Once and Future Past


Gemini 9. Credit: NASA

The Atlantic recently posted a couple of really nice photo essays on the space program. The piece on decommissioning the space shuttles isn’t too surprising; that’s a big and fairly recent deal. The Gemini story is more surprising, as it happened nearly 50 years ago and is generally only thought about by space geeks like me.

Gemini was the gateway drug that hooked me on the space program, maybe because they were the first missions I was conscious of. I remember being fascinated by the big silver rocket with the little two-man tin can on top. And spacemen were cool. How could I not be drawn to something that looked just like my favorite G.I. Joe?

Not until I was an adult and could understand what Gemini was all about, did I truly come to appreciate it. Those were real trailblazing flights, where we learned not just how to get people to orbit and back, but how to really fly in space and get stuff done. It was a serious flight-test program, and by all accounts the early astronauts were hugely fond of it for that very reason. NASA did it quickly and boldly, traits that have apparently been bred out of their DNA.

Sigh.

In a depressing contrast, NASA flails around with yet another design study that looks great but will probably never see the light of day – much less anything beyond Earth orbit. What chaps my butt is that they have the money and talent to build the thing, but almost everything NASA has will be thrown into the bottomless pit that the Space Launch System (SLS) is certain to be, simply because Congress says so.

So if Lockheed is planning to test the Orion crew module next year on a Delta IV-heavy, then why exactly do we need to spend money on a new launch vehicle? There are alternatives to using a heavy lifter that are not being seriously explored simply because they don’t bring pork to Alabama and Texas.

Meanwhile, Boeing continues to make progress on their considerably cheaper CST-100 crew vehicle, which can be launched on either Atlas V, Delta IV, or Falcon 9 boosters. To be fair, CST is designed exclusively for short-duration missions to low Earth orbit. Orion is for longer missions beyond Earth orbit, which means reentry speeds around 24,000 mph instead of the leisurely 17,000 mph from Earth orbit. That means more robust systems all the way around, and you’d better believe the heat shield needs to be a lot beefier…oh, wait, SpaceX has already done that!

Which begs another question: if they successfully demonstrate Dragon, why continue spending money on Orion? Wouldn’t those dollars be better spent on an exploration vessel that can be refueled in orbit, to go pretty much anywhere that strikes our fancy, while using private contractors to get people to it?

Our congress-critters need to understand that where we are now is comparable to the 1920’s airmail system, when U.S. Postal Service contracts paved the way for our airline industry. Continuing to do space the old way would be like the government designing, building, and operating their own airliners just to get a few civil servants back and forth from NY to DC, when they could just buy tickets on Southwest.

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