Headline Watch – Grounded

Tonight on MSNBC:

And just now on Murdoc Online:


  1. As old as the shuttle program is, I am amazed that they haven’t managed to move beyond it to the next generation of space travel. Come on! This is the technological age where today’s innovation is tomorrow’s relic!

  2. Well, so far as I am aware, there have been no major practical improvements in space technology of late. Aerospikes sound like an interesting idea but has anyone actually flown one successfully yet? Fuels have improved slightly, computers are a lot smaller and faster, but anything built today would basically just be a shinier version of the same thing, surely? That is, if it were a reusable spacecraft… Ironically, the next step will probably be backwards, back to disposable rockets for missions which don’t require the lifting power or cargo space of the shuttle. At least, it seems to me that it would make sense to use both depending on which is most appropriate for a given mission. I believe the US has built some very reliable and powerful rockets lately. All that’s required I think is to fit a crew module which can maneuver and re-enter. So unless someone comes up with some kind of technological break-through I don’t really see what would ‘replace’ the shuttle. New spaceplanes have been on the drawing boards ever since the shuttle but they all seem to me just about as far-fetched now as they were back then. When a scale version of one of them lifts off or some such, I’ll change my mind.

  3. The reason why there have been practical advances in space tech, is the lack of competion. Current NASA policy is that each part of a spacecraft that carries a man, has to achieve 99.9 percent reliability. Thus, most systems have double to quadruple reducency built in. Thus each part of a space craft has to be space and man qualified. The qualification process long and exceedingly expensive. That is why the space shuttles computers are ancient objects from a by gone era. The best bet for space flight comes from people like Burt Rutan. Once a private space industry is built, competion will rapidly advance the space industry. Only then will there be the lift capasity to build objects like the space elevator. Meanwhile, as long as NASA is in the lead on space ship design we will be stuck at the bottom of this gravity well.

  4. One word: Unproven. I’m not yet convinced that current (or even forseeable future) material science can handle the kind of stress a space elevator will make. I’m also not yet convinced that a giant cable attaching an orbiting object to earth won’t be incredibly hazardous. It could whip around. It could break and do heaps of damage. Let’s put that in the ‘Science Fiction’ bin and come up with something we can actually reasonably implement before the Shuttle is well and truly unusable perhaps? FWIW, I think the Shuttle is still worthwhile despite the fact that it’s not perfect. Rockets aren’t either. Nothing we’ve come up with that can go into space is significantly risk-free.

  5. Will they be afraid to bring it back, now that it’s lost some tiles? Maybe the Russians will have to rescue our astronauts from the Space Station.

  6. The shuttle is essentially worthless as currently used. It’s dangerous to astronauts, and it’s hideously expensive to launch. A huge fraction of NASA’s budget goes to maintaining the shuttle program, money that could put more people and stuff in orbit if spent amost any other conceivable way, including renting space on chinese boosters or using $100 bills for rocket fuel. That being said, there are parts of the STS that would be very useful. For example, everything but the orbiter. Look at it this way: payload is what a rocket can put into orbit. The STS can put the orbiter and about 50 tons into orbit. Why are we wasting money and fuel putting the orbiter up? That’s another 100 tons of payload. If someone clever designed a cargo pod, we’d have the most capable unmanned booster ever flown, if we’d only build it. That would be a step forward, if not an advance in the technological sense. Some better uses for the shuttle budget: 1) use the money to contract out satellite launches on commercial carriers. 2) give a billion dollars to Burt Rutan and tell him to build us a clever and useful space program. 3) offer large cash prizes to smart guys who design *and fly* useful things like single stage to orbit vehicles, cheap but safe manned capsules for putting on top of disposable boosters, inflatable habitats, or whatever else. No money need be spent until someone actually does it, but the reward will encourage them to do it. 4) use the comparatively efficient, honest, and economical defense procurement process to get a spaceplane/shuttle replacement. 5) spend a couple tens of millions restarting the breakthrough propulsion research at higher funding levels. Come on, anything with only six zeros after it is chump change in the government world. 6) hire me at a modest seven figure salary to run the space program like it should be run.

  7. I tghink there will be room for both. Rutan has a new factory for his new class of suborbitals: http://www.spacedaily.com/news/spacetravel-05zzzg.html If they can increase the range and mass allowance, to reach anywhere in the world, there would be a huge comemrcial and military market. And development of carbon nanotubes progress nicely: http://www.spacedaily.com/news/nanotech-05zzx.html note that a space elevator is best for moving things to GEO and beyond. Also (Can’t find link atm) there is research in cheap catalysts which produce fully linked O3 for mass produced rocket fuel…this is -not- O3 as in ozone (which forms a short chain) but in which all three oxygen atoms connect. This greatly increases the energy potential per molecule resulting in much smaller and lighter liquid oxydizer fuel tanks.

  8. Murdoc, I think you are stretching a little in trying to make MSNBC look bad. Unfortunately, you are taking a page right from the media’s playbook: Press on with your criticism, even when its not applicable. NASA hasn’t isolated anything. They are just as baffled as ever as to why this stuff keeps falling off. Now they have to start all over trying to figure out how to keep the insulation _on_ the tank.

  9. Chuck: This one isn’t mocking MSNBC at all. It’s mocking NASA. And, yeah, I make up quotes or headlines. It’s satire. Of a sort. I’m curious about the newer ‘environmentally-friendly’ foam adhesive, myself.

  10. One of the cool things about a single stage to orbit vehicle (SSTO) or even something close – traveling to space might actually be the smallest part of its usefulness. If you had an SSTO that had turnaround times and maintenance needs in the general ballpark of an airliner – i.e., a cheap to fly spacecraft – you’d have a really nifty way of getting to anywhere on Earth in about 45 minutes. FedEx did a study in the early nineties, and determined that if someone invented an SSTO, they could make a profit using it to transport high value parcels around the world in less than a day. Airlines could use them for high speed passenger service. Sometimes its hard to convince people of the utility of a thing before it really exists. But once it does, uses generally multiply.

  11. On the foam issue with the shuttle. Why do they put the foam on the outside. For insulation purposes, putting the foam on the inside of the outer hull would be just as effective. Buckehead: Your point #4 is both sad and hilarious. On the space elevator: Given current progress, if we put some real money into the plan, realistically it could be built in 20 – 25 years. The real issue is cargo capacity, the tech issues are manageable.

  12. They don’t put the foam on the inside so the foam doesn’t get saturated with rocket fuel. It’s like a sponge, which would prevent the fuel from reaching the rockets…and may fall off anyway inside the tank, thus clogging the pipes. Very disasterous. A better solution, though perhaps difficult is to stitch the foam panels together with superstrong string; they might be doing this already, but I am assuming that they just glue the foam panels onto the tank and pray. It wont matter for much longer, the replacement craft will most likely be ‘inline’ stacking arrangement with the cargo/orbiter ontop, and a set of thrusters underneath, just like the Saturn V rockets…which they should have been doing all along. Stupad beaurocrats.

  13. The Space Elevator is the way to go. Of course there are some significant engineering challenges to build it. The only technology not readily available is the cable material. There is research going on that will hopefully lead to breakthroughs in that area. Would you rather ride to the top of the Empire State Building in an elevator pulled by a cable, or, a cabin pushed by exploding liquid oxygen and hydrogen? It’s obvious which is a sustainable form of affordable transportation. The shuttle and disposable rockets are just the means to build it. After that they are useless as ground to space vehicles.

  14. I wouldn’t say ‘useless’. Rockets can be launched quickly in most any orbit given enough power. A Space elevator goes out only to an equatorial GEO station…real slowly. An alternative are rotating tethers whose centers of mass are in a closer orbit, and whose endpoints at various points along it’s path touchdown to the Earth, gab a package, and move it to orbit, and exchange it for something to be brought to the surface…I forgot the formal name for this, willpost later.

  15. Sam, those are rotovators. The thing to do, once we establish a more regular presence in space, is to build a practice beanstalk on the moon. This would be a useful proof of concept – with the benefits of lower gravity not requiring as strong cable materials, and no atmosphere to complicate the installation process. It would make at least part of the journey from Earth surface to lunar surface easy and highly efficient. Once you have the methodology down, you could start thinking about building one on earth. No one has any even theoretical experience in large scale space construction, let alone large scale construction with tethers. I’m sure there’d be a lot of practical matters that would need to be solved. Tethers can also be used in space for launching and retrieving spaceships. Imagine two rotating tethers, each something like a couple mile long bolo. Spin that bad boy up, and the weights at the end would provide stability and enormous amounts of potential energy. Dock a shuttle at the middle where its not moving much, and then use some clever method to get it out to the end. Wait until the sling is aimed where the moon will be in a couple days, then let go. When you get to lunar orbit, get caught by the lunar tether, and you’re there. No rockets necessary. Of course you’ll bleed energy at several points in the system, but to at least some extent, you’d gain energy on the tether whenever you caught a ship, and lose it when you launched. Much more efficient than burning lots of drinkable water. Payload could be pretty much anything you want, and you could launch fairly frequently. (Naturally, you would want to have the shuttle have the capacity to stop itself at lunar orbit in case the launch or recovery got fubared. But you wouldn’t need to use it unless things went south. Solid rockets would probably be best, and smaller liquid fuel rockets for moving around in earth and lunar orbit.)

  16. Murdoc, Took a while to get back here to read your response. I clearly misunderstood who you were making fun of. Sorry. Chuck