Tuesday, August 02, 2005

What Replaces The Space Shuttle?

I remember, when I was in my teens, watching the first launching of the Space Shuttles. from the Enterprise test orbiter flights to the maiden voyage of Columbia. I also remember, as a radio announcer at UBC, covering the Challenger explosion.

The Space Shuttle program is now in its 25th year of operation, and the shuttles are showing their age. We now know a lot of the design flaws of the shuttle, enough that NASA has some radically different ideas for their next generation of manned spacecraft. Check out this New York Times story for details. (You may need to register; it's free of charge.)

Man, talk about retro. Judging from the designs to the left, we're going back to the modular platforms that were used during the Race to the Moon.

The new vehicles would sidestep the foam threat altogether, and its supporters say they would have other advantages as well. The larger of the vehicles, for lifting heavy cargoes but not people, would be some 350 feet tall, rivaling the Saturn 5 rockets that sent astronauts to the Moon.

The smaller one, for carrying people, would still dwarf the shuttle, which stands 184 feet high with its attached rockets and fuel tank.

The spaceships would no longer look like airplanes. Their payloads, whether humans or cargo, would ride in capsules at the top rather than alongside the fuel tank - standard practice until the shuttle era. Rather than gliding back to Earth, they would deploy parachutes and land on the ground in the Western United States.

Okay, that's one break from the past: the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo missions involved an ocean landing. Looks like NASA's borrowing from the old Soyuz program playbook.

A main advantage, supporters say, is that the big rocket could lift five or six times as much cargo as the shuttle (roughly 100 tons versus 20 tons), making it the world's most powerful space vehicle. In theory, it would be strong enough to haul into orbit whole spaceships destined for the Moon, Mars and beyond.

Just as important, officials and private experts say, the small rocket for astronauts would be at least 10 times as safe as the shuttle, whose odds of disaster are estimated at roughly 1 in 100. The crew capsule atop the rocket would rendezvous in orbit with gear and spaceships that the bigger rocket ferried aloft, or with the International Space Station.

This sounds a lot like Wernher Von Braun's old "earth-orbit rendezvous" approach to lunar landings, touted during the 1950's before the case was made for the modular approach eventually adopted by NASA. While the Apollo approach worked because it mean a faster timetable (it was the Race for the Moon after all), the EOR approach had the advantage of commitment to the long haul--which is exactly what NASA needs today.

Have a look at the article. The future of manned spaceflight's happening a lot sooner than we thought ...