Sunday, July 26, 2009

Why the space age died

As our nation's space agency prepares to retire the last vehicle of what was to be golden age of space exploration, it faces a bleak future of budget cuts and lack of confidence from our country's leaders. There was a time when every launch into the black void beyond our atmosphere was watched with breathless anticipation by millions of viewers around the country. Yet, I can only recall having watched perhaps half a dozen launches myself. Why is that? It's because there is nothing interesting happening in space. We aren't landing on some alien world for the first time. We haven't even left our back yard! Sure we've tossed some junk over the neighbors fence, but we've never walked up to the gate and stepped through to the other side.

Now there are countless reasons that people can come up with that supposedly explain why this is. But I can give you the real reason. The blame for the decline of the space age lays upon the shoulders of a single man. That man was John F. Kennedy.

"What?" you might ask. "Isn't he the president that put us on the moon?" you might argue. Indeed he did. But what many people don't know is that he is also the man who shut down the one project that offered us everything a scifi geek could ever ask for from current technology.

What, I ask, are the main problems with building up a massive space infrastructure? Well, for the most part, there is only one BIG problem. It is ludicrously difficult to reach space. So difficult that it costs billions of dollars to put a payload in space that a flatbed truck could do for hundreds. You only need to get about 200 kilometers up to reach orbit, but the energy needed to reach orbital velocity is astronomical. The more you need to lift, the more energy you need to do it. But to produce that energy you need fuel, which has weight, which means you need energy to lift that too. See the problem here?

But what if I told you it didn't have to be so difficult? What if I told you that the technology to put a space station (or colony) in orbit around ever planet and moon in our solar system has been around since the 60's but was never used? There was such a technology. It was called "Project Orion" and had the power to lift ships the size of small cities into space and take said ship to the nearest star and back in a human lifetime. If only it had been further developed.

It worked by basically chucking a small, shaped nuclear charge through a hole in a large pusher-plate and detonating it. Kind of like putting a cherry bomb under a garbage can, but much larger. The system would do this every few seconds to continue pushing the ship into space and beyond. It sounds like it would have been too hard to control such a thing, but they actually developed it, and worked out all the kinks decades ago. It system was ready to go into space but Kennedy shut it down. Legend has it that one of the scientists who pitched the idea to Kennedy said that they would be able to use the technology to build a space battleship. One armed with nuclear warheads and capable of cruising around the solar system. Allegedly, the idea of such a weapon sickened Kennedy so much he shut the project down.

Such a system could carry and deliver enough material to construct stations throughout the entire solar system in a single launch. Not only that, but once it was done with that, it would still have enough fuel to go to the asteroid belt and push a rock or two back to earth to be mined for materials for further space construction. After that it could be used to ferry material around at high speed, or perhaps sent out to explore deep space! The only real drawback is the risk of fallout contamination in the atmosphere, but even this was minimized by the use of special filler around the nuclear charges. And like I said, you would only need to launch it once to completely revolutionize space as we know it. Besides, I think that we have done enough damage to the environment since then to make one Orion launch rather trivial in comparison. Even the legendary Carl Sagan supported the idea, believing that it was the best way to recycle the massive stockpile of nuclear weapons thats sitting around collecting dust.

"What about cosmic rays or long-term exposure to micro gravity?" you may ponder. No need to worry there either. You see, the ships were to be so massive that the outer chambers that would have been filled with water or cargo would be so thick that it would shield the passengers living in the inner chambers from cosmic rays. And as for micro gravity, remember 2001: a Space Odyssey? The ship would have been cylindrical and would rotate to create simulated gravity. I'm telling you, they thought of EVERYTHING. And they did all this back in the Apollo era. It sickens me to think about how much different things could be right now if the project had been given the green light. Sure, we would still need to find a way to get people up there cheeper, but don't you think we would have more incentive if there was a whole flourishing industry up there worth trillions in asteroid mining alone? Not to mention tourism, space exploration or colonization of other celestial bodies.

So when your sitting around thinking about how much cooler your life would be if you were living on a space colony orbiting pluto, blame JFK.


RetroPengo said...

The cost of developing something like this might have bankrupted us as a country back in the 60's. I'm sure there were reasons it was scrapped.

Besides, MUCH cooler tech is coming around the bend like ion particle drives. mmm, tasty!

Ev said...

If you read up on it it was actually significantly cheaper to develop than the stuff we use now. As for Ion drives, I'll be impressed when one can get into orbit unassisted. As I stated, the biggest problem is getting stuff up there. And the main reason it got shut down was the nuclear stigma.

RetroPengo said...

Are you taking into account inflation? Lots of stuff was way cheaper back then but when we look at it, cost much more than current stuff in today's dollars. Like tanks.

I think the best thing to do would be to apply today's technological advancements to that project. Make it better, cheaper, faster. Poor NASA just doesn't have the funding they used to.