Thursday, July 28, 2005

“We were wrong…”

With these words, Shuttle Project Manager Bill Parsons stated the obvious; the Space Shuttle suffered a near disaster yesterday when a piece of foam peeled off the center fuel tank during launch. If this piece of foam had struck a leading edge of the Shuttle’s wing, as what occurred during the Columbia mission, the same disastrous result could have happened.

Bill Parsons was interviewed by Ted Koppel on Nightline tonight. The interview was extremely painful to watch. You could see real emotion and distress in Mr. Parson’s voice and face as he was grilled by Koppel. To Parson’s (and NASA’s) credit, as Koppel acknowledged, he didn’t try to hide or shade the truth. But that would have been scant comfort had that piece of foam struck something vulnerable.

I’m a huge fan of the space program and always have been. I’ve followed every space exploration mission and nearly every Shuttle launch. I still vividly remember the flight of Discovery in 1985 with Saudi national Sultan Salman Abdel-aziz Al-Saud on board. I was living and working in Saudi Arabia and happened to be on vacation during the time of that flight. My oldest daughter was visiting me in the Kingdom, and we were camping in the Asir region in Western Saudi Arabia. I still remember little Saudi children running up to us, the only Americans in the park, laughing and shouting “Discovery! Discovery!” as they made flying motions with their hands. They were happy and proud that one of their own was on board.

But it’s become obvious to all of us who pay attention to such matters that the Shuttle has never lived up to its promise as a (relatively) cheap and reliable way to get to space. It’s too expensive, too unreliable and, ultimately, too dangerous. It’s beginning to remind me, in a way, of the SST. The SST represented the culmination of a certain branch of aeronautics, but ultimately turned out to be a technological dead-end. The same can be said of the Shuttle. It’s a brilliant piece of engineering, but it will never fulfill its promise. NASA and Congress have recognized this, of course, and this is why it’s supposed to be phased out in 2010.

They are searching for a replacement. Several attempts have already failed, perhaps the most notable being the X-33, announced with much fanfare by then Vice-President Al Gore in July, 1996. A good summary of the current situation can be found here.

I have another proposal, one which I've blogged about before: rather than spend money on trying to develop yet another reusable launch vehicle, why not plow these resources into R&D for a Space Elevator? This is an idea whose time is nearly here and, with the right push, that time could be moved rapidly forward.

For the uninitiated, a Space Elevator is a 44,000+ mile tower, tethered to earth at one end and an asteroid or other large body at the other. Once in place, it is a stable platform, capable of carrying multiple loads up and down its structure using plain old electricity. As crazy as such an idea might sound, the physics of it are straightforward and have been known for decades. There are hurdles, of course; the biggest being able to find a material strong enough to build and support the tower. With the rapid advance in carbon nanotube technology, a solution may be at hand.

The advantages of a building a Space Elevator over designing and building another fleet of reusable launch vehicle are huge. Perhaps most significantly, we’d have physics working for us rather than against us. Dr. Brad Edwards, someone who has written the definitive work on the subject, believes we could have a space elevator operational in 15 years – and this without Government help. A public-private partnership here could possibly advance this date. I don’t think it's unrealistic to believe that such a structure could be operational before a Shuttle replacement could be.

Let’s be smart here and think outside the box…

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