Friday, May 25, 2012


One of the saddest moments in recent history -- for me, at least -- came last July, when the Shuttle fleet was retired for good. Granted that it was technologically obsolete and had killed fourteen people with its fragility. From that moment to this one, the United States has had no ability to put astronauts in orbit without assistance from Russia.

We had ceded the high ground to the rest of the world. Should they decide to deny us the use of their facilities, we would have no recourse.

The "high ground" is the trump card in all sorts of conflicts. It's not always obvious what constitutes the "high ground" in a given situation. Whatever it is, it bestows an enduring advantage over all other contestants upon its possessor. Geostrategically, the high ground of today is low Earth orbit. The nation that commands low Earth orbit can impose its will on the rest of the world.

There was a glimmer of light earlier today. SpaceX's Dragon capsule, the first spacecraft to be designed, built, and launched into orbit entirely by a private corporation, mated to the International Space Station in an exemplary display of precision engineering. The capsule was, of course, unmanned; the days when we would put a man into an untested spacecraft and hope for the best are well behind us. However, Elon Musk, SpaceX's CEO and principal visionary, expects that successors to the Dragon will be flying men into space in a few years' time.

Unless an entirely unheralded new spacecraft should make its bow before that, American astronauts will continue riding into orbit in Russian craft launched from the Baikonur astrodrome...and paying exorbitant taxi fees for the privilege.

This must change. Must. If it doesn't, the United States will find itself subordinated to one of the other spacefaring powers sooner or later. As world conditions stand, probably sooner.

Putting men into ballistic capsules and propelling them into space with rockets over which they have essentially no control is a bad idea, as badly obsolete as the Shuttles were. The ballistic capsule as a human transport is simply too limiting for a spacefaring future. We need reusable spacecraft for other reasons, too. I hope someone out there -- preferably someone animated by good wholesome capitalistic profit motives -- is working on a space plane. More, I hope he can resist the pressure that will undoubtedly be put on him to make it into a ramshackle delivery truck -- the sort of crossbred design that ultimately doomed the Shuttles.

America cannot remain pre-eminent among the nations if it remains dependent on other nations to reach the high ground. Let private enterprise do the job, by all means, but keep in mind the military aspects of the need as well. Like it or not, there will eventually be weapons in space. There will be combat in Earth orbit, possibly over those aforementioned weapons. The nation with the better systems for deployment and recovery from Earth orbit, both of men and materiel, will be Terra's top dog.

Americans might not want to impose ourselves and our ways on other nations, but we'd like it even less were other nations to impose themselves and their ways on us. Capabilities of that sort have a habit of being used.


Pascal said...

Another thing that troubles me about this news Fran is my being aware of the CAGW ties of the SpaceX execs. Elon Musk.

An old colleague and friend is employed there. Our friendship has been strained by his sudden unexplained need to attack CAGW denial. Unexplained but not inexplicable. If you wish to know more personal info, contact me via email or phone.

We know how bad crony capitalism has affected our republic. Who among us is so naive to believe that SpaceX's ease at obtaining NASA know-how was not greased by its willing endorsement of enviro-political hackery?

This is one of those times I wish I was running a large investigative journalistic organizations. I've no doubt that good cynical journalism here would generate Pulitzer level news.

Francis W. Porretto said...

How about sticking to the topic of the post, Pascal? For the moment, I'm massively uninterested in Elon Musk's opinions about global warming. I'm far more interested in what his company can do to restore America's spacegoing capabilities!

Pascal said...

I'd love to see America back in its Captain's seat Fran. You know I've a long career that helped us get there. My implication was that this has the earmarks of winding up as a global enterprise, especially given the origins and inclinations of the man and the drift of his allies. Think of how this administration behaves towards purely American enterprise, especially that outside its inner circle, and the decay I'm flagging supports your long-term concerns.

rickl said...

I've been practically living at for the past week, following the Dragon coverage like an addict taking hits off a crack pipe.

Here's the fun thread: OMG it's the SpaceX Party Thread! That was done to keep comment clutter away from the more serious update and discussion threads. The administrators tend to frown on commenting on those threads unless you have actual information to contribute.

I'm in my 50s and am old enough to remember playing hooky from school to watch Gemini launches. I haven't been this excited about a space flight since the 1970s. Maybe the early Shuttle launches, but at the time my enthusiasm was tempered by the awareness that it wasn't designed to go beyond Earth orbit.

By contrast, SpaceX has very ambitious plans for future Falcon and Dragon upgrades. Dragon was designed from the beginning as a manned spacecraft. Its heat shield is designed to withstand re-entry at lunar and interplanetary speeds. While the early flights will use parachutes to land in the ocean, they are working on a concept that will do double duty as a launch escape system and for propulsive landings on dry land. The Dragon capsule is designed to be reusable, although NASA is insisting that only new Dragons be used for the 12 cargo flights they have contracted for. That's not such a bad thing, because it means that SpaceX will end up with a whole stable of Dragons that could potentially be refurbished and used for future missions.

Next year, they plan to launch a Falcon Heavy rocket from Vandenberg which will consist of three boosters side by side. If successful, it will become the most powerful launch vehicle in the world, capable of orbiting a payload weight second only to the Saturn V. They are also working on ways to recover and reuse the rocket stages. Musk has said that he will consider himself to have failed if they don't achieve reusability.

This test flight was just the beginning, and that is what has me so excited.

The whole point of a test flight is to find problems that need fixing. From what I can tell, they haven't found many. They seem to have a very good rocket and spacecraft.

ISS astronaut André Kuipers said on Saturday, "Inside of the Dragon module. Beautiful. Spacious, Modern. Blue LEDs. Feels a bit like a sci-fi filmset. Of course it is from Los Angeles."

James Oberg said, “I think this is one of the top ten days of space exploration. It’s when we’ve gone to a new level of space access.”

James Oberg is a world-reknowned space historian. He's an American, but speaks fluent Russian and is also an expert on the Russian space program. He even went to North Korea recently to observe their attempt to launch a rocket, tagging along with the Russian delegation.

He has forgotten more than I'll ever know about space flight. For him to say a thing like that is a very big deal indeed.

Oh, and by the way, another company called Sierra Nevada Corporation is indeed working on a winged shuttle, based on an old NASA design from the 1960s. It's called Dream Chaser. They plan to start drop tests later this summer.

Then there's also Bigelow Aerospace, which has designed inflatable habitat modules. Instant space stations. They've already launched two small ones to prove the concept. As I understand it, they're basically cooling their heels waiting for someone to develop manned spacecraft to populate them. There's no point in launching the full-sized ones now if there's no way to put people in them.

As I'm fond of saying, the Space Age is just starting to get interesting.

Anonymous said...

I, too, was quite thrilled with SpaceX's success. I'm also less disappointed with the capsule approach than you, Fran. Given available technology (or that for any foreseeable future), the only way to orbit is via a ballistic launch. Whether it's a winged vehicle/lifting body or capsule, the only way to LEO is a ballistic ride on a rocket.

While a great vehicle (I'm also saddened by its retirement), the shuttle had weakness apart from the thermal protection system, foam insulation, lack of an escape system, etc. It's a HUGE vehicle. There was a lot of mass carried into orbit that was made up of only spacecraft structure. Granted, that made it a great construction platform, but it also limited payload and made it very costly to operate. It was not efficient enough to be a true Space Transportation System.

Until we can get to the space elevator or hypersonic, single-state-to-orbit scram-jets, I think we're stuck with ballistic chemical rockets. Just because the capsule is "old" technology doesn't make it obsolete. The basic design of aircraft hasn't changed much -- lift is still generated by moving the wing through the air. The engineering has greatly improved, however. I'm hoping to see the same improvements in capsule design.