Op-ed | The next space age
This op-ed appeared in the July 16, 2019 special Apollo 11 at 50 issue of SpaceNews magazine.
Some years ago, a well-known astronomer (no, it was not Carl) told me how he would get the United Sates moving again in space. “Turn all the existing programs over to Goddard and JPL,” he said, “then surround NASA Headquarters with a regiment of Cossacks, and shoot anyone who tried to escape.”
Such a scenario would require a somewhat greater degree of U.S.-Russian cooperation than has so far been contemplated, and does seem a trifle harsh, for many of NASA’s problems should really be blamed on Congress, not to mention the Department of Justice which, in a disgraceful act of folly for which it later apologized, decapitated NASA at a critical time.
This, I suppose, is another critical time, when a decision has to be made on a redesign of the space station — or to bite the bullet and send it to join the Superconducting Super Collider and, any moment now, the hot fusion programs. But perhaps I am too biased to make a judgment on this: everyone knows what I — and Stanley Kubrick — think a space station should really look like.
Meanwhile, there are some good second-hand bargains in orbit, and the United States should make the best use of them.
The same applies to the state-of-the-art hardware developed for the recent Clementine mission, which demonstrates how we can explore the solar system cheaply and examine Pluto early in the next century. I hope that NASA can avoid the not-invented-here syndrome, and at the same time keep unemployed Star Warriors out of mischief — until they are really needed.
It is also obvious that all future space operations must depend on reliable and cost-effective delivery i.e., fully reusable ones. The airlines would be in an even worse mess than they are now, if they threw away millions of dollars’ worth of hardware at every takeoff. I am fascinated by the recent Delta Clipper flights, though some of my engineering friends doubt that a vehicle built to take off and land vertically can lift worthwhile payloads to orbit. They may be correct, but I recall Simon Newcomb’s defense after the Wrights had cast doubt on his celebrated proof that heavier-than-air flight was totally impossible: “Anyway, they could never carry a passenger, as well as the pilot.”
My guess is that the next generation of human-rated vehicles will be partial airbreathers, perhaps piggyback with a pure jet stage. We shall see, a decade from now. And then it will be time to go back to the moon and onto Mars.
But I must confess that I am no longer interested in rockets. They do not have much of a future, at least beyond 2100, a date which millions already born will live to see. There are already two hints of rockets’ replacement on the far horizon. The first is the space elevator, which must be taken seriously now that we have the material with which to build it. When Rice University’s Richard Smalley announced the discovery of the nanotube variety of buckminsterfullerene — the strongest material, he claimed, that can ever exist — he specifically mentioned the space elevator as one application.
The crew of the space shuttle also gave it a plug when they conducted the tether experiment in August 1992. During a press conference from orbit, Jeff Hoffman and his colleagues displayed a copy of “The Fountains of Paradise” and explained, “This is what it may lead to.”
And here is another eerie coincidence. Bucky Fuller, a long-time friend, drew a sketch of the space elevator, stretching up from Sri Lanka, for the sleeve-notes of my recording of “Fountains.” What a pity he never knew that the material named after him might one day make possible this most spectacular of engineering achievements.
Although the elevator could get us to geostationary orbit for essentially zero cost (about $100 of electricity per passenger, a cost about 90 percent recoverable on the way back) we would still need some method of propulsion thereafter. Rockets could certainly do the job — and cheaply, as propellant could also be lifted to orbit and most of it need no longer be wasted to fight the Earth’s gravitational field.
But there may be something better. Science-fiction writers have long dreamed of a mythical space drive that would allow us to go racing round the universe, or at least the solar system, without the rocket’s noise, danger and horrendous expense. Until now, this has been pure fantasy. However, recent theoretical studies — based on some ideas of [Soviet nuclear physicist and dissident] Andrei Sakharov’s — hint that some control may indeed be possible over gravity and inertia, hitherto a complete mystery.
This is a very long shot indeed, but the care and feeding of mathematical physicists costs peanuts. Only when they start digging tunnels do things get out of hand. If I was head of NASA — a nightmare from which I sometimes wake up screaming — I would get my best, brightest and youngest (no one over 25 need apply) to take a long, hard look at these equations.
Warp 5 anyone? Sorry — I just do not believe we will ever travel faster than light.
But then, I am a notorious conservative.
Move over, Simon Newcomb.