Space: What low expectations we have
If you have watched 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick, we see a PanAm "Orion" shuttle docking with an Earth-orbital space station which has a Hilton hotel, complete with a Howard Johnson's restaurant. That was the prediction of how 2001 would be like when the film was produced in 1968. Today, we have a partially-completed ISS space station, but no hotels or restaurants. The history-making SpaceShipOne has started the effort to develop space tourism. There are still no manned moon bases.
In the 1960's and early 1970's, the US embarked on the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions to beat the Soviets on the race to the moon. Apollo 17, the last manned mission to the Moon left a plaque on the ladder of the descent stage of Challenger, the lunar module, which said:
Here Man completed his first explorations of the moon. December 1972AD. May the spirit of peace in which we came be reflected in the lives of all mankind.
The last man to walk on the moon was Eugene A. Cernan, Apollo 17 Commander.
"As I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come - but we believe not too long into the future — I'd like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17."
Eugene A. Cernan was born March 14, 1934 and is the author of Last Man on the Moon book. If Bush's outlook holds true that the US will return back to the Moon in 2015, Eugene will be 81 years old.
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The US Space Shuttle programme was the next-generation spacecraft after the capsule series. It is launched vertically, can carry 5 to 7 astronauts and up to 50,000 lbs of payload into low earth orbit. It is the only winged manned spacecraft to achieve orbit and land. It was only designed for a projected lifespan of 100 launches or 10 years' operational life.
Six shuttles were built. Enterprise was the first prototype, but was never retrofitted for actual spaceflight. Columbia disintegrated during re-entry on February 1, 2003. Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986. Only Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour are still operational.
Its replacement was supposed to be the X-33. It was supposed to flight test a range of technologies such as SSTO (Single stage to Orbit), metallic thermal protection systems, composite cryogenic fuel tanks for liquid hydrogen, aerospike engine, unmanned flight control, rapid flight turn-around times, and lifting body aerodynamics. Unfortunately, the program was cancelled by NASA in 2001 where the construction of the prototype was some 85% complete. About $912 million was invested in this program by NASA and about $357 million by Lockheed Martin.
It was felt that at the time, this next-generation spacecraft was not viable.
Now, President George W. Bush has unveiled a new space vision for America. Yes, we will return back to the Moon by 2015. However, the current space shuttle programme is obsolete and should be replaced. The cornerstone of America's space effort will be phased out by 2010. Mr. Bush proposed to develop a new spacecraft to take Americans to the Moon, which would be used as a "stepping stone" for a manned mission to Mars and across the solar system.
Today, NASA announced that Lockheed Martin, the same company that help developed the ill-fated X-33, will enter into a multi-billion dollar contract to build a new generation of spaceships capable of carrying astronauts to the moon. It will be known as the Orion crew vehicle (pretty much like Apollo but with steroids).
Instead of thinking forward, it is looking backwards to the old Apollo program, and developing a new vehicle based on the 1960's model but with some "upgrades." The reason why the US has such low expectations is a quote by Lockheed Martin Vice President John Karas.
He said his company will succeed with Orion compared to its failure with X-33 because "we're not shooting as far... I'd say it (Orion) is within reach."
Quite a declaration of confidence, don't you think?
Shall we take a bet on whether:
1) Will Lockheed Martin develop and test an actual Orion spacecraft in the next 5-7 years?
2) Will it be able to launch a full production spacecraft by 2014? Will it meet Bush's goal of a manned mission by 2015? It was mentioned that a human landing may not occur until 2020.
3) How much in cost overruns? (X billion dollars?)
4) What are the chances that the next US President will mention about launching a spacecraft to the Moon by 2020, or 2025, or perhaps 2030? (Whoops, sorry America, got a technical glitch here, need to delay it for a few more years)
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Honestly, why don't we just surrender space? Let's just give it up because our government lacks the "real" inspiration to develop a productive spaceflight program.
How about we start asking the Chinese if we can lease some cargo space from their Shenzhou spacecraft? It just seems to me that we have lost our creativity and our will to create new and better spacecraft. The ISS space station should have been completed already. It could have been used as a launching point to deliver heavy cargo to High Earth Orbit or to the Moon. It seems that we need some crisis just to jumpstart our space program.
The Times (UK) got it wrong when it said America's dream of putting men on the Moon took a giant leap forward with Lockheed Martin.
Supposedly it will take 8 years for the first Orion launch. Another 6 years for a actual human landing on the Moon. By the time we get there, the Chinese or the Russians will have a docking platform ready for us.
The NASA contract is estimated to be worth $4 billion dollars. So far, it has not estimated what would be the overrun cost. I am just curious that it will take EIGHT YEARS to make it more efficient, more reliable, and more affordable. American productivity at its best!