Monday, September 19

Back To The Future

NASA announced this morning the follow-on to the Space Shuttle program, a semi-reusable rocket system that is supposed to take the U.S. back to the Moon by 2018, as a stepping stone to Mars in decades hence.

From a design standpoint, it looks to be an evolutionary descendant of both the U.S. and Soviet programs of the past. It's the return of the space capsule, with its critical heat shield protected from the hazards of launch by being concealed within, atop the spacecraft stack, where there is no debris to drop on it, rather than being like the complex and fragile skin of the Shuttle, exposed to the elements before and during launch.

Advances in materials science (and use of stretched versions of the Shuttle's solid fuel boosters) make this launch system somewhat sleeker than the giant Apollo Saturn V of the 1960s.

The system envisions both manned and unmanned launches, using an unmanned heavy-lift vehicle that is reminiscent of the Soviet Energiya to lift cargo and the bulk of an interplanetary spacecraft, and a smaller manned rocket to send up the crew. This is in a way a recognition that the Shuttle, that was originally envisioned as a "space truck," is an exceptionally expensive way to haul cargo to orbit, and risks the lives of its crew for objectives that don't always require human intervention.

The return of NASA to the manned space exploration business (rather than merely space travel) is a return to its roots as an agency pushing out the frontiers of aviation. It remains to be seen, in this risk-averse age, whether the American people still have the Right Stuff to pursue the dream we left behind when Apollo 17 lifted off the lunar surface in December 1972.

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