[source: MIAMI HERALD, FEBRUARY 5, 1986]|
NASA behind the times
By T.A. HEPPENHEIMER
T.A. Heppenheimer holds a Ph.D. degree in
aerospace engineering and is a science writer
in Southern California.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) may have to be dragged kicking and
screaming Into the 21st Century.
A host of new technologies is evolving that offers the promise of vast advances In space flight.
Yet NASA resolutely has stuck to pursuing a series of goals from decades past using the
old-fashioned technology of rockets.
NASA wants first a space station -a larger version of Skylab which we launched in 1973. And for
the more-distant future NASA still hopes to send astronauts to Mars at enormous expense again
using rockets. This goal has been dear to its heart since the 1960s. No matter that we sent an
advanced robot lab to land on Mars In 1976 and could easily do so again. No NASA says only
astronauts will do.
This tenacious hold on old technical chestnuts this unwillingness to pursue new goals is the
symptom of a fossilized bureaucracy that pursues only Government-approved dreams. NASA today is
staffed mostly by old-timers who have been there for decades. It attracts few young people with
But in the wake of the Challenger disaster NASA's very existence will be questioned and its aims
re-examined and defined anew. From Challenger's ashes may rise a new space program for the next
NASA management should commit its efforts to "impossible" goals that stretch the limits of what
we can foresee as feasible. The agency's motto should be, "Do the Impossible and do it well."
Such goals would stimulate young people attract the involvement of entrepreneurs and spur new
technologies. These goals should have a common theme: to develop the infrastructure of space to
support the most ambitious efforts of the next century.
First NASA should develop jet-propelled aircraft that can fly to orbit. NASA is already joining
the Air Force's aerospace-plane project but in a Junior role. Using new engines and lightweight
materials that now are in active development such aircraft would have cargo bays nearly as large
as its fuel tanks. By contrast the shuttle's main fuel load is 25 times heavier than its cargo.
With such craft or with even more-advanced ones NASA could pursue a second goal: the reduction of
launch costs to $15 per pound of cargo carried to orbit. This contrasts with the $5 000 per-pound
costs of the shuttle. With such low cargo costs the nation's builders and entrepreneurs could
undertake construction in space on a large scale.
At that price space flight would enter our lives as aviation entered our parents' world. We could
rely on spaceborne aircraft for flights halfway around the world In little more than an hour. The
Pacific Rim would boom amid such fast and easy transportation. People would take vacations in
orbit thus experiencing space travel at first hand.
A third goal would open up the entire solar system for flight. Rather than rely on conventional
rockets NASA must develop new engines powered by nuclear reactions. Much of the needed technology
may flow from the "Star Wars" program. Such craft would operate only in deep space never landing
on Earth. But they could fly to Mars in as little as nine days.
A fourth goal would develop the capacity to undertake large-scale construction In space using raw
materials taken from the moon or the asteroids We could routinely transport moon rocks on an
industrial scale extracting their valuable metals silicon and oxygen. When using sophisticated
robots we could build orbiting cities solar-powered satellites the size of Manhattan
interplanetary spaceships and the ultimate telescope that could see objects the size of houses on
planets of nearby stars.
Once these goals were accomplished NASA could support the vastest space projects of the next
century. We might undertake the large-scale deployment of Star Wars systems for missile defense.
The colonization of space could go forward. The entire solar system would be open to widespread
exploration. New energy sources relying on solar power from space could supplement our waning oil
Can we afford such things in a nation that needs subways and help for the homeless? A reasonable
rule to follow is "If you can't do It easily -don't push." The shuttle is expensive because
engineers have pushed the rocket a marginal technology to its limits forcing it to do more than
it can readily accept.
By contrast tomorrow offers a host of new technologies -- in robotics in advanced engines in the
use of computers for design in lightweight materials With them space flight even on a vast scale
may he accomplished with relative ease. These technologies will be as far beyond the shuttle's as
a jetliner is beyond a steamship. And these technologies used in space will also enter and
transform the way we do things here on Earth thus helping to secure our future