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CHAPTER 32: THE FUTURE OF SPACE PROGRAMS

John F. Graham, 1995
Photos courtesy NASA

The future has always been humanity's biggest question. What will happen tomorrow ? Will I have enough food to eat? Will I be able to provide for my children? Will my children be able to provide for me when I'm no longer able to work? These are the questions which concern the majority of humans at this point in history. It is with this backdrop that humanity is also starting to explore space.

Humans naturally want to explore. From the time the first man and woman left their cave to go over the hill on the other side of the valley just to see what was there, people have had a desire to explore the unknown. How will history judge the latter half of the twentieth century as far as explorations are concerned? The verdict will probably be something like this: "Nice start, but why did you give up so easily?" It's been over 26 years since Armstrong and Aldrin first walked on the Moon. The Cold War is over; the United States has won. Is now the time to crawl into our shells or to stick our heads into the sand and pretend the rest of the world doesn't exist? No. We must continue to explore, because exploration has lifted humanity from its morass and into the present state of history. If we quit exploring then we will sink back into that morass and history will be questioning why at this particular time did a country so full of promise turn inward and give up on itself.

In the 1200s great ships were sent from China on explorations of the seas around China. There is evidence that the Chinese explorers got as far as India on their great ships and there is further evidence that some Chinese from this period may have discovered North America. After the discovery of India by the sea routes the Chinese inexplicably quit their exploration and returned to China where the emperor had all of the great ships destroyed and allowed no further exploration. In a curious turn of events, the Europeans led by Portugal discovered a sea route to the Orient. The Europeans found the Chinese very backward and very aloof about their cultural superiority. They were ripe for conquest by a power that was interested in exploring. What a turn of events may have occurred in history if the highly adventurous Chinese had "discovered" Middle Ages Europe and gone on to populate and discover the new world? If we continue to turn inward by disregarding the study of science and the exploration of space by gutting all of the space programs because they don't fit into some bureaucrat's version of how the world works, then the United States will become the twenty-first century version of China.

WHO WILL LEAD THE WORLD INTO SPACE?

If the United States does not lead the world into space because of the great retreat from science and exploration by our people and our leaders; then who will do it? A bigger question to pose at this point in history is will the whole planet become as China was in the 13th century? Two countries stand out in their urge to explore space. Both of these nations feel their destiny is with the stars. The Russians and the Japanese are destined to lead the world into space.

The Russian Republic has gone through an unbelievably serious change of government and a way of life in the past five years. Yet through the strife and hardship one factor has remained constant, the Russian Space Program. The Mir has been operational since February 20, 1986 and has constantly been occupied by Soviet/Russian Cosmonauts. Even though some of the results from this occupation of space has been mocked by some Western Scientists as "not real science" the fact remains that the Russians continued in space through conditions which would have caused many countries to disregard such "fluff" as space exploration and accomplish bureaucratic activities. Now the Russians have signed on as partners with the U.S. as the U.S. space program is starting to unravel as drooling government officials hope to solve an entire country's budget mess by taking away $14 billion per year.

What will happen if the U.S. opts out of the space station? The Russians will continue their explorations with the Mir and may even put up a second Mir. They will ask the other partners to join them such as the Japanese and possibly the French and German part of ESA. The U.S. will be left to continue whatever world-shaking activities they are accomplishing at the time.

The Japanese have always felt that their destiny is with the stars. They have very methodically approached their space program as they have the rest of high technology with great industry and the use of other country's breakthroughs. Even though Japan is under extreme stress from their economic problems they will emerge from this as a stronger country ready to continue with space exploration. Their new launch vehicle is a prime example of Japanese high technology and efforts. Their constant moving to improve old ideas such as the U.S. Liquid Air Cooled Engine (LACE) from the early 1960s has demonstrated that they will lead the world into the next technology revolution and into further space exploration.

THE CHEAP AND ACCESSIBLE LAUNCHER BARRIER

The most important problem which must be solved before there is any full scale exploration of space by either humans or robots is to find a way to cheaply get from Earth into space. The spacecraft of the last 40 years have been based upon the ICBMs for lifting atomic weapons ballistically off the Earth's surface to come crashing down on an enemy and destroying not only his people and industry, but his way of life possibly forever. These craft have been improved and modified to the point where they are about as efficient as they can ever be. Designers can keep improving engines and either incrementally increasing the amount of payload which may be launched or incrementally decreasing the cost per pound to put a payload into orbit, but with these large, liquid bemoths there will be no substantial breakthrough in propulsion technology, particularly in cost.

The current price for launching in the U.S. from one of the three launchers, the Delta, Atlas, or Titan is still in the $3000 - $6000 per pound range while the space shuttle price is still in the $10,000 - $12,000 range. The National Launch System, which was to reduce this price substantially, was canceled because of cost problems and lack of desire to improve the U.S. launch capabilities. The Russians are trying to market the Proton rocket at a cheap price as are the Chinese with their Long March series of spacecraft. The Chinese have had three unfortunate catastrophic launch failures recently, the last one killed six people near Xi Chang. The Europeans have been successful with their Ariane vehicles, but they are about to embark on the use of the Ariane 5 vehicle with not many payloads in store for such a heavy launch vehicle. In the small vehicle class, the most successful rocket has been Pegasus. This craft is launched from beneath an L-1011 at about 40,000 feet and proceeds into LEO. Pegasus can launch a 450 kg payload up to an orbit of about 250 miles. The price per pound of Pegasus is still in the $800 - $1000 per pound range, but in order to pay for itself a spacecraft must be able to launch a payload in at least the $50 - $100 per pound price range.

The current hope for the future lies in the use of totally reusable spacecraft; this is best done by using a single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) vehicle. At this time the various agencies are testing various models of SSTOs including the DC-X, the X-33, and the X-34. The DC-X has flown six times as of this date launching vertically up to altitudes of about 6000 feet and maneuvering 300 feet horizontally and then landing vertically. Astronaut Pete Conrad has been a key figure working for McDonnell Douglas to get this technology into space by small steps. The other semi-legendary individual working on this launch vehicle was USAF Colonel Pete Worden who was promptly sent to the Pentagon and up to Space Command after his successes with the DC-X model. Hopefully, this technology will show some promise and be able to reduce the per-pound cost of launching a payload. Once this cost is reduced to the $50 -$100 per pound range then space will open and real exploration can begin.