The List of Errors

By Gary Michael Church


The “dramatic error in American spaceflight” is just one more on the list.

  1. The first mistake was not making Project Orion and Nuclear Pulse Propulsion part of the NASA charter in 1958. It must have been obvious even then that lighting off hundreds of bombs in the atmosphere was not practical due to radioactive contamination and the system would likely have to be used well away from Earth orbit. To launch “slices” of the disc used in a pulse propulsion system would require a Nova Class rocket. In 1991 a new approach to Pulse was proposed, the “Medusa” concept, which would make a less efficient Pulse system immediately available.
  2.  The second mistake was not pursuing reusability from the beginning. Philip Bono was the pioneering engineer of the early 1960’s who advocated for Vertical Take-off Vertical Landing (VTVL). This might seem a case of hindsight but in fact VTVL was a recurring theme in science fiction movies and even seen on television shows in the 1950’s such as “Rocky Jones Space Ranger” in early 1954 (1:50). An interesting feature is the obvious massive electrical grid required to launch the “XV2.” A coincidence in regards to the much later concept of beam propulsion.
  3. The third mistake was the limited goal of the Apollo program, to land humans on the Moon and return them, instead of establishing a permanent presence. If that goal had been set as a Moonbase, Apollo would likely have continued to the present day with a constantly evolving family of launch vehicles. The space race was a consequence of the cold war and it is ironic the salient feature of that conflict, the atomic bomb, remains the only enabler for interplanetary travel by humans. Treaties limiting the testing and deployment of nuclear devices crippled any possibility of humans exploring the solar system in the 20th century.

Americans love to glorify NASA and though the amazing work of that agency is now incessantly trivialized and demeaned by NewSpace proponents, the goals set leading up to the first space age were in reality quite limited. Neoliberal contamination was canceling out imbedded liberalism and post war Keynesian economics and this ultimately doomed the first space age to lasting only four short years. The Apollo 1 fire made it clear to aerospace concerns that Human Space Flight Beyond Earth Orbit (HSF-BEO) was going to be hard money and they opted for the easy money of cold war toys.

In the mid 50’s and early 60’s it seemed obvious that nuclear energy would be required for Human Space Flight Beyond Earth and Lunar Orbit (HSF-BELO). While chemical energy was appropriate for use in the Earth’s atmosphere and magnetosphere and would serve to enable a cislunar infrastructure, nuclear energy would be required for any human exploration beyond the cislunar sea.

800px-Von_Braun_and_Stuhlinger_discuss_Disney_specialStuhlinger and von Braun from wiki

The 500 foot diameter heat exchanger required for the nuclear electric spaceship concept was interesting in that a similar size solid alloy disc of much greater mass would replace it as the engine of the future. Nuclear Electric and the simpler Nuclear Thermal Rocket (NTR) would both soon be rendered obsolete by the work of Freeman Dyson validating Nuclear Pulse Propulsion. Using what are essentially repurposed nuclear weapons, Pulse still remains the only practical path to a human-crewed true spaceship capable of multi-year voyages of exploration to the outer system.

The test ban treaty of 1963 and outer space treaty of 1967 effectively removed nuclear energy for space propulsion from the zietgeist for over half a century up to the present day. The key technologies regarding nuclear space propulsion were human-rating a Super Heavy Lift Vehicle (SHLV) with a solid fuel escape tower, which allowed fissile materials to be sent into space at acceptable risk, as proven by Apollo. In the 1970’s, as the end of the first space age loomed, a second series of wrong turns were made by the space agency.

In 1971 the Air Force and NASA determined the basic design of the Space Shuttle and a year later Nixon signed off on the program. A decade earlier Philip Bono had advocated for VTVL development but the Shuttle departed from simply landing back stages in the same way they had launched and went with a whole range of very bad design features that would guarantee failure. The catalogue of defects was known and publicized but the show had to go on.

Besides a flawed design the Shuttle’s very purpose was a mistake. Low Earth Orbit (LEO) had been left far behind in 1968 with Apollo 8 and did not really qualify as space exploration or even “space” after that mission. Retreating to a couple hundred miles up after traveling a quarter million miles was a several-orders-of-magnitude-defeat. Sadly, the Space Shuttle had been sold to the public as a space truck that would “pay for itself” when it would ultimately cost close to the same as the Saturn V per launch. This kind of wasted effort was repeated with ISS, the first component being launched in 1998 and eventually costing 180 billion dollars to complete. Again, sadly, a fully funded Skylab, launched in 1973, would have gone up as a wet instead of dry workshop and been larger than the ISS in a single Saturn V launch.

It is interesting that the main reason used to justify the incredibly expensive ISS, microgravity research, could have been accomplished by the Space Shuttle using Extended Duration Orbiter (EDO) pallets. These pallets could have been sent up and allowed a shuttle to stay in space for the six month tours the ISS provides. The main problem was a pilot and copilot to eventually land the Shuttle since debilitation would require a new flight crew. A second shuttle launch could have ferried a pilot and copilot up or various other schemes tried. The Shuttle could also have been landed by autopilot but this feature had been omitted from the design on purpose. The space station to nowhere was and is the most expensive boondoggle in history.

4. Retreating to LEO with the Space Shuttle was the 4th cardinal error made by the space agency. The Moon or at least the vicinity of the Moon should have been kept inviolate as the focus of Human Space Flight. Skylab might have been a path to realizing a continuing lunar presence without a Moonbase by first launching the full wet workshop version into LEO and then launching a booster capable of inserting the platform into a lunar orbit. Of course there would have been problems with this due to Lunar orbits being unstable and the need for massive radiation shielding. However, this would have led to the present solutions to those problems. “Frozen Lunar Orbits” and lunar ice being ferried up by robot landers and utilized as cosmic ray shielding are the most likely enablers of lunar platforms, space stations, and a fleet of Lunar Cyclers.

5. Number five on the list of wrong turns was of course the design of the Space Shuttle itself, which wasted most of the lift of a Saturn V class vehicle sending a 737-size glider into low orbit so it could come right back down. A huge cargo bay when there was nothing to bring back down. An extremely maintenance intensive heat shield and “reusable” boosters that were not powerful enough and had to be disassembled and railed to and from Utah after each use. And…no escape system. Note the image at the top of the page of Nixon and a Space Shuttle model features a Shuttle concept using a single 260 inch SRB and a pair of expendable external tanks. This would likely have prevented the Challenger Disaster and using heat resistant alloys and a smaller wing would have prevented the loss of the Columbia. The inferior segmented SRB’s from Utah may have been politically expedient but they were inferior to the Aerojet monolithic design.


6. A most egregious waste of tax dollars, as stated previously, was the 180 billion dollar space station to nowhere. That funding could have been directed toward a “Shuttle C” which would have done away with the Orbiter and had the main engine module come back alone and in some concepts vertically land. It would have followed to develop the liquid boosters originally specified and the result would have had much the same performance as the Saturn V first and second stage. A cargo version of the Shuttle was pursued near the end of the program with the Sidemount proposal which the Augustine Commission, heavily biased toward NewSpace, wanted nothing to do with. Like the Saturn V,  U.S. heavy lift capability was again thrown away in favor of a something-for-nothing-scam. The Space Launch System (SLS) was born out of the ashes and immediately demonized by NewSpace promoters for the obvious reason that it competed with their flagship company for tax dollars. The 4 billion dollars a year spent on going in circles a couple hundred miles up in the ISS should be redirected into a second and third SLS core production line.

7. The most serious and devastating mistake of all was adopting NewSpace. The overriding purpose of Human Space Flight (HSF) is the survival imperative- to guarantee humankind will not be rendered extinct by any natural or human-caused events. In the 1970’s Gerard K. O’Neill, the prophet of space colonization, envisioned miles-in-diameter hollow artificial moons manufactured from lunar resources as the next step for humankind. O’Neill foresaw Space Solar Energy as the economic engine driving colonization and also a cure for global warming. Instead of colonization we have NewSpace. Tens of thousands of pieces of space junk and shiny starships to Mars for the rich is the plan. The ruinous effects of this pernicious ideology have yet to be realized.

The late 1980’s and early 90’s again saw opportunities for the space agency in the form of Shuttle C and a new concept in Nuclear Pulse Propulsion:

Click to access 00189777.pdf

The 75 ton lift of Shuttle C could have enabled “Medusa Missions” to the outer solar system. Concerning the politics involved, Solem writes:
“We are currently prohibited by treaty from: (1) deploying weapons of mass destruction
in space and (2) testing nuclear weapons in space. MEDUSA violates neither the letter
nor the spirit of either prohibition, but it does use nuclear explosives. The radioactive
debris from MEDUSA’s exhaust is so finely dispersed that it will be nearly undetectable.
I assert that MEDUSA’S net environmental impact is less than NERVA; you have to do
something with the spent reactor. I see no reason why nuclear explosive propulsion for
interplanetary missions cannot be made politically acceptable. Perhaps we can be more
creative and consider an international mission in which the nuclear explosives were jointly supplied by the superpowers. What a wonderful approach to nuclear disarmament and the enhancement of science for the benefit of all humanity!”

Ceres would have been a likely first destination for a Medusa ship. What could have been. George Santayana is often misquoted in that usually only the last part of his most famous saying is stated: “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

To retain what has been learned, to see the direction that would have improved our being, that is what saves us from condemnation. Like Santayana’s perpetual infant we are not remembering. Right now we have the resources to effectively expand humankind into the solar system and guarantee our survival. That may not last.

And that could be our last mistake.



Published by billgamesh

Revivable Cryopreservation Advocate

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