Rand Simberg has a great, must read piece in TCS Daily looking back on 50 years of man in space beginning with the Soviet launch of Sputnik.
The psychic shock to America when we realized that the Soviets were “ahead” in missile technology (they weren’t) gave a tremendous impetus to not only our own efforts to get into space but also several innovative and important government programs that sought to create more scientists and engineers by encouraging schools at the primary and secondary level to place more emphasis on those subjects while pouring money into college and university research facilities to fund post-graduate work in a variety of fields.
The result? A veritable explosion of scientific creativity with a savvy, market oriented engineering expertise to turn discovery into commerce. The key was Eisenhower’s decision to take the space program away from the military and make it a civilian agency. Since the creation of NASA in 1959, the billions poured into the space program have translated into trillions in gross domestic product returns. So many of the technological and scientific wonders of our modern world can be traced to the basic research done with space dollars that it is impossible to quantify. Breakthroughs with direct applications to civilian use or that inspired multiple levels of creative exploitation beyond the original use of the technology have enriched our lives beyond measure. And we have the space program to thank for it.
But as Simberg points out, lost in this outpouring of commercial success was the utter and complete failure of the space program to follow a logical path to the stars, substituting what was known at the time as the MISS program – Man In Space Soonest:
In the mid-1950s, many science fiction writers, such as Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein, were predicting that men would walk on the moon. But none of them were so bold in their predictions as to claim that it would happen in the coming decade. It made no sense—there was a logical progression to such things. In 1958, we could barely toss a few pounds into orbit, and in the first year of launch attempts, three out of four had failed. The notion that we would be sending people into space, in a couple years, let alone all the way to the moon within a few more, seemed like too far out a prediction even for a visionary writer of fiction.
But what would have seemed even more fantastic was the notion that, having landed men on the moon in the late sixties, the last one would trod on the regolith a few years later, and there would be no return for half a century. That was beyond science fiction, into the realm of dystopian fantasy.
Yet, in part because of the Sputnik panic, that’s exactly what happened. In our rush to regain the technological lead over the Soviets, we took what tools we had at hand—ballistic missiles (expendable by their nature) and converted them to space transportation vehicles. Very expensive, very unreliable space transportation vehicles. It established the paradigm for how we would get into space with which we live to this day, as demonstrated by the fact that NASA is going “back to the future,” developing yet another expendable launch vehicle family to take us back to the moon.
Back in the 1950’s when Sputnik was unheard of, the US Air Force was experimenting with rocket planes. The X-Plane Program was envisioned as the primary means by which man would conquer space – taking off from a runway and powering into orbit using hyrbid engines that would be air breathers while still in the atmosphere and switch to rocket engines to boost the ship into orbit. Each vehicle in the X-series went higher, faster, and farther with the last two piloted vehicles exploring ways to maneuver an aircraft at the boundary of space. There was even a piloted aircraft in production – the X-20 – that would have gone into orbit eventually.
But the X-20 program was cancelled and NASA decided to go with its “down and dirty” option of adapting existing American ICBM’s by slapping another stage on them, placing a small capsule on top, and blasting it into orbit. Even the massive Saturn V rocket (37 stories tall, 7 million pounds of thrust) that boosted the Apollo moon missions off the ground was not much different in technology than the V-2 rockets that Werner Von Braun designed for Hitler back in the 40’s.
The problem then and now with relying on these rockets is that they are incredibly inefficient and expensive not to mention dangerous as hell. Consider that we launched a 37 story rocket toward the moon and what came back could fit in the living room of most American homes. We will never make space accessible to commercial exploitation or human habitation until we can lower the cost of putting people up there from thousands of dollars a pound to perhaps dozens of dollars per pound.
For in the end, this reliance on rockets has totally skewed the space program away from exploration and discovery and toward gimmicks and spectaculars. If we had followed the logical progression into space that the X-Plane series was promising back in the 1950’s, we wouldn’t have gotten to the moon by 1969 or perhaps even 1979. But you can bet we would have gotten there while establishing a permanent presence in space that would have led eventually to manned bases on the moon and perhaps even missions to Mars by the time we are supposed to get back to the moon under NASA’s current plan; 2018 if all goes well – something that hasn’t happened at NASA in a long, long time.
Simberg concludes wistfully:
But if we had taken a more measured, systematic, natural approach to the development of space, unhurried by the Sputnik panic, while there are no guarantees, we might today have the spinning orbital space stations of the movie 2001, affordable transportation in cis-lunar space, the bases on the moon that NASA currently plans for the third decade of this century, perhaps even trips to, and bases on Mars.
We will never know, of course—history doesn’t allow do overs. Or at least, not in any exact form. But it’s not too late to decide whether our current approach is as flawed now as it was then, at least with regard to opening the high frontier. On the fiftieth anniversary of the dawn of the old space age, it’s perhaps time to think about ushering in a new one.
There is hope. Dozens of private space company start-ups are finally starting to attract the attention of serious investors. Although the original efforts will be geared toward space tourism, it is only a matter of time before the cost to boost people and equipment into space will tumble as market forces initiate a race among the best of these companies to see who can build the most efficient, the least expensive means to get us into orbit. When that happens, “the sky’s the limit” will cease being a cliche and become a rallying cry for the private conquest of space.
I have a bet with myself as to who will get back to the moon first; NASA or some private space company eager to exploit several different commercial possibilities there. Given NASA’s track record over the last few decades, don’t bet against the entrepreneurs.
Mr. Simberg wishes all “Happy Sputnik Day” on his personal blog, Transterrestial Musings and has some excellent links.