The US military considers control of outer space vital to future warfare. Spaceprojects.com noted that page 18 of this Commerce Department report (pdf) documents how the USA slipped to just 29% of the world’s launch market share in the year 2000, even though we had 48% of it in 1996, and apparently all of it the decade before. How did this happen if NASA has a larger space budget than all other civilian space agencies combined, as well as its Congressional mandate to: "seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space"? How did some countries evolve from non-players in space two decades ago into dominant commercial players today?
Much of the blame falls upon the Space Shuttle program. As we "celebrate" the 25th anniversary of the shuttle disaster (no, not the Challenger explosion, but the whole program) let us review reality. The shuttle is far more expensive than expendable rockets used for the Apollo program during the 1960s. The orbiter and solid rocket boosters are recovered for reuse, but an army of engineers must inspect and rebuild them for the next mission. As a result, plans for 100 shuttle missions a year have fallen to around four, costing $550 million each and employing 30,000 people. The shuttle was a good effort in the 1970s which developed some new technology, but that phase ended. Unfortunately, NASA invented the "Space Station" as an excuse to keep the shuttle program funded forever.
While the shuttle eats up $4 billion a year in NASA funding, only $1 billion was devoted to the shuttle replacement, the X-33, before senior NASA officials admitted the concept was unworkable. Experts told NASA that the X-33 just needed a rocket sled or pneumatic ground assisted launch, but NASA ignored them. Congress then gave NASA $4.8 billion over several years to develop a replacement for the shuttle. However, this Space Launch Initiative (SLI) became a game to keep the shuttle jobs program going, and only produced some complex artistic drawings devoid of any details like mass or engine type. At a World Space Congress panel on space operations last month, veteran shuttle flight director Wayne Hale discounted SLI concepts as ungrounded in reality. On October 22nd, NASA postponed the next phase of SLI .
SLI is in limbo because the focus became minute improvements in rocketry to produce the RS-83 to replace the shuttle's main engines, and the RS-84 as expensive fly-back boosters to replace the shuttle's solid rocket boosters. Now NASA is breaking the bad news to America with a message like: We tried really hard, but couldn't find a better method. Luckily, we did discover ways to improve the current Space Shuttle, so we can upgrade that system and extend it for another twenty years. The United Space Alliance (USA) is pleased. This patriotic sounding group is a cover for the two aerospace giants (Boeing and Lockheed-Martin) who share one billion dollars a year in funding to "manage" the shuttle program. They now want billions more for Space Shuttle II to upgrade everything and replace the two solid rocket boosters with RS-84 liquid fly-backs. However, the shuttle has a payload of only ~50,000 lbs. So if you use two flyback boosters, you add two sets of landing gear, two sets of stub wings, and two jet engines per booster, plus more fuel to launch this extra deadweight, and the shuttle payload goes to zero. This proposal does not bring back the expensive fuel tank either, leaving one unsure if USA is incompetent or mismanaged.
The highly successful Apollo program ended after several trips to the moon, yet the unsuccessful shuttle program continues pointless "missions" which normally involve a public relations gimmick. A school teacher was sent, old former senator John Glenn, and the last mission was notable for a "shuttlecam" providing a lift off view, as well the third soybean experiment. Even the Simpson's cartoon series made fun of NASA by selecting Homer for a "regular guy" mission, along with an ant experiment which goes awry. The Russians are not paying for their share for the Space Station, and have resorted to selling trips to billionaires, celebrities, and are now negotiating to host TV game shows in space. NASA has given up on pretending that shuttle missions involve science and now proclaim they are important for international relations.
As the shuttle orbiters age, maintenance becomes even more expensive, and many experts believe its just a matter of time before another shuttle blows up due to its complex vertical launch method. Americans in their 30s watched shuttle launches as young children. Now NASA wants to keep the program going so they can one day watch shuttle launches from their retirement home. Then they wonder why there is no enthusiasm for space programs in the nation or Congress. If the shuttle hangs on for another 80 missions, does anyone expect anything to come from them? Perhaps NASA should build a "Sea Station" 1000 feet below the sea and use submarines to take foreigners and other salaried government tourists on "missions" to conduct "experiments" and set "endurance records" while "improving international relations". This idea may seem crazy, but it would be much cheaper than the shuttle program and accomplish just as much.
The Apollo program ended when America realized that expensive adventures to collect moon rocks was pointless. Can anyone name a spectacular scientific discovery from shuttle missions? It has become a jobs program and a public relations campaign to hide a lack of progress. In contrast, just $1 billion in seed money helped Boeing build the Delta IV and Lockheed-Martin the Atlas 5, the first new expendable rocket systems in over 20 years. Imagine what could happen if the $4 billion a year and 30,000 shuttle experts were diverted to R&D? Imagine the panic at NASA after cancellation of the shuttle program shatters their comfortable academic climate and everyone realizes that a superior method must be developed fast, lest Congress deems them inept and cuts funding.
Innovative ideas like maglev launch, nuclear engines, anti-matter, and the space elevator require major funding. Some top level physicists now agree that anti-gravity devices like the 512kV rotator can reduce the effects of gravity by spinning electrons, but they can't secure funding for research. Plans for pneumatic assisted launch have been around for years, but never funded. A large rail launch demonstrator requires a billion dollars, or funds for just two shuttle missions. NASA may soon cancel the promising VASIMR plasma engine research project citing a lack of funds. Unfortunately, little technological progress is expected unless NASA management and shuttle funding is diverted from the continual burden of getting yet another shuttle safely off the ground.
The US Air Force has become so frustrated by NASA's focus on the shuttle that it wants to build its own manned spacecraft. Until a major technological breakthrough allows a new form of space launch, all we have today is chemical rocket power that can provide just a few percent payload by weight compared to their overall size. A massive rocket-powered horizontal launched spaceplane may work, but it would cost billions to build, must be several times larger than a 747, and may cost so much to launch and maintain that it erases the savings of being reusable, just like the shuttle. If you add wings, landing gear and engines to bring any spacecraft or fly-back booster back to Earth for reuse, that extra weight eliminates the payload. You can't just make a bigger spacecraft because that requires bigger wings, landing gear and engines. So the only way a reusable rocket powered spacecraft can work is with a ground assist launch to Mach 1-2 up a mountainside. This is possible today, as the Sky Ramp Technology website explains. However, funding for Sky Ramps and new technologies will remain tight so long as the shuttle program consumes the attention and funding at NASA.
Carlton Meyer editorG2mil@Gmail.com
G2mil editorials may be freely distributed without permission
November 2002 Articles
have been returned to the Members Library
Letters - comments from G2mil readers
Veterans Day just for Vets - limit this holiday
Where are the Amphibians? - not in the US Army
2005 Base Closure Recommendations - Air Force bases added
Six Marine Corps Divisions - 10,000-man divisions
Better to Think Before We Fight - is Iraq just the first step?
FY2003 Defense Budget - signed October 23rd
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