Why we need a Space Shuttle or something very much like it

But then, when Columbia lifted off on about January 16th, I had a new appreciation of the Shuttle and its mission after something of an epiphany: the shuttle is actually taking off semi-regularly, doing what it was designed to do: build a space station. This article will not attempt to explore the case of manned space flight versus non manned space flight; that's just a stupid debate spurned by angry academics who wished they had NASA's budget. It will attempt to show what the shuttle has done, what it is doing right, what it is doing wrong and what it should do. From this, I hope you will see how important it is.

When the Shuttle was pitched in the mid 1970s, the plan was to use it to build, man and resupply a permanent, wheel shaped Space Station. Not having the money to fund both the Shuttle and the Space station at the same time, NASA instead decided to build the Shuttle over 10 years, and modify some upper stage Saturn V rockets to form the first American Space Station: Skylab. But in abandoning the original idea of a Station and a servicing Shuttle, NASA effectively took the Shuttle's primary mission away. Its new mission would be to risk American lives to put telecommunications satellites in orbit once a week. It wasn't until Reagan's Space Station Freedom became the International Space Station Alpha that the Shuttle's mission truly returned. It occurred to me that 22 years after the first shuttle was built, the first day of nearly every other month for 2003 would see a Shuttle launch to the ISS to bring a piece, and by the end of the year, complete the Space Station. While I wasn't enamored with the Shuttle, I realized that it was doing at last what it was designed to do. I felt a ground breaking year in human space development would commence, as soon as Columbia would get back from another one of NASA's silly "micro gravity mission"...

The Shuttle was original a product of late 1970s/early 1980s technology. Six were built: Enterprise, the prototype that proved the aerodynamic capabilities, but never made an orbital flight because it was deemed too expensive to upgrade to a full service shuttle; the Columbia, the first real shuttle of the fleet and its flag ship, designed heavier than the other shuttles to lift heavier cargo; the Atlantis and Discovery were to help on scientific missions; the Challenger, the workhorse of the fleet made 10 flights in three and a half years; and the Endeavor, which was built to replace Challenger, which made 19 flights in 10 years. This great fleet was very much the pinnacle of human engineering. They were designed to lift off every week, make 60 flights a year and offset the program's cost by ferrying satellites into orbit instead of traditional disposable rocket boosters. Moreover, the Shuttle would be the template to all future manned missions in space, the logic being the day of the completely disposable transportation system is over. The shuttle piggybacked by two completely disposable rocket boosters and a fuel tank today, just as it was in 1981 (although the materials the fuel tank is made of has changed since to be cheaper which is why it is rest-red and not white). Originally, NASA planned to fly it that way for the first five years or so, then replace it with rocket boosters that fly back to base and a disposable fuel tank. Eventually according to NASA's, the Shuttle would be replaced with a completely reusable successor shuttle that would make its first flight in about 1994 or 1995. While the time table vanished, and NASA still plans to this day the rocket boosters that return, the Shuttle has succeeded in its primary mission: to demonstrate that manned space flight via a reusable launch system is possible, and indeed has significant advantages over disposable, Apollo era launch systems. Space flight eventually will be purely in the completely reusable form: the Shuttle was just the first generation trailblazer.

The other thing the Shuttle was designed to do was to bring cargo into space via its large cargo bay. This cargo bay was very flexible. On some missions, it would carry a Satellite and a robotic arm. On other missions it's robotic arm would pull in a Satellite some crews could repair them. On purely scientific missions, a pressurized research lab could be placed inside, giving the shuttle expanded capabilities. The cargo bay was very much the core of the mission of the shuttle: so that living, thinking human beings can take large man made objects up into space with them and manipulate them. It would originally carry up segments of the to-be-made Space Station, according to the plan, and later when the Station was canceled, satellites. It remains to this day, an 18 wheeler with a rocket pack.

This is where NASA has been focusing the shuttle and what a lot of critics miss. The shuttle is doing exactly what it was designed to do. Since 1998, the Shuttle has been regularly lifting segments and parts to the International Space Station, creating what is currently the largest man-made object in space with the pressurized volume of a small house. By its completion in 2005, the ISS will be the second brightest and second largest object in the night sky, only after the moon. It will have the pressurized volume of a 747. Every night, a testament to human ingenuity and greatness will fly over head twice.

But the ISS also is the weakness of the NASA program. Even though I have had a change of heart about the shuttle and about the mission upon reflection, I feel today, as I have for the past few years that the shuttle and NASA as a whole need a direction. Many critics have said this, but I see a future, more ambitious NASA where a Space Shuttle, or at least something like it is integral to its plans.

A lot of people want to go to Mars. Could we go to Mars today if we wanted to? The answer is probably yes, we have the technical capability and scientific knowledge to send a rocket mission to Mars in a few years. Could we go to Mars and then make it from a technical standpoint so that, unlike the Moon, it merely not a two year infatuation? The answer is yes... depending on how you do it. The problem a lot of people have when thinking about going to Mars is how we get there. I will tell you right now, when we go to Mars it will not look like Apollo 11 blasting off the launch pad. Taking a rocket to Mars, while possible is the stupid way to do it, is a one time mission and is overly expensive for that one time mission. Also a rocket is very slow and too small for 5- 7 people for 6 months. Unless we will send only 3 people to Mars, there will be no manned Mars missions involving a rocket. Since we almost definitely will be sending 5-7 people, there is a very small chance of any rocket based Mars mission.

But then how do we get to Mars? The answer is via Nuclear power. Project Prometheus is a billion dollar NASA initiative to develop a nuclear energy reactor for use in space that will power an ion engine (a much more powerful version of the one used aboard the Deep Space 1 probe). These nuclear reactors, much like the ones used on Voyager 1 and 2 and Cassini, will use isotope decay to create energy: there will be no explosions of bombs in space. It will also produce something in the order of 120 kilowatts of energy per reactor, far more than any previous space borne nuclear reactor.

For a mission to Mars many experts who are serious about it see a reusable deep space exploration vehicle, designed and constructed in segments on Earth and assembled in Space. Powered by eight reactors and carrying one to use with the base on the planet, the craft could make the trip to Mars in about 4 months if Earth and Mars were closest at time of launch. This craft would enter Mars orbit and drop a house sized base into the planet that would slow down and land much like the Moon Lander. This base would then be powered by a Nuclear Reactor for a few months, before it blasting off, redocking with the orbiting space craft and heading on home. A craft like this is ideal because it could be used time and time again, just requiring matinence between missions and resupply. Having never the need to land on Earth, it could be built larger and more ambitiously than any Apollo 11 style rocket. It may cost more than a single Mars mission involving a rocket launch, but not more than two missions. For the cost of two Mars missions, a ship that could be used hundreds of times would be built.

Nuclear powered space ship

The key is building it. Let's say, hypothetically that around 2012, NASA, with their complete Space Station decide to go on their Mars mission in this manner. How do they build it? You cannot build a craft like this without the Space Shuttle (or something like it). Launching the pieces individually on disposable rockets may put them in orbit, but how would the segments even bee connected, or the wiring and life support systems between them? It takes Astronauts days to connect segments of the Space Station together. Doing it remotely or with robots would be far more difficult and risky than something that has already been done a few dozen times with a person. Having the shuttle take the segments into orbit and having people use the robotic arm to put the various segments in place and then connecting them and their wiring like we are on the ISS is the only way to do it.

How would you get people aboard the Mars space craft? You could go the capsule route, but it would just be a waste to drop it into the atmosphere after everyone boarded the Mars space craft and would be unnecessary to carry on the ways to Mars. The best way to do this is via a reusable space plane like the shuttle, but not the Shuttle. The shuttle is, again, a flying 18 wheeler. NASA needs something that is designed to carry just people, not cargo, to work WITH the Space Shuttle program, not replace it.

I may be making something of a drawn out case, but here is where I see NASA. After they complete the ISS, they should focus on going to Mars. To do that, they need a Nuclear powered Space Vessel that will be constructed in Space like the ISS and never land on any planet, ever. To build this vessel, they need the Shuttle to carry the pieces up and build it. Mars without the shuttle is impossible. Period.

This however requires significant restructuring of the Space Program's overarching missions. First of all, NASA needs to stop chasing its tail and start playing to each system's strengths.

1- They should build the crew segment to the ISS so some real science can be done on the $60 billion station with a crew of 7, instead of a crew of 3 fixing leaking pipes. This segment costs $1 billion dollars. Spending $1 billion to make $60 billion worth it is good money. The station would then be the primary means of space medical and physical exploration. All of NASA's experiments involving micro gravity, muscle loss and gravitational effects of time would be done on the ISS and NOT the shuttle.

2- They should build a "space Porsche". A vehicle designed to be put on top of an Atlas 4 launch vehicle to ferry people from Earth to the Space Station (or Mars Ship) and do nothing else than that. It would be highly maneuverable in space. It could also serve as an escape pod for the Space Station, much as the Soyuz does now. NASA built several prototypes, like the Crew Return Vehicle which made several drops from B-52s but was put on hold, and the X-40 Space Maneuver vehicle. Regardless, this system is imperative to NASA. It is crazy to use the Space Shuttle, a flying 18 wheeler, as a Taxi. This is projected to having a $5 billion price tag. The Orbital Space Plane program, which is what this essentially is, seeks to create 15 of these vehicles.


3- Keep the shuttles working with periodic upgrades but no major overhauls. The shuttle still has some 1970s computers on it. In fact, the most powerful computers on the entire ship were the off the shelf laptops that were bolted to a platform. Ripping out the guts of such a fundamentally dated machine wouldn't be worth it. NASA did the right thing by giving the fleet major upgrades over the last few years, but they shouldn't do more than periodic upgrades from this point on. Very fundamental pieces of the shuttle are simply based on old technology even though NASA has kept them in tip-top shape. $3 billion for safety upgrades is the right amount. They should not build a new Shuttle to replace Columbia unless they consider taking Enterprise out of the Smithsonian and giving it an upgrade to fly. The shuttle should stop doing micro gravity research missions and crew transfer and re supplying of the ISS and instead focus on what it is good at: carrying things into orbit, building things in Space, and unique science missions, such as the 3D mapping of earth which required a 90 foot boom with a camera be extended from the cargo bay (keep in mind the shuttle is only 120 feet long).

4- Start researching a Shuttle replacement or bring back the X-33 and Venture Star. This is a shame. NASA spent billions on the X-33. The Linear Aerospike engine was being tested and was a phenomenal technical success. The airframe was almost built. The only holdup was the two large internal fuel tanks made of an ultra light alloy that were having problems. Most of the X-33s delays were with these fuel tanks. After having so much done, to scrap it out of what seems like frustration is ludicrous. NASA dismissed it saying the project was "too ambitious" (direct quote). You know something is wrong when NASA uses those two words. It is time, after 10 years to stop procrastinating and come up with a Shuttle successor and see it to conclusion. I highly suggest they revive the X-33, but if they don't, they should go the completely reusable route, even if it is multistage. Do not build reusable thrusters for the Space Shuttle either. I also would suggest Congressional oversight of this project to make sure any NASA "protect the Shuttle" bureaucracy does not wreck this program. They should set concrete dates for this replacement and meet them. When it does debut, do not cease flying the Shuttle right away, but phase them out from oldest to youngest to maximize the capabilities of the fleet while new ones are being built. It should also be required of this ship to have an ISS docking port built into it's hull so that if there is any problems on lift off and it makes it to Space, the crew can fly to the ISS and ditch the ship. If I were NASA, I would seriously give thought to working with the Department of Defense on this. Working with the DOD will keep it from ravaging the budget.

X-33, VentureStar, Space Shuttle

Linear Aerospike engine

5- Build an Orbital Rescue Vehicle. While I consider this lower priority than the other proposals, I think it would be good of NASA to design a Space plane built for the express purposes of being able to dock with a Shuttle or Shuttle-like vehicle or the ISS, have its crew transfer aboard, detach and then return the earth. The vehicle should be very simple and light, essentially being a pressurized chamber on a glider with a docking port. It would be placed on top of an ATLAS 4 launch vehicle. During any mission to space involving rockets, it would be ready on another pad to lift off within a day, requiring little more than the need to be rolled out on the bad and the computer checked.

6- Build a Nuclear Propulsion System - NASA is doing this. Project Prometheus. 10 years, about $1 billion.

7- Tell the public when we are going to Mars, when and how. Hopefully it'll look a lot like what I've laid out here. They should describe why things are done before we go. They should explain why we need Nuclear powered ion engines instead of rockets to go. They should explain why we need to go back to the Moon first if we need to. Despite the fact we live in the age of sound bytes, whistleblower hunting (by the media) and five second attention spans, the American people arent as stupid or as gullible as the media loves to pretend. If NASA sits down and tells the people why it does things in a non-B.S. manner, they will listen to it.

NASA is undeniably, one of the most important agencies in the US Government. Manned space flight as a whole is the most important endeavor mankind can embark on. Think about it, it took roughly 3.9 Billion years of evolution for Homo sapiens to emerge. 120,000 years after evolving from Homo heidelbergensis, Homo sapiens created civilization. 6000 years later, we have put men on the moon, built a Space Station, and acknowledge it or not, made space travel, via the Space Shuttle, routine (although no less risky). People are impatient and afraid of the risks, but the road to every new frontier has been paved in sacrifice, be it in body or mind. We have only been exploring space for 45 years. Sure, stopping use of the Shuttles and going back to disposable space capsules may be cheaper, it may be safer, but it is not sustainable. In the coming centuries space travel will be done via completely reusable craft. The Shuttle is the trailblazer, the prototype, to that destiny, and just because it is hard, just because there has been catastrophic losses twice in 113 missions, does not mean we should delay developing this path just to make the short term easier. There will not be sustained space exploration and sustained manned missions to the moon, mars and beyond without the shuttle. The very future of Space exploration for the next one hundred years depends if we run away from a proven idea like the shuttle. The Space Station, Hubble, the 3D Mapping mission, construction of the mars craft, ferrying people to and from space quickly. Critics of the shuttle may like to focus on its failings - and there are some - but its successes are far more breathtaking, and what it is doing now and will be required to do in the next 15 years make the question of eliminating the shuttle a non-question. We can't, if we truly wish to be a Space faring nation.

It is time to NASA, after the Columbia investigation to tell America about their 20 year plan. It is time to set a "death date" for the shuttle and start working on a successor, but NASA can not, and I think will not, shy away from this latest challenge. The legacy of Columbia will be different from the legacy of Challenger. Challenger taught NASA what it was doing wrong on a technical and managerial level. Columbia's legacy I think will be pointing NASA in the direction to re-starting the spark it once had, making it realize it needs direction, and making the American people realize how wonderful a vehicle the Space Shuttle is again.