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Spaceships Worthy of the Name

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In this blog I'm going to talk about what NASA needs to do once Congress has passed President Obama's new budget that starts on October 1st. Although I spent most of last year speaking about these concepts, they may be new to some readers - and they have even greater significance now that the space program is poised to make a great, and I believe necessary, transition. My ideas, if followed, would assure America of global space leadership for many years to come. And equally cool is the fact that to develop them won't break the already near-empty national budget.

First, is the idea of what type of commercial crew-carrying vehicle should follow the Space Shuttle. Next is why we should extend the life of the Shuttle program for a small number of additional flights. And last, what those Shuttles should carry up to the International Space Station - a true spacecraft that would live only in space.

Right now, NASA is hoping to spend about a billion dollars each year beginning next October to speed the development of a new fleet of all-commercial spaceships that would act as space taxis. These machines would take American astronauts and others bound for the orbiting station, but also serve as a vehicle for the repeated use of researchers and experimenters. I'm urging NASA to foster the development of what I call runway landers. No, that's not the name of a high stakes gambler from Vegas. It's a type of spacecraft that flies to orbit like the retiring Shuttles but then glides to a landing like an airplane on a runway. Just like the Shuttles do.

My reasoning is if these new spacecraft are to be true space taxis, then returning their human crew and perhaps research experiments quickly is essential. Landing in the ocean and waiting for the navy to come alongside and haul you out of the drink is what space capsules require. And after the capsule is recovered, it would take weeks for the ship to return to port. The astronauts might be flown home earlier by helicopter, but the cargo, and the capsule, will still be waiting long after the flight has faded from the business news web sites. This is just ridiculous, and no way to foster a true commercial space industry. As someone who flew two space capsules and twice landed in the ocean, I can attest from personal experience how much logistics work is needed to get you home. This is no way to treat a spaceship -- making it become a boat at the end of the flight? By comparison landing on a runway in the heart of a military or civilian airport or specially constructed spaceport would speed the retrieval and replacement of the cargo and crew. If that landing site is also the launching site, and the ship is fully reusable, then it can be mated to a new booster and readied for flight in a few weeks. This is exactly what we have learned flying the Shuttle for the last 30 years.

And, speaking of the Space Shuttle, why are we retiring it before the replacement vehicle is available? Makes no sense to me when there are enough parts to fly the Shuttles for other two, three or four flights, say. By stretching out the remaining handful of flights, we can close the infamous space flight "gap" that looms ahead between Shuttle retirement and first flights of the new commercial craft. Why should American's hard-earned taxpayer dollars go to Russia to buy flights on their Soyuz rockets, as is the current plan? Would it not be a better and more sensible thing to use that money to extend - only briefly - the life of the Shuttle?

Speaking of which, in the current debate, folks have seemed to forget that if we need a heavy lift booster to haul large payloads up to orbit, we already have one now-it's called the Space Shuttle. And I have a mission in mind for these handful of extra flights.

In storage at Marshall Spaceflight Center, and elsewhere around the country are spacecraft components from which we can build a true spaceship, one worthy of the name. I've called the Exploration Module, or XM. This vehicle, lifted up to orbit aboard the Space Shuttle in its final missions, would be a true spacecraft that lives only in space. Just like the Lunar Module Eagle that Neil Armstrong and I rode down to the moon's surface during our Apollo 11 flight. Once docked to the International Space Station, astronaut crews could practice and train for future deep space missions, to encounter asteroids say, or the moons of Mars. If the XM was shielded and connected with a spacecraft like the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle or some other return-to-Earth craft, once tested at the space station, we could take it out for a spin, say cycling between the Earth and the moon. My concept for a cycling spaceship, now universally called the Aldrin cycler, could be fashioned out of the XM. All we'd need would be a rocket to attach to it, maybe like the Centaur liquid hydrogen upper stage flown many times aboard many different launchers - and managed by Ohio's Glenn Research Center.

Consider what I'm proposing: commercial vehicles fly from the surface of the Earth to the station. Their destination - the XM, is built from existing hardware and managed by say the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The spaceship's propulsion and life support system could be managed by Huntsville's Marshall Spaceflight Center. And everything is assembled, tested and launched from Florida's Kennedy Space Center. Commercial providers do what they do best - flying people and cargo from Earth. NASA does what it does best - build deep space vehicles - and there is sufficient work to keep all of the existing Project Constellation centers humming along.

As someone once said, "Mission Accomplished!"

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