High Technology Vs. Space Travel
Honolulu HI (SPX) Sep 07, 2004
One of the many false ideas people have about space travel is that it is leading the human race ahead boldly into the future, hand-in-hand with high technology. This is another one of those old chestnuts from the 1950s that simply isn't true anymore, but still lingers in peoples' minds and makes it difficult for them to think clearly about space.
One version of this delusion is that our current space vehicles are on the cutting edge of technology, and that flying them somehow strengthens our technological base and produces spin-offs that benefit other industries.
This notion is frequently cited by supporters of the new "Vision for Space Exploration" now being debated in Washington. The common use of the term "rocket science" to describe anything extremely complicated and difficult is both a product and a cause of this belief.
To see how wrong this idea is, just consider Israel, India, and China. All three nations have launched domestically designed earth satellites on domestically designed space boosters. During the same period, all three nations tried to produce a domestic jet fighter aircraft design and all three failed dismally.
In fact, at the time each of these three nations launched their first spacecraft, you couldn't have bought a decent personal automobile designed and built in that country.
This little example shows us an important fact that most Space Cadets completely ignore: rockets just aren't rocket science anymore. And no one is seriously proposing to use any new "rocket science" in outer space, at least as part of the American national program.
NASA's Vision for Space Exploration is based on the same kind of throwaway boosters and ballistic landing capsules we used the first time we went to the Moon. How will recycling this same 40-year-old technology possibly strengthen US industry or inspire kids to take tough engineering programs in college?
A second common delusion is that there are big technical advances on the horizon that will soon make spaceflight easier. This is an amazingly resilient myth. Even after a long series of high-tech spaceship programs like Shuttle, X-30, DC-X, HOTOL, and X-33 that all failed to make space travel cheap and safe, a lot of people who should no better are still hoping for that elusive airliner to orbit. You can still see these unworkable ideas recycled at Space Cadet web sites and on the covers of trashy "popular technology" magazines.
The reasons these elusive high technologies never seem to actually arrive fall into two categories. In many areas, we are up against fundamental limitations that no amount of research would overcome. A good example of this is chemical rocket propellants. We are already using the best practical combinations, kerosene/LO2 and LH2/LO2. Every few years some young tech-heads will rediscover some exotic oxidizer like fluorine or exotic fuel like boron and proclaim it the key to the Solar System.
After issuing a lot of press releases, they finally get around to doing a literature search which reveals that all these sinister brews were rigorously tested back before 1965 and found to have severe problems of cost, corrosion, explosion, or toxicity that were considered prohibitive -- even in an era when nuclear bombs were set off in the open air.
In other areas, progress is still possible, but never occurs because no one is funding serious R&D on space travel. By "serious" I mean something on the order of the $25B/yr spent by the military services of the US and UK on rocket research during the 1950s. This funding spigot dried up when the generals found that liquid fuels were unsuitable for military applications, and NASA has never picked up the slack.
An example of an area where possibilities are not completely exhausted is in the area of strong/light/refractory structural materials. If we had something stronger than steel, lighter than magnesium, and refractory enough to survive re-entry, it might actually be possible to build that elusive SSTO vehicle with airliner-like economics.
The X-30/NASP program looked into such materials and identified some promising candidates. But the necessary research was so expensive that the NASP program office couldn't afford to fund it. Most projects since then have relied on good old aluminum or carbon-composites – and wildly optimistic weight estimates.
In fact, history seems to show that high technology is actually the worst enemy of space travel. Technical advances are constantly making existing or planned space projects obsolete. A good historical example is the role of a manned space station. The tasks assigned to von Braun's 1952 rotating Space Station (strategic recon, sea surveillance, weather prediction, Space Telescope, communication) are essentially identical to the main tasks actually done in space 50 years later. The difference is that UNMANNED spacecraft have taken on these functions.
Today, nobody even considers manned spysats, landsats, weathersats, comsats etc. because these tasks are being done far more effectively by unmanned systems than they could be done by teams of astronauts in the Space Wheel, or any manned system we could build. This is one of the most important differences between the Von Braun Plan and what really happened.
The reason Von Braun & Co. didn't realize this would happen is that the technological base for the unmanned option didn't exist in 1952, and hardly anyone was predicting it. In 1952, imaging required photographic film/plates or MkI eyeballs, and sending radio messages required vacuum-tube electronics that constantly broke down, and required on-site repair crews.
Even Arthur C. Clarke admits that he didn't envision unmanned comsats until they actually appeared. The comsats described in Clarke's novels and nonfiction books were always huge structure with big support staffs, orbital versions of the SAGE air defense computer centers then being constructed all over North America.
Clarke's failure to predict the microelectronic revolution seems strange for a man who was one of the true visionaries of the time. As late as 1976 he predicted that his manned antenna farms would eventually replace unmanned comsats.
I believe that this curious blind spot was due to Clarke's early exposure to unreliable tube-based radar sets during WWII (described in his obscure non-SF novel Glide Path).
The next battle in this war of Technology vs. Space may see the victory of new terrestrial systems over unmanned comsats. The notorious Iridium project was planned at a time when cellphones were the size of lunchboxes and only worked in a few big cities.
By the time the first Iridium satellites were in orbit, cellphones looked like Captain Kirk's communicator and their base stations were spreading across the earth like a plague. Nobody but forest rangers needed Iridium's huge $3000 Omaha Beach-style walkie-talkie and they soon found that it wouldn't work through leaves.
The collapse of the LEO comsat market was a black day for the whole space industry. The bursting bubble swept away the incipient private RLV industry that had painfully grown to infancy during the 1990s.
Even the GEO comsat market is flat or declining because of the proliferation of optical fibers and coax. Technological development in terrestrial systems is making comsats less necessary. There are no comparable technical advances being made in the design of comsats or the means of launching them.
At another level, the increasing technical sophistication of unmanned spacecraft is helping them take over another traditional function of manned vehicles: feeding the public's sense of wonder.
The stuff done on Shuttle missions and now Station is mostly boring. Go to any manned mission website and there is a complete absence of cool stuff, and let's face it, new stuff. The manned program has been going around in circles for 30 years now. Skylab/Salyut/Mir/ISS is one big bore. Only obsessive students of space trivia can even tell apart the photographs taken inside these stations.
And through the window of these space stations, there is nothing to photograph but the same old Earth scenes endlessly repeating themselves. There is just no chance for modern astronauts to produce anything like the classic lunar photography that filled up National Geographic during Apollo. If you want to see wonderful, challenging, and inspirational images, you have to go to the web site of unmanned missions like Hubble, Cassini, and MER.
Many people take the position that the public is mostly interested in the manned program, and the unmanned program just tags along with the ride. This was true in the 1960s, when the astronauts were doing something new on every mission and the unmanned probes were sending back mostly electron densities and similar dull science data. The only planetary pictures sent back before 1971 were a few grainy B&W images of Mars, which made it look like the Moon out of focus. The public didn't get excited about unmanned probes until Mariner 9 and Voyager.
Similarly, astronomy spacecraft back then mostly didn't have imaging detectors (and images were processed by feeding huge stacks of punchcards into hoppers at your local mainframe). Now we all have more image processing power on our desktops than all of JPL did in 1969, and our private webcam is better than anything on a Mariner.
This is the real reason Hubble and the other Great Observatories produce such great images. We could have made Hubble's mirror in 1952 but the images would have been shot on glass plates with a fraction of the quantum efficiency you can buy at the drugstore for $150 today. The digital imaging revolution is what made Hubble a viable project, not any specifically space-related technology.
Today's unmanned space missions are far better at arousing public interest in space than any affordable manned mission could. Just look at the massive public outrage that greeted NASA's decision to scrap Hubble without any replacement mission. It is unlikely that a similar decision to scrap Shuttle and/or Station would have produced any bigger reaction than this one.
So no matter how you look at it, technological progress is an enemy of near-term space activity, not its ally. As time passes, we see a steady decline in the number of useful tasks that can be done more efficiently from space than from the ground. I can't ignore the feeling that we Space Cadets may have already missed our best chance to get a sustained manned space program into place.
Jeffrey F. Bell is a retired space scientist and recovering pro-space activist.
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Why Fear Won't Sell Space
Honolulu (SPX) Aug 20, 2004
Jim Oberg has written an excellent article that clears away a lot of mythology about the Golden Age of American manned spaceflight in the 1960s. He cuts right to the heart of the Apollo program.. Fear!