Sharp Blue: A choice of futures


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Today’s loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia may well be seen as the most significant event in the history of manned space exploration. It’s certainly not the first time people have been killed on space missions - there have been three fatal accidents during missions and the crew of Apollo 1 died in a fire during a launch simulation - but it comes at a time when it will throw the future of the space programme into doubt. The STS Orbiters are very old vehicles, and they will almost certainly be grounded for as long as two years. There’s even a possibility that they will never fly again. Without the Shuttles and with the impending shortage of Soyuz vehicles, it will prove very difficult to maintain a presence at the International Space Station, let alone to finish its construction. It may well turn out that the current crew will be the last.

If the Shuttles are grounded permanently, then not just the Station, but the future of American manned spaceflight itself will be in doubt. There’s no replacement for the STS on the horizon and will probably be no such vehicle until at least 2010. Given the large number of cancelled programmes that NASA has left in its wake in the 1990s, even that timescale may prove unrealistic. If so, then US expertise in manned spaceflight which has been so expensively gained over the last decades will begin to decay. People will move to other jobs or retire, taking valuable know-how with them. When this knowledge is gone, I doubt it will ever be regained, because the complex tangle of circumstances that surrounded the inception of the current programme is unlikely to be repeated. If we lose our bridgehead in space, then perhaps we will never go back. There will be no asteroid mines, so colonies on Mars, no industrialisation of space, no looking outward to the stars, no unbounded future.

So what is to be done? The choices to be made will be hard:

  • To resume flights with the Shuttle entails a considerable risk, especially if the loss of Columbia turns out to have been caused by fatigue to the airframe. The US would also have to build another Orbiter to avoid extreme slippage of its current schedule. This in turn would entail making a renewed commitment to the STS and will push a replacement once again over the horizon. But it will, perhaps, salvage the Station.
  • Winding down the Shuttle programme in favour of a replacement vehicle may well mean discarding the investment in the Station, has no certainty of success, and will delay the manned space programme by at least a decade.
  • Perhaps we could develop a new Apollo/Soyuz-vehicle in much less time and use that as a stopgap until either refitted Shuttles or next-generation launch vehicles become available. This could be done moderately cheaply, but would be a substantial step backwards; and the interim vehicle might end up being favoured over either the Shuttle or another high-tech solution, because it would let the United States continue putting astronauts into space and would be cheaper (and perhaps safer).
  • Making a radical change in direction, perhaps to go to Mars. The Mars Direct architecture and its derivatives make no use of the Shuttle or Station, so going with this option could be seen as making the best of the hand fate has dealt us. And Mars is, after all, where most of the astronauts are shooting for in the long term. On the other hand, this means losing easy access to low Earth orbit and writing off the Station and all that has been learned from the Shuttle.
  • Winding down manned spaceflight entirely and hoping we never need or want it again.

None of the options look particularly inviting, but I for one hope that the Administration don’t choose the last.

Not entirely sure why you say:

"Winding down the Shuttle programme in favour of a replacement vehicle may well mean discarding the investment in the Station, has no certainty of success, and will delay the manned space programme by at least a decade."

In my mind, this is the most likely future; I doubt that NASA will want to build a replacement Shuttle (which is what would be required unless they started serious work on a nextgen vehicle) - it was all very well doing this 17 years ago when the Shuttle was a new piece of technology, but considering that NASA has been thinking and developing nextgen vehicles for a while now (albeit with little success) I feel they will choose to accelerate development of a new reusable vehicle.

In the meantime, NASA will continue to use the Shuttle. I don't think that the fleet will be out of action for the two years that we see after Challenger; it's been suggested that since this disaster happened not because of serious engineering flaws but probably because of the dangerous nature of reentry, there just isn't much to be done here. But maybe not. In any case, the other Shuttles can still fly often enough to keep the ISS flying for a few years yet.

So, my best guess is that the fleet will start flying again in a year or 18 months, and the ISS will not be abandoned. Service missions will continue. NASA may choose to dig up old plans for RLVs; the X33 and the DC-X are both candidates. I suspect that ESA will also be giving thought to the reusable craft they were going to stick on top of Ariane 5 (although it's not as if Ariane 5 is without problems).

More interesting is what China will do now; will it continue on its current steady path, or will it choose to capitalise on this development and accelerate its programme? (It's not going to slow down, that's for sure). The next human in space will be Chinese - and the next space station may also be Chinese.

I don't think we'll see Shuttles fly again unless they've had a substantial array of changes and improvements, just as a large number of upgrades were incorporated into Endeavour and retrofitted to the other three Orbiters. Nobody will want to say "Oh, it was just bad luck" and start launching again - NASA will want to be seen to be doing everything it can to make the STS safer than ever. Having said that, I think that the exteme age of Discovery and Atlantis would make it very hard to be sure that we won't lose another before any nextgen vehicles arrive; and will NASA be prepared to lose another crew before 2010?

A resurrection of the Hermes/Ariane spacecraft would be included in my Apollo/Soyuz-class option. I find it hard to imagine that Hermes could be as cheap or safe to fly as Soyuz, and it would be complex, expensive and time-consuming to develop.

As for China, I think that the Chinese economy isn't big enough to support a space programme that would rival NASA or even what Europe could manage. If I recall correctly, the Chinese economy is currently about as large as that of California and is expected to rival Italy in two or three decades. I think that for the next ten to twenty years we'll see Chinese Soyuz and Salyut equivalents rather than a Chinese Shuttle or Apollo analogue.

Regarding China: their economy is certainly growing in leaps and bounds. Estimates as to their growth are between 7 and 10% and if you're comparing on the basis of GDP, theirs is currently estimated to be the world's second largest at $5.56 trillion, with the US at $10.082 trilion and Japan at $3.45 trillion.

For comparison, Italy's GDP is $1.402 trillion.

From CIA World Factbook 2002.

That's not what the Economist's The World in 2003 reports.It projects that the GDP of China in 2003 will be $1.388 trillion, compared with $1.422 billion for Italy, $1.771 trillion for the UK, $3.942 trillion for Japan and $10.885 trillion for the USA. A bit of googling reveals numerous sources that put the Chinese GDP around $1 trillion, including the Chinese embassies in various countries. (I can't dig up the origin of the figures in my previous comment, which I thought were from Legrain's Open World.)

The major problem with the current American space program (In my opinion) is that the current world climate isn't as favorable as it used to be in terms of the countries willingness to invest "astronimical" amounts of capital into space programs.

With all the terrorist attacks and the threat it posses to the American home land, any special budget to build a new orbiter seems quite unlikely. Funds have been diverted to homeland security and the military. This is the reason why I think Nasa is so vague when it comes to building replacement vehicles.

If Nasa gets a "no go" for future shuttle flights, my current theories are:

- A small chance that Europe will try to expand its commitement (hence it's access) to the space station and build a heavy lifter. - The U.S. will use it current fleet of expendable rockets to lift remaining modules and truster packs to reorbit the station (dunno if the harware is capable, but I do know that Nasa is a very creative agency) - Because of the relatively low orbit of the space station, the structure itself is submited to small amounts of atmospheric drag that continously decay the stations orbit (that was one of the shuttle's tasks, to reorbit the station using the it'S trusters. Without any more commitments that Russian capsules, the station will burn up in the atmosphere.

(Sorry for the spelling, english isn't my primary language).

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