Instead of planning the retirement of the Space Shuttle program, America should be preparing the shuttles for their next step in space: evolving, not shutting them down and laying off thousands of people. You know the very people whose experience we will need in the years ahead. Except if you lay them off now, they won't be around in the next decade. Today's Shuttle operation is made up of five elements. Here's how we can put them all to use in a whole new space program. America, extend and transform the Shuttle, don't end 'em.
Those five elements of a Shuttle extension - the four segment solid booster motors, the big orange External Fuel tank, the trio of liquid Shuttle main engines, the vast existing Shuttle facilities like hangars and launching pads, and above all the skilled and experienced work force that has been operating the Shuttle fleet for nearly 30 years, can be the foundation of a whole new space goal.
We need to start thinking like our friends in the Russian space program. The first launch of the Soyuz rocket that is used today for taxi flights to the International Space Station had its first flight in November 1963 -- the same month President Kennedy was assassinated! But while the rocket and capsule look the same as the one that flew first in 1963, there have been many changes, some subtle and some more obvious. Newer and more powerful engines, a new upper stage, and advanced spaceship controls and systems mark today's Soyuz. In fact, the Soyuz itself is a more advanced version of the R-7 ICBM that Russia developed in the late 1950s and which first lofted spaceman Yuri Gagarin in 1961. Instead of abandoning the system for something entirely new -- which is what the U.S. intends to do after the Shuttle -- Russia has made incremental improvements to Soyuz, basically building an entire space program around that space-going workhorse.
See any lessons here?
America has invested 30 years in the Shuttle system. Instead of retiring it and beginning with a new "clean sheet of paper" approach that will take extra time and money, I propose we follow the Russian example and make the basic Shuttle the foundation of a space program that can take us literally to Mars. Use the boosters, engines and big tank as the backbone of a new heavy lift rocket. Fly that rocket from the same facilities as the current Shuttles use. Keep much of the existing workforce working, because the only thing you will change is older designs and engines, making way for a heavy lift launcher derived from the Shuttle basics and capable of carrying large new spacecraft to the station or destinations beyond.
You may ask -- how do we get from here to there?
By continuing to fly the existing Shuttles until a commercial crew-carrying cousin comes available after testing, or until the all-cargo ships start flying. On my evolution chart, I see these cargo Shuttles evolving, too, until they become a truly huge heavy lift rocket that can fly elements of an interplanetary spaceship aloft and link them together, using the space station as the testing ground.
But I also have a place for a space capsule in this plan. An Orion-like capsule can be docked to the interplanetary ship and provide aero braking tests as we advance further and further into the solar system, headed in the direction of Mars.
What's aero braking? That's a way to use the gravity and upper atmosphere of Earth to sling shot a ship out either deeper into space, or slow it down to be "captured" by Earth's gravity. It flies in a series of ever-widening spirals. What's the big deal? Because aero braking doesn't need a heavy and expensive rocket stage to muscle our ships around in space. It's a technique we have used successfully in robotic missions to Mars. If we truly want to make humans on Mars a national objective without sending the money -- printing presses into overtime, that's one way to get us there.
But none of this is possible if we abandon the Space Shuttle, and the many decades of experience in flying a winged craft into space and safely back to a runway. They call 'em a runway lander.
And the story of why we need that instead of a spaceship-turned-boat space capsule as our space taxis is the subject of my next blog. Along with ideas on using that big orange fuel tank so familiar to those who have watched Shuttle launchings in a new role: a spaceship itself. More on those ideas soon.