in the record books.
On a subsequent flight, Sept. 30, Melville climbed to 337,500 feet, nearly two miles higher than required to meet the first objective of the $10 million X Prize—a carrot dangled by a St. Louis based organization to promote space travel. If you've seen video-footage of that flight, you realize what a harrowing ride Melvill had, spinning and bucking his way to an uncertain but eventually successful conclusion.
On Oct. 4, pilot Brian Binnie finished the job of winning the X Prize by soaring about 70 miles high, the second such flight within two weeks—an X Prize requirement.
Recently I saw Rutan on TV explaining that, as one of those kids dazzled by space travel in the 1960s, he'd always assumed he'd one day fly in space. A few years back he realized he'd never get the chance if he left it up to the government. That's when he decided to build his own spaceship.
Now Virgin Atlantic has bought rights to the technology represented by SpaceShipOne. He intends to build a larger, user-friendly craft named the VSS Enterprise--VSS for Virgin Space Ship, and Enterprise for the Star Trek cruiser. While the VSS Enterprise won't soar to the stars as Captain Kirk and Spock's spaceship did, it will fly more than 70 miles high.