From Shuttles to Spaceliners

We can all be thankful for the space shuttle's blessedly safe return to space last week when Discovery roared off the pad and achieved a near-flawless orbital insertion -- even if it was followed by the disturbing news that yet another chunk of insulating foam had dropped away from one of the boosters on the way up, and that insulating material is protruding from two thermal tile sections. While this time there seems no significant damage or danger for reentry from either problem, once again the fleet will have to be grounded while NASA's engineers search for new solutions, which means our ability to place humans back in orbit is still in jeopardy.

Truth is, progress in manned space flight to and from low Earth orbit has been mired in jeopardy for a very long time, and what was largely undisclosed last week is an upsetting reality: No matter how fast the shuttle fix comes this time, all our remaining shuttles -- Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavor -- are scheduled to be retired for good by 2010, leaving the United States no means of reaching orbit with people aboard.

Yes, NASA has a new manned vehicle in development, tentatively dubbed the Crew Exploration Vehicle (the effort is called Project Constellation). But the new CEV is not expected to be a reality before 2014, and in the meantime -- if the aging shuttles are truly retired -- the United States will have no method of sending humans into low earth orbit until the CEV becomes a flyable, man-rated reality. That not only means the International Space Station will be forced to rely primarily on the Russians for crew transport and supplies, any satellite repairs or other "on orbit" manned research projects will have to wait as well.

For years.

And in the meantime, we continue to squander yet another area of technological leadership, inviting China, Japan, Russia, the European Space Agency, and any other country with enough resources and vision to pick up our slack.

Of course, the bright beginning of regular private spaceflight is on the near horizon. As I write this, Virgin Atlantic's visionary, iconoclastic creator Sir Richard Branson is working hard with American aerospace genius Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites to build a commercial spacecraft that will take anyone with $200,000 to spend into suborbital zero gravity within the next few years. Rutan -- a modern-day Wilbur Wright -- is designing a larger version of "Spaceship One," the brilliant design that made two successful suborbital flights last October from Mojave, Calif., winning the $10 million Ansari X Prize, an award posted years earlier to encourage private spaceflight (Click here for more information:

It's just the beginning of what science fiction writers and aerospace dreamers have envisioned for many decades -- routine, safe civilian access for all of us to space. Eventually, orbital hotels and even a moon base will be accessible to any of us the way airline flights became accessible to average Americans after World War II. The timeline and the vision that drives it is the problem.

The pathway to that future should have been blazed in more ways than one by NASA and the Congress that fuels it with money. Instead, NASA -- for all its great worth and fantastic minds -- has let itself get mired in a form of thinking best expressed by the very dangerous phrase: "This is the way we've always done it."

In short, why didn't NASA figure out a long time ago what Rutan has discovered about safer, more flexible methods of reaching space? True, Rutan's company has yet to orbit a spacecraft, but the way they won the X Prize should have long ago been one of the prime ideas to use in plans for replacing the shuttle: carrying the spacecraft aloft under the belly of an air-breathing jet, significantly lessening the huge amount of fuel to use in reaching orbital speeds and altitudes (and using a very stable, non-explosive fuel at that). NASA has traditionally rejected any method of reaching space that isn't based on pure rocketry -- blasting your way into orbit with massive amounts of highly explosive fuel. In fact, the shuttle astronauts are literally riding a controlled explosion into space in order to orbit a craft that was supposed to be the ultimate "space truck."

When it comes to finding a better way to design the next shuttle, a chorus of experts are already urging NASA to widen their vision and admit that the new, sophisticated Crew Excursion Vehicle could be launched unmanned with the crew sent up separately in a simpler vehicle. In other words, the aging shuttle fleet could be more rapidly replaced with a smaller, air-dropped spaceplane or even re-flyable capsule designed specifically to get astronauts up and back with the full emergency rescue capability in all phases of flight -- something the space shuttle has never possessed. While the big ship -- the CEV -- would be positioned and perhaps finally assembled in orbit, it would need less of the massive engineering solutions required to build a new, all-purpose spaceplane like the shuttle.

It would be wrong to say the rocket-propelled, spaceplane shuttle was ever a bad idea. It was, in fact, a brilliant, cutting-edge, experimental if very dangerous system designed in the '70s to enable astronauts to perform a wide variety of missions in space. As a research tool, it has been amazing. The problem is that once NASA and Congress settled on rocketry, the "aeronautics" part of the equation (recall that NASA stands for National Aeronautics and Space Administration) became largely ignored, and future pathways to space based on a combination of air-breathing flight and rocketry -- as well as any amazing possibilities robust aeronautical research might have uncovered -- were routinely rejected.

Worse, NASA grossly oversold the shuttle's capabilities to Congress and the American public, claiming the shuttle fleet would be capable of many times the number of missions it can actually achieve, with ridiculously optimistic turnaround times between launches that NASA officials well knew would be patently impossible. And while protecting their turf as the gatekeeper of human spaceflight, NASA became more of an impediment than a hearty advocate of developing private spaceflight capability and inviting future commercial operators into the vacuum.

It's at least a decade past time to admit that we need to evolve beyond the basic idea of an omnibus shuttle. NASA needs to use all available intellect in and out of government to develop better ideas into operable spacecraft, assisting private industry in building that stairway to heaven every would-be civilian astronaut has long dreamed about.