Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Space: The End of the Shuttle

I started writing a few articles back in November about the history and future of space travel. Since the shuttle lands for the last time Thursday I thought I must start this series now, while we are still in space.

I plan to cover everything from Goddard to the fifth dimension. Do not expect great organization or completely thorough coverage. My aim is to educate those of you that aren’t rocket scientists about some of the things that I found interesting enough to spend four years of my life thus far learning it.

The Shuttle is landing for the last time. I am extremely sad. As far as rockets and aircrafts go the shuttle was by far the most interesting technological marvel yet. Granted birds are actually more marvelous, but I’m not a biologist. This plane exists, soon to be existed, that could fly into low earth orbit (space) and back and with a change of the tiles, do it again. We did it! A reusable space vehicle! The arguments are about how much over budget it was and how it never was able to make as many trips as desired, and how with two failures it was too risky. Hogwash. The shuttle is awesome.

First of all, space is expensive. However the most expensive part of space is honestly the first 150 miles. Once you are going 8000 meters/second around the earth 150-300 miles high out of the atmosphere, the amount of fuel that you need to get to the rest of the solar system is small. The problem is getting it up there going that speed. The shuttle was designed as a cargo plane for space. To take weight up to space cheaply. The last time I heard it cost about $10,000 per pound to get to low earth orbit aboard the shuttle, while the NASA was charging only $300. I have no citations for those numbers, so they are probably wrong, but I remember encountering them more than once. The moral of the story is, you have to want space, because it is expensive.

Second, we have yet to economically take advantage of humans in space other than research. Communications networks utilize satellites as well as weather satellites and GPS units. Often in Star Wars colonies are referred to mining colonies. Perhaps mining in space will prove valuable? After all, we can destroy other planets but not our own, if we do billions will die. Research, which comprises the bulk of NASA’s efforts, is hard to justify in a society that is largely based on immediate return. Every President worries about getting reelected. Every corporation worries about having two consecutive quarters of negative profits. Research is often on a timeline of years and decades. We can think of marathoning as research. Every athlete is an experiment of one, but after decades of research more and more athletes are running close to the world record, which means we are figuring things out and getting closer to the unbeatable world record. Unfortunately, we rarely know the result of our research when we set out to do it. Space can be thought of in the same way. Perhaps microgravity will enable drugs to be synthesized that cure and prevent cancer and AIDS. Perhaps one of the other planets will enable us to develop a solution to a problem that we do not even know about yet.

Third, the shuttle demonstrated technology that despite being 35 years old now, is still very bold. If my aerospace class was left in a room to develop a vehicle to low earth orbit, without prior knowledge of the shuttle, we would never even think of that. The whole idea of a mostly reusable orbital velocity spacecraft, is just phenomenal. Every science fiction movie skips over the incredible difficulty involved in getting a vechicle from a planet to orbit and back again multiple times without creating excessive heat and destruction or requiring enormous amounts of fuel. Although, if we figure out fusion and can put it in something the size of a house, all bets are off because that would be an incredible amount of power.
Fourth, space is exciting. The world is entertaining, but it can all be done. We have been to just about all the corners. You have to work really hard to get on unmapped terrain. Space provides an opportunity to explore and discover that is unmatched on earth.

In short, the shuttle did a number of great things for our technical capabilities and it won't be soon forgotten.

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