Transitions into Space

Before I begin this post I just want to wish everyone an extremely late New Year. I had originally planned to make this post around that time, but my lack of having an internet connection at my home, bad weather, the new school semester starting, and some family issues; I just wasn’t able to make it in time. I apologize to anyone that might have hoped for an update sooner, as I realize it’s been well over a month since I made my last post on the Anthropocene. Also, yesterday was my birthday so there’s that little quibble too!

It seems that the closer we get to NASA Space Shuttle Discovery’s final launch, currently targeted for February 24th (it’s been moved forward since around November), the more people seem to wonder what’s next for NASA and more importantly for human space exploration in general. Many nations have been jumping on the rocket firing process. Right around Christmas India’s Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) carrying its GSAT 5-P communication satellite exploded during launch. I just happened to have pulled up a nice little video of it for you…

Even though India’s launch failed they have launched a large number of satellites into space in the past. This news probably isn’t too new of course, but it begs the question still about the future of human space exploration. With more nations becoming space faring nations that offers many more opportunities for discoveries to be made. Of course even with NASA stopping the shuttle program, who’s last launch is currently scheduled for Atlantis around April 2011, it hasn’t discouraged people from finding new an innovative ways into space.

You might be asking why NASA has decided to retire the space shuttle. It’s mostly economics and financial difficulties, but also that the shuttle is an outdated way of getting humans into space. Each missions costs nearly 450 million dollars to undertake, and the amount of fuel required is around 500,000 gallons of liquid oxygen and liquid helium. This isn’t taking into account when missions get pushed further and further back and have to be re-planned and dated, costing vital manpower and resources.

To counter this, NASA has been encouraging the designs of private space companies such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Space Adventures to help relieve a lot of the research and development costs that the United States Government has barely been keeping up with. With private companies and revenue earned from space tourism, it opens NASA to many more research opportunities and frees their schedule for moreĀ  projects. Of course while NASA appreciates the research to new launch vehicles by private companies, they’re hesitant to support space tourism fully. There are a number of health concerns and highly expensive risks to traveling in space, the most costly of which is human life.

However, there’s already been seven people launched into space as “tourists”. The first of which was Dennis Tito in 2001, pictured to the left obviously supporting tourism in space. Of course it doesn’t come cheap. Dennis flew in 2001 for a reported $20 million on the Soyuz TM-32 rocket based in Russia. The price for the Soyuz model rocket ride really hasn’t gone down, but Virgin Galactic plans to send people into space for an amount starting out at roughly 200,000$, and eventually lower it to 20,000$.

But we’re missing the point here, this is about human kind’s transition into space. While Space tourism is offering this to people for a hefty fee, the main concern for anyone heading into space is making things faster, cheaper, more efficient, and more importantly safer. Space travel is already the riskiest and most dangerous endeavor we’ve taken on, and things really haven’t got much better since the 60’s.

There’s a lot of concepts out there for a new design aside from the simple Expendable Rocket model the Space Shuttle uses. While the Space Shuttle isn’t completely expendable, most of the design is, which makes each launch very expensive. Virgin Galactic’s idea of using a transport craft to carry the shuttle design high in the atmosphere is a cost effective option. However there’s a lot of non-propellant options to getting through the atmosphere that have been developed, such as…

1.) Mass Drivers

 

A Mass Driver works by using coils of energized electric wires to slingshot a vehicle into space. This conceptual picture is of one that would be placed on the moon, but one could just as easily be made on Earth, so long as you designed it to be able to defeat the Gravity of Earth at 9.81 m/s^2.

 

2.) Space Elevators

 

 

A Space Elevator is one of the more technically feasible projects that could get us into space. It implements a design similar to a normal everyday elevator, except with a cable tethered into space. The cable would need to be able to withstand the enormous speeds the planet rotates at, but that might not be too far off in development as Carbon nanotubing, possibly through the use of Graphene could easily withstand such forces. This would save billions as the use of propellants would almost not be needed and goods could easily be sent on a car into space.

 

3.) The Rocket Plane (or Space Plane)

This is probably the most likely scenario. Mass Driver’s seem to be impractical and if a Space Elevator was ever built it would be a prime target for terrorists, causing money to be spent often on defense. The Space Plane is already in development and is taking off fast. Virgin Galactic has already managed to get a head start in this department.

 

 

The point of all this is that we’re out of options when it comes to the Space Shuttle. It has lasted us a long time, but it’s become obselete. As more and more research is done into these other areas of engineering, physics, and astronomy, we’ll slowly start seeing the Space Shuttle move from it’s place as top dog to a piece of Astronomical History. Even still, I doubt anyone that has seen a launch can forget something as powerful as this video presents.

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