In Search of a Real Spaceship

Two Shuttle accidents -- each caused by NASA hubris -- combined with a tight budget have caused NASA to retire the fleet. Understandable, but in a move that truly makes no sense, they will be replaced by...the space capsules we long ago outgrew.
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Imagine this scenario: you are a tourist coming home from a special vacation jaunt. Or maybe you're a researcher headed home from an assignment at a national laboratory. But instead of a nice gentle landing at an airport, you plunge into the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean, bobbing about like a cork on a fishing line. Instead of a leisurely stroll to the airport concourse, you have to wait to be fished out of the drink by the U.S. navy.

Sound enticing? That's just the way future Americans will have to return from space visits to the International Space Station - whether you're a fancy high rolling space tourist or someone your government has sent to do space research - because space capsules - much like the tiny Gemini 12 and Apollo 11 capsules my colleagues and I flew more than 40 years ago - have been deemed the replacement shape for the craft that are to follow the winged and capable Space Shuttle fleet when it retires next year.

Space capsules? That's right, instead of following the Shuttles with something as capable - something that can guarantee American space leadership - we're going to race China, India, and Russia in a competition to build a limited and ungainly spacecraft that America retired a generation ago. And guess what? It will take another seven years before the NASA Orion capsule is ready to ferry astronauts. And that's on top of the five years we've already spent designing the thing. Seven more years, when we went from Mercury through Gemini to Apollo in less than five (the first unmanned Apollo test flights began even before Gemini carried astronauts, for Pete's sake). And it will cost the taxpayers, oh more than $50 billion for these Orion capsules and their booster rockets! Washington, we don't have liftoff.

Let me explain why what America flies in space matters.

Since April 1981 America has been flying a relatively huge spacecraft back and forth into space and back. In July, 1975, we flew the last of the Apollo spacecraft on a flight to dock with a Russian Soyuz. The tiny 12-foot cone was all that survived the trip back home. Inside were squeezed three astronauts. For all practical purposes, their ship was the same as the capsule Neil, Mike and I flew six years earlier to the Moon. Let me tell you that the lack of a galley - or a bathroom - was something all of us endured. We knew we were aboard a limited, experimental spaceship. And many of us looked forward to the day the Space Shuttle orbiters - a craft more than 120 feet long by comparison-would start making routine trips to Earth orbit. The Shuttles could carry as many as seven astronauts, a galley, a bathroom, and a huge cargo hold to ferry experiments up to space and back. By volume the Shuttles could carry a dozen Apollo capsules! The Space Shuttles could glide to landing sites either in Florida or California; once because of weather it landed in New Mexico. The astronauts and their experiments could be off-loaded and the ships readied for their next assignment.

We forget today that the Shuttle system was so advanced every other existing space power wanted one. The Europeans called theirs Hermes. The Russians Buran. Japan was designing the Hope space plane. Germany had a really radical design named after space pioneer Eugen Sanger. But alas what they all discovered was a winged vehicle was a complex design whose development would require a lot of cash-and patience. Both were in short supply. So America would wind up flying alone aboard space wings. The Shuttles would wind up doing many incredible things-among which was saving the Russian Mir space station, because the orbiters brought up more water, food and supplies that a dozen Russian Progress supply ships could carry. They deployed satellites. Returned a few back home. They were-and are-without match in the short history of human spaceflight.

One thing about these Shuttles is overlooked today. At the time, their life expectancy was believed to be about a decade, before they were replace with new designs. New Shuttles, that is.

Fast forward to today. Two Shuttle accidents -- each caused by NASA hubris -- combined with a tight budget have caused NASA to retire the fleet. Understandable, I think. But in a move that truly makes no sense, they will be replaced by...the space capsules we long ago outgrew. And to save even more money, these cannon-ball-like capsules would land once again in the ocean, not on dry land. To recover Orion will require deployment of ships in several landing zones. How much will that cost? Much of the Orion will be expendable, such as the heat shield. It seems we have decided to throw away our Shuttle experience and go "back to the future".

Our space partners and competitors are also designing capsules for their astronauts-because, for them, capsules are a step up. No other nation has ever had the logistics capability resident in a winged or lifting body vehicle-except us. And seems to be ready, in a penny-wise and pound foolish way-to abandon our own leadership in space transportation. By landing on a runway, gliding back from space, these unique re entry machines have many opportunities on each orbit of the Earth to find a landing site -- an airport or military airfield, say. Those capsules, since they don't glide anywhere, must line up more or less at their intended landing site. Bad weather? Oh, gotta stay up another day. Experiments? Gotta wait!

And we are compounding that felony by retiring the Shuttles before even the limited Orion capsules are ready to fly.

But I've got a better idea. Why not stretch out the remaining Shuttle flights for five years-flying once a year or so. Open up a commercial competition for a logistics vehicle to the station that includes a vehicle that can land on a runway, using the heritage learned from the 30+ years of the Shuttles. Any breakthroughs reached in the labs aboard the International Space Station can't wait for days while the navy hauls Orion out of the ocean and returned to port. A runway-capable vehicle can do that-and that is what we should build to follow our Space Shuttles. If NASA can't do it, let the private space entrepreneurs do it. Build and fly a logistics spaceship worthy of the name-and worthy of the historic heritage of America's Space Shuttle experience. And how to launch these capable craft? I propose an intermediate booster, one that would come between the underpowered Ares 1 and the incapable Ares V. I call it the Ares III, and such a booster could be used in many different ways, both as a carrier for astronauts as well as cargoes and powerful upper stages. Such a booster would make maximum use of Shuttle-era components, including the existing launching facilities at the Kennedy Space Center. All of these ideas are part of what I have been calling my Unified Space Vision. That's my comprehensive plan for America's future in space. I'll be talking about different parts of my vision in future blogs.

But, for now, think of spacecraft worthy of following our Shuttles. We don't need any stinkin' capsules!

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