Friday, September 30, 2005

Another Space Race

So we're going back to the moon, maybe even Mars. How come we're not excited about it?

Could be it has something to do with NASA's recently unveiled designs for the vehicles that will replace the shuttle and be able to do all this. Not that they won't work, or that they aren't a wonderful exercise in practicality and utility. It's just that they're not, well ... sexy.

To a public jaded by the racy designs of Star Wars and other sci-fi epics, the new plans seem so pedestrian, with a bit of a retro flare. The capsule on top--right, a capsule--harks back to the original designs of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, and those are up to forty years old. The lunar landing arrangement is merely a souped-up Apollo with LEM variation. And the basic earth-to-orbit design, a pencil with an eraser on top, most closely resembles the original Mercury/Redstone sub-orbital hardware. Even the landing method--parachutes and airbags--seems a let down after watching those shuttle landings that can only be termed, appropriately enough, "death defying."

On one hand, we should be glad to see our tax dollars being spent in as economical a way as possible, given the task. On the other hand, it is an admission that the whole space-plane concept of the shuttle was a mistake, or at least an idea ahead of its time. But it feels as if, at the end of World War II, with the existence of buzz-bombs and V-2 rockets well known, the government had announced its plan to build a new and improved biplane instead of trying to break the sound barrier.

The very idea that we have not been back to the moon in thirty years is enough to make you wonder what we've been up to. If, instead of squandering all our money on shuttle development and two space stations of dubious utility (letting the first one, Skylab, burn up in the atmosphere for lack of funding), suppose we had continued to fund the existing Apollo program for all that time. Plans had already been made to add an extra stage to the Saturn V through orbital rendezvous, which would have made it possible to land enormous payloads on the moon. We might have had a thriving lunar colony by the 1980's for a fraction of what it will cost us now. Instead, as soon as the "moon race" was won, we lost interest and shut the project down.

Maybe a new space race is what we need to spur the technological development process. We already have plenty of competition from Europe and Japan when it comes to launching commercial satellites with disposable rockets. And Burt Rutan is showing us what private companies can do with a little financial incentive. (When he builds a space plane, it looks like one.)

All that's missing is the kind of rivalry that put national prestige on the line during the Cold War, and it looks like the Chinese are about to provide that. By calmly following their own timetable, and pretty much ignoring what the US, Europe and Russia are up to in space, it won't be long before they provide us with the kind of surprise that the first sputnik gave us. And if that gets us moving again, so much the better.

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