September 8, 2004

"These were the first, tentative space vehicles"

If you are interested in space, a new article by Rand Simberg is a must-read...

As Tom Wolfe chronicled in The Right Stuff, while Lyndon Johnson was declaring that our nation wouldn’t go to bed by the light of a communist Moon, and while the German refugees from Hitler’s rocket program were in Alabama developing the vehicles that would eventually take us to the Moon, there were rocket planes flying in the Mojave Desert, released from B-52 bombers. They sundered the skies, probing the upper reaches of the atmosphere and even temporarily leaving it. These were the first, tentative space vehicles, and had they not been interrupted by the urgency of beating the Soviets to the Moon, their successors might have continued. They might have flown higher, and faster, and faster yet, until at last they flew fast enough to defy the gravity of the Earth and reach orbit.

That might have been another road to space, a path not taken—one that might have provided a more incremental, affordable, and reliable approach, instead of one in which we put small capsules on unreliable and expensive munitions, and hoped for the best....

Here's a little more from the essay:

....Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, as an employee of a major government aerospace contractor, I participated in and managed several studies relating to future launch systems. These so-called “space transportation architecture” studies evaluated and compared alternative conceptual launch systems.....

....As we looked at all the combinations of architectures and models, we discovered something interesting. While some vehicle design concepts were clearly better than others, they were all extremely expensive per-flight for the low-activity scenarios, and they were all much less expensive for the high-activity scenarios. Using the space shuttle as a reference, we developed a notional architecture that had sufficient facilities and vehicles for a hundred shuttle flights per year. (That sounds ridiculous today, since there have never been more than nine shuttle flights in a single year, but in fact the shuttle was originally intended to fly once a week.) Surprisingly, the per-flight costs that we estimated were much lower than the actual shuttle costs at the time. The same was true of other launch concepts we studied. The cost per-flight or cost per-pound varied dramatically—in some cases by a factor of ten....

The subject of space seems to accumulate more myths than any other. I've long suspected that many people are unconsciously frightened by the utterly limitless vastness that confronts us. And so we cling to concepts that assume that space travel will always be rare, expensive, and under the control of cautious bureaucracies...

Posted by John Weidner at September 8, 2004 9:03 AM
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