Jun 26 2010

John Glenn Shuttles Toward an Eclipse of the Moon

The first American to orbit the Earth (in 1962) and the oldest human to travel into space (age 77 in 1998) recently articulated a position on U.S. manned space policy. From the John Glenn School of Public Affairs at The Ohio State University, former Senator Glenn recommended we continue flying the Shuttle while we develop a heavy lift launch vehicle, and skip the Moon.

Total eclipses of the Moon are usually dark, often surprising, and sometimes downright spooky. Click

Let’s explore Glenn’s intriguing perspective.

Apollo as a recent echo of Lewis and Clark
Glenn notes that America’s early world leadership grew from exploration, research, and education.

Geographic exploration did not have the sole purpose of just remaining alive during travel to new and distant places. Travel was followed by a period of learning about, and how to use, the newly found destination to our advantage. Space travel should be no exception.

Glenn sees space exploration as the most recent manifestation of great human explorations over the last 200 years — all the way back to Lewis and Clark. This powerful perspective is the key to the secret of the past and future of human spaceflight.

The Greatest International Space Project of All Time Was Almost Canceled Twice — And Almost Nobody Squawked

The International Space Station is widely considered to be the greatest international space program of all time although the U.S. House of Representatives came within one vote of canceling it in 1993. ISS never really gained support until it became a truly international project with 15 nations as partners.

Glenn calls it a “highly successful cooperative international project, probably the most successful ever … It is the most unique laboratory ever conceived and can now start research never before possible.”

But even so, our stunning $ 100 B “National Laboratory” was scheduled for termination in 2015, only 5 years after its completion, until President Obama extended it to 2020. Yet strangely there was no public outcry. ISS has suffered from poor long wave timing but now appears to be riding the accelerating wave of globalization into the future.

Whatever became of the “greatest spacefaring nation”?
Glenn’s major concern is the multi-year gap between Shuttle retirement in 2010 or 11 and its replacement.

The originally planned gap of two or three years of our having no U.S. manned launch capability will realistically be closer to eight or ten years — or more … U.S. astronauts will…train for final launch preparation on Russian spacecraft, launch, and return to a grassland landing area at the end of the mission … launches of U.S. astronauts into space will be viewed in classrooms and homes in America only through the courtesy of Russian TV.

Glenn believes the Shuttle is safer than ever and is only 1/3 of the way through its original design lifetime. And he is unequivocal about America’s need for a heavy lift launch vehicle to enable future human adventures on the Moon, Mars, and elsewhere.

A heavy-lift space work horse to someday replace the Shuttle is a necessity for our space future. The flexibility that gives to our manned and unmanned programs will be key to continued world leadership as other nations develop their manned space capabilities.

Glenn’s traditional approach to our future in space is what you might expect from a major icon of the 1960s Apollo Maslow Window. While acknowledging crucial Russian cooperation throughout ISS, Glenn recognizes current space-related national prestige factors and geopolitical realities. But his insistence on a Saturn V-class (100+ ton to LEO) heavy lift vehicle for human expansion into the cosmos is questioned by some on cost, schedule, and private enterprise rationales.

“If God wanted man to become a spacefaring species, He would have given man a moon.”
…according to space visionary Krafft Ehricke (1917-1984). But Glenn feels that “To establish a lunar base is extremely expensive and can wait, at least for now.”

According to Glenn,

The principal rationale for establishing a base on the Moon, aside from international prestige, was to gain experience in extraterrestrial living in preparation for future space destinations. Those deeper space travels are far enough in the future that I agree with postponing a lunar base.

It’s puzzling that, according to Glenn, national prestige is enough to drive development of a traditional heavy lift vehicle but not the first human base on another world, especially one so closely linked to Earth with such important science and commercial potential.

For example, in 2007 the National Research Council was pretty excited about The Scientific Context for Exploration of the Moon — especially its “unique … microenvironment at their poles” (e.g., water deposits), and the bombardment history of the inner solar system that is “uniquely revealed on the Moon.” Not to mention astronomy from the airless, stable lunar farside.

And commercial opportunities include the development of lunar resources (e.g., water, oxygen), lunar communications and logistics, the lunar power system, and tourism (initially featuring lunar telepresence for theme parks and schools). This would be facilitated by an international organization like Interspace.

As the only scientist to walk on the Moon (Apollo 17), Harrison H. Schmitt, points out,

The investment of money and intellectual capital in going back to the Moon, permanently, brings with it, not merely geopolitical high ground and prestige of physically being there, but constitutes a deliberate pathway to economic development … history ties the expansion of democracy to a people’s access to energy…

It’s likely that our road to the Moon will interact strongly with humanity’s growing need for energy from space, especially from space-based solar power satellites. For example, the U.S. miliary has hinted at their interest in this technology. And Japan has announced a $ 21 B, 15 company space-based solar power initiative. Many countries — including China, India, and the U.S. — are facing enormous energy infrastructure costs in the next couple of decades, and will welcome this clean-energy option, particularly as it drives down launch costs.

Well, who actually won the space race?
Frustration with our current space launch gap has caused some to wonder who won after all. For example, Bill Ketchum, a long-time space vehicle engineer, program manager, and space enthusiast formerly with General Dynamics, recently (6/22/10) commented in an email,

While I agree with John Glenn, he ignores the fact that while the Russians have had an uninterrupted human space launch capability for the past 49 years, America has had several long periods with no capability: 7 years between Apollo and Shuttle, 2 years after Challenger, and 2 years after Columbia. The Russians have had their problems but never stopped flying. They continue to use the same rocket and spacecraft that they developed 50 years ago. While this seems outdated, it has served them well. America, on the other hand, has developed, flown, and then abandoned 4 systems: Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and now the Shuttle. And now America will depend on the Russians to get our astronauts into space, at $50-100 million per astronaut, until America comes up with a replacement for the Shuttle (commercial operators such as Space-X ?).

So who has really won the space race ?

Although the U.S. clearly won the race to the Moon 40+ years ago, Bill’s point about the current situation is well taken.

Reminds me of Freeman Dyson’s recent speech in Chicago about Russia’s long-term approach to major space activities versus America’s Apollo-style, decade-long spurts. America has unwittingly allowed itself to be more fundamentally controlled by the previously unknown effects of long waves in the economy.


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