Space shuttle Atlantis has launched for the final time, for the last mission of the space shuttle program. The crew of four is heading to the International Space Station. Launch occurred at 10:29 EDT (15:29 UTC), and despite an unfavorable weather forecast, Atlantis and her crew beat the 30% odds that was predicted for the probability of launch. There was a slight delay and a hold in the countdown (about 2 minutes) when a problem with the vent arm retraction on the launchpad (the “beanie cap” over the external tank) was detected. The launch control team was able to look at the issue, and determined it was safe to proceed with launch.
The Shuttle Proved That Reusable Launch Vehicles are Not Cost Effective – the shuttle taught us nothing about the cost of a properly designed, fully reusable launch system, because that’s not what it was.
The external tank was thrown away on each flight, and the solid rocket boosters had to be rebuilt every mission. The only “reusable” part of the vehicle, the shuttle orbiter itself, required extensive inspection and maintenance between flights, with a vast army of technicians costing billions per year. These high costs and headaches were not the result of any intrinsic technical issues with reusable vehicles, but were caused by penny-pinching during development in the 1970s. Spending more then could have created a truly reusable vehicle later. But it is always easier to slash budgets now and let some future politician have to worry about operational costs down the road.
A number of companies are developing systems to deliver passengers to both suborbit and Earth orbit. Some of the suborbital ones — Virgin Galactic, XCOR Aerospace, Armadillo Aerospace, and Blue Origin — may start test flights into space next year. They may start offering suborbital transportation services, both for people who want to experience space and serious researchers, a year or so later.
For orbital transportation, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) successfully launched and recovered a pressurized capsule last December that could have carried a private astronaut, and is expected to be capable of doing so safely in three or four years. Blue Origin and Boeing are also developing capsules of their own, and Sierra Nevada Corporation is working on a small lifting body that will, like the Shuttle, be able to glide to a landing on a runway.
While some of these companies are receiving NASA funds, the amounts are comparatively trivial and on the basis of fixed-price milestones, not the vast expenditures of the bloated cost-plus contracts that led to all the overruns and schedule slips on the Constellation and other traditional NASA programs
The Space Shuttle was not able to create a serious legacy of infrastructure in space and did not advance a technology base to enable cheaper flights. The launches and science could have been achieved at less than 10% of the cost. The space program was really a government pork program with a label of space. 135 launches for $209 billion.
5. Mining space materials for the earth will not be competitive with Earth based materials for many years but there are other industries that can become far more important reasons to expand space efforts.
The true larger industries for space :
Tourism – already tens of millions of dollars from a handful of billionaires
Information and satellite servicing – Global 2010 revenues for the satellite industry totaled $168.1 billion, for an 11.2 percent average annual industry growth rate over the past 5 years. It is a few billion dollar market if you have space tugs and fuel depots to keep expensive satellites from falling out of orbit.
Entertainment – Having robotic rovers on the moon, Mars and other places and transmitting digital RED camera super high definition. Could create live 3D virtual exploration. There have already been the IMAX shuttle, Hubble space movies.
Live and stay. Mine and generate energy and build for a true space based economy. What were the economics for the North American colonies ? Sure they sent back furs and fish and other things to the Old world, but the true economy became the people and what they did there. United States, Canada, Mexico. Build lunar cities, Build cities on Mars. Colonize Asteroids. Mine the moon for uranium and produce nuclear Orion ships and go anywhere in the solar system. Do not have to worry about fallout getting in the magnetosphere of the Earth. Earth can get billions of tons of rare earth materials off the ocean bottom (recent Japan find) or can get uranium from the ocean (Japan can do it for about $150 per pound, there is 4 billion tons in the ocean). It will take decades but when you have hundreds of millions of people in space and staying there that will be the big payoff. It requires a long term vision beyond a decade.
To date PS1 has discovered 85 new NEOs, two comets, and about 4000 main-belt asteroids. PS1 has also submitted observations for over 200,000 known asteroids — nearly half of all known asteroids! This is an important contribution because PS1′s position measurements are so precise that they substantially improve the accuracy of orbits for known asteroids, allowing us to know their positions even better
I am sorry to see the last ever Shuttle flight. Historians will argue about the rights and wrongs of its development for centuries to come, but I think it had to be developed to keep NASA in the crewed spaceflight business even if its most useful lesson has been in how not to do things (also see my less personal history of the project).
The new discovery of hydrogen peroxide may also help astronomers understand another interstellar mystery: why oxygen molecules are so hard to find in space. It was only in 2007 that oxygen molecules were first discovered in space, by the satellite Odin.
Like all the other systems, navigation systems will need to work for up to 100 years of the planned mission, dealing not only with the inherent possibilities of a system or component failure but also the adverse conditions of outer space. Current components of guidance and control systems have typical lifetimes of around 10 to 15 years, so like Daedalus that incorporated repair “wardens” and a truckload of spare parts, Icarus will have to come up with a plan to solve this issue.
A possible mission architecture under discussion is the idea of using multiple probes dispersed in to a constellation for the interstellar transit, rather than cruising to the target as a single stage (as planned with the second stage Daedalus craft).
If Icarus were to travel in constellation mode then there is also the opportunity (in the timescales of an Icarus mission) of using the platform for an interferometry network (much like the ground-based interferometers in operation today) and enhancing any astronomical observations. Unfortunately, that’ll be more sleepless nights for the Icarus designers!
Another complication for the control of the interstellar probe is the pointing accuracy required to send your communications back to Earth. Radio communications by re-using the 40 meter second stage reaction chamber as an antenna was the method of choice for Daedalus but some research suggests that optical laser communications may be the way to go for Icarus to increase the amount of data that can be transmitted.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
Known for identifying cutting edge technologies, he is currently a Co-Founder of a startup and fundraiser for high potential early-stage companies. He is the Head of Research for Allocations for deep technology investments and an Angel Investor at Space Angels.
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