By Gary Michael Church
The recent launch of the Orion EFT-1 mission has generated a large amount of criticism from the New Space mob. The counter to such propaganda is to simply explain the facts. The best date to cite as a beginning of this explanation is the start of the Space Shuttle program.
On January 5, 1972, President Richard M. Nixon announced his approval of the Space Transportation System.
“I have decided today that the United States should proceed at once with the development of an entirely new type of space transportation system designed to help transform the space frontier of the 1970s into familiar territory, easily accessible for human endeavor in the 1980s and ’90s.
This system will center on a space vehicle that can shuttle repeatedly from earth to orbit and back. It will revolutionize transportation into near space, by routinizing it. It will take the astronomical costs out of astronautics. In short, it will go a long way toward delivering the rich benefits of practical space utilization and the valuable spinoffs from space efforts into the daily lives of Americans and all people….”
The 40 year saga of America’s biggest mistake ended on July 21, 2011, when the last Shuttle mission ended. My interest in space exploration began a few months after the loss of the second Shuttle crew in 2003. I was helping my wife research a college paper and happened upon George Dyson’s “Project Orion, the true story of the atomic spaceship.” Space exploration had always struck me as a Star Trek-like enterprise that would have to wait until the 23rd century but that book was proof I was mistaken. My research has since led me to believe the shuttle program was not only one of America’s greatest mistakes, but also may have been a turning point for humankind. Mistakes have consequences. The Fermi Paradox has become more commonly discussed since the discovery of billions of planets existing in our galaxy. No evidence of intelligent life has been detected in a half century of listening for alien radio signals. The possibility that life is just too stupid to survive is real. We are the evidence.
If a four word catch-phrase can express the root cause of humankind’s failure to leave Earth- and our endangered species status behind, it would be “there is no cheap.” Indeed, the Saturn V rocket could lift just barely enough for the Moon mission due to the cost-restricted design. The technology that would allow for much larger launch vehicles and enable a permanent presence on and exploitation of lunar resources was never utilized. America went cheap and as is often the result, ended up with nothing. The International Space Station, hailed as a wondrous achievement, is in reality a worthless Albatross. What is not explained to the public is that Low Earth Orbit is not space. Below the Van Allen radiation belts is a near vacuum, very high altitude domain, where endless circles are practical. It is not space. Science fiction author Robert Heinlein’s claim that Earth orbit is halfway to anywhere is often misquoted as “Reach low orbit and you’re halfway to anywhere in the solar system”, and is used to promote the NewSpace business plan. Heinlein’s exact wording is unknown but the truth is Low Earth Orbit is a dead end.
The first space age began on December 21, 1968, when human beings first left Earth’s gravitational field and circled the Moon. It ended December 19, 1972, with the return of the last Apollo mission. The space age lasted just short of four years and in the forty years since we have not left Earth and have no prospects of doing so any time soon. Despite the continued media hype pushing Mars as the next great adventure the public is sadly uninformed about an extremely damaging component of Galactic Cosmic Radiation (GCR). The reason Mars is impossible without the Moon and why Mars as a second home a genuine scam is complicated, but not too complicated for the person on the street to understand. However, the GCR elephant in the room is not to be discussed by anyone who is looking for a paycheck in the human spaceflight or space tourism industry. You will not find any “NewSpace entrepreneurs” who will talk honestly about cosmic radiation dosing and zero gravity debilitation. A world renowned scientist did explain the situation in laymen terms in the March 2006 issue of Scientific American magazine. In his article, “Shielding Space Travelers”, Eugene N. Parker presented the only guaranteed solution to protecting astronauts from heavy nuclei; a capsule surrounded by 500 tons of plastic or water.
At this point in the story the plot thickens. In March of 2010 it was revealed the Indian Chandrayaan-1 space probe had detected evidence of hundreds of millions of tons of lunar water ice. To understand what this has to do with saving the human race from extinction the original start date of the Shuttle Program must be revisited. In 1972 the Moon was considered dry. For this reason alone the logistical problems of supporting a permanent lunar base were considered insurmountable. Though it was guessed at, the presence of ice was not in evidence and no money for probes to find out was forthcoming. Interestingly, in the early 1960’s long before the first landing, the solution to propelling a spaceship far beyond the Moon had already been found, though the data was and is still largely classified. The concept of using specially designed small atomic bombs to push a spaceship around the solar system had been validated in a secret military project called Orion. The problem was fallout. Detonating Orion-type bombs in near-Earth space is little different than atmospheric explosions in terms of fallout because the Earth’s magnetic field, the magnetosphere, will eventually funnel the radioactive contaminants back down into the atmosphere. The magnetosphere extends far out into space and comes close to the Moon.
So the situation is that of the human race stuck on Earth, in danger of extinction from some natural and man-made catastrophe. Human beings cannot travel in space without massive radiation shielding and we cannot lift that much shielding into space from Earth without a nuclear propulsion system that would in turn poison the atmosphere with radioactive byproducts. With hundreds of tons of surplus plutonium on Earth, enough for tens of thousands of Orion propulsion bombs- and millions of tons of ice-as-water-shielding waiting on the Moon- the solution is to take the plutonium to where the shielding is available outside the magnetosphere.
The critical technologies never utilized that would make possible a Moon base and enable spaceship assembly comes in two parts. The first is already in use in the form of solid rocket boosters but are far too small to be effective as super-heavy lifters. The original giant pressure-fed boosters specified for the shuttle were passed over in favor of this existing solid fuel technology. Massive reusable boosters are thus the first part. The second, the “wet workshop”, was tested in part with the “dry workshop” called Skylab. The physics and hard realities of human spaceflight are not difficult to understand, they have just never been explained to the public.
In 1954, two scientists working for a rocket subcontractor in Virginia experimented with adding larger and larger percentages of powdered aluminum to existing solid rocket fuel formulas and had promising results. The Navy was in the market for a missile to launch from submarines for their Polaris program and the result was very powerful solid fuel rocket boosters. A decade later studies had been completed on reusable boosters built in shipyards, ironically using submarine hull technology, with over 15 million pounds of thrust. These giant monolithic boosters were not used in the shuttle program for various cited reasons, the most glaring being that each booster was twice as powerful as a Saturn V. This increase in thrust over any previous launch vehicle made for a far larger and more expensive stack. It did not matter that such lift was the most efficient available; it was not within budget. The SLS heavy lifter presently being developed uses two shuttle-derived boosters providing a total of 7.2 million pounds of thrust. Two of the 1963 monolithic models would have delivered an incredible 30 million pounds of thrust. Such massive lift is of course still well within our grasp for the same price paid for contemporary military weapon systems of questionable value. The more efficient but expensive route is to develop the originally specified pressure-fed boosters. These would be recovered in the same manner as the Space Shuttle SRB’s.
The wet workshop concept was proposed by Kraft Ehricke and Werner von Braun reuses spent empty upper liquid fuel rocket stages as crew compartments. Skylab was a cheaper dry workshop- a converted Saturn V third stage that did not carry fuel. Wet workshop upper rocket stages can be designed to be refilled with lunar water-as-shielding and assembled in lunar orbit as the first true space stations and spaceships. We lost the stars the day the shuttle program began because such a poor cargo-plane-to-orbit was the antithesis of the optimum super-heavy lift launch vehicle and wet workshop concept. The Shuttle was designed on the cheap with so little payload that no escape system could be fitted. Two crews were lost on a vehicle designed to carry satellites as well as people- a fundamental mistake dictated by a profit imperative. The do-everything-pay-for-itself cargo bay of dreams turned out to be an astronaut killer.
Greed inspired hubris places lives in peril and there can be no greater example of this than the failure to launch asteroid and comet warning satellites to detect impact threats. The reason the dinosaurs went extinct was they did not have any spacecraft to stop the asteroid that killed them…and neither do we. The chances of an impact are low so the money is not forthcoming as it would take away from other status quo programs. While the consequences of ignoring the need for stronger airliner cockpit doors and inevitable tsunamis can be bad or catastrophic, ignoring the inevitable asteroid or comet impact is an apocalyptic risk. Going cheap on planetary protection gambles with the fate of humanity as surely as NASA gambled on the now ridiculous notion that a launch vehicle filled with explosive rocket propellants could be as safe as a commercial airliner. There is no cheap.
Why was the Space Transportation System America’s biggest mistake? The shuttle could not travel into space. Endless circles at very high altitude going nowhere do not qualify as space travel. The discovery of ice at the lunar poles happened thirty years later than it should have. With no long term plan the changing administrations and congressional turf battles virtually guaranteed space exploration would be an underfunded political football. The public has no idea of the opportunity that was lost. Instead of the means to lift the necessary components and establish a cislunar infrastructure the U.S. invested in and continues to invest in weapons. The sad truth is space is hard money and defense is easy money. While highly profitable weapon systems often fail miserably with little public notice, spacecraft must work. Compare the crash of the Marine Corps V-22 Osprey in 2000 with the loss of the first space shuttle. Another example is the F-35 stealth fighter, the most expensive program in defense history and projected to cost a trillion dollars over the next half century. Both aircraft are considered by many experts to be failures yet because of congressional influence protecting defense interests in so many states these programs are almost invulnerable. Only when the price of a weapon is completely outrageous and it becomes a campaign issue does the outrage prevail. The example of this rare situation was the F-22 fighter plane in the 2008 election.
While weapons make mountains of money the basic problems of the human condition are given little attention. The criticism that money spent on space is criminal while such suffering exists on Earth is actually the opposite of the true situation. The American prophet of space colonization was astrophysicist Gerard K. O’Neill. His 1976 book, The High Frontier, was based on the premise of space solar energy beamed down to Earth to effectively end global poverty and the conflicts it generates. The technology to realize that extraordinary vision exists but O’Neill has been mostly forgotten. In the 21st century, there is also a new reason to pursue Solar Power Satellites. The only acceptable way to end the production of greenhouse gases affecting the ecosystem is to acquire the energy to run civilization from outside the environment- from outer space. The only alternative solution is a massive reduction in population. The beam is the dream and the alternative a nightmare. The problem with Space Solar Power has always been how to lift the many square miles of solar arrays and antennae into Earth orbit. The solution proposed by O’Neill was to use lunar materials to build the arrays. The Orion project bombs would enable millions of tons of solar power station arrays to be lifted from lunar factories into space. Problem solved.
While eliminating energy production on Earth and its effect on the environment would be a long term project, there is an interim space moneymaker that could pave the way. The real edge of space halfway to anywhere in the solar system is geostationary orbit. This 165,000 mile circumference ring around the Earth is presently a junkyard of mostly dead satellites in a debris field that may eventually cripple global telecommunications. Water shielded human-crewed space stations would laser-broom this ring clean and provide vastly improved connectivity to the planet. There have never been any long term human missions in geostationary orbit because of the danger of lethal radiation from solar flares. Large space stations would have to be assembled and filled with water in lunar orbit and then transit back across cislunar space to Earth. Such stations would be self-sufficient and essentially spaceships-without-engines. The addition of nuclear propulsion systems to new construction in lunar orbit would enable multi-year missions to the outer solar system. These true spaceships are the only way to Mars and would actually make Mars a poor destination compared to Ceres and the moons of the gas and ice giants. If not for America’s biggest mistake we would probably be exploring those distant sub-surface oceans already.