April 6, 2003
Beginning of the Road
By Dane Sorensen
This year has been a contrast of America's power. On February 1 the 24 year old Space Shuttle Columbia was torn apart during re-entry. On March 18 the United States Military launched an attack on Sadam's Iraq and made a dash to Baghdad in only 17 days. I can't help think of how different these two government agencies are. One is bulky and bloated using 30 year old technology the other is oriented toward high technology and constantly working on improving their equipment. The laggard is NASA and the futurist is the Pentagon. Who would have thought the US Military would be a better champion of technology compared to NASA. Today it is far safer to go to war with our armed forces than to go into space. One would think NASA would be the one on the cutting edge.
Instead, NASA is the bloated waster of taxpayer's funds. Before the Columbia tore apart, the shuttles cost a half a billion dollars to launch each time. It is no wonder that NASA had to cut back from its original goal of 12 launches a year. With a 15 billion dollar budget for all NASA operations, the Shuttle takes a large percentage of its budget. The cost to launch a French Ariane IV rocket is only $70 million. It can loft up a 4.8 ton satellite which is approximately the capacity of the shuttles. The new Ariane V will be able to do several tons more.
In contrast to NASA, which has not improved our ability to go to space in over 30 years, the military has increased the firepower and safety of all its equipment. Consider the Army's main battle tank the USA M1A2 MBT Abrams Tank. Compared to the older version used in the first Gulf War it is capable of targeting up to 16 targets at once while on the run versus targeting only 1 target in 1991. It comes complete with advanced computers and thermal imaging sites. With GPS precision navigation the tank can travel up to 45 miles an hour.
Today NASA prides itself in saving money by using off the shelf components in building satellites and probes. Meanwhile, the military is inventing things that have never existed before. It is sad to say my taste for NASA is as minimal as my taste for Tang. Do we really want a 12 billion dollar agency that shops at Radio Shack?
GPS, by the way was developed by the military and not NASA. It became operational in 1994 and has revolutionized how the military bombs the enemy. With undreamt of accuracy the military can aim cruise missiles, smart bombs and vehicles. It continues to help insure only the enemy is taken out and not civilians.
Despite critics who have demonstrated that the shuttle system is seriously flawed, NASA continues to claim they can be used for another twenty years or more. Critical components in the shuttle remain to be totally not backed up by other systems. Few people realize after the Challenger blew up in its launch cycle the 7 astronauts were still very much alive. However, due to NASA's hubris there were no parachutes or means of abandoning ship. They fell for almost 3 minutes before hitting the water with a killing force of 200Gs. NASA's answer to provide escape from a Shuttle was a weak system that would work only at low altitudes and only if the shuttle was capable of flying level. Calls for escape pods capable of removing the crew from the Shuttle go ignored even after the current Columbia failure.
NASA has made some weak attempts to develop the next generation of space vehicles only to kill funding when development showed progress. Promising technology from the X-33 and X-34 Space Plane projects were killed due to expenses. I feel it was the fact that the current Shuttles were the expenses that killed these projects. Only 1.2 billion dollars had been spent on the X-33 project, which had brought it up to a working test model. How could 1.2 billion be too expensive? That is approximately the cost of launching 2 Shuttle flights? NASA once again shows even less foresight than the postal system. Worse yet, to save money, plans were scrapped to store the X-33. It was cheaper to dismantle.
Another technology that could make space flight much easier to attain are Scramjets. A scramjet is an air breathing engine capable of working at very high attitudes and at speeds 4-6 times the speed of sound. By using the ultra thin air beyond which planes cannot fly a scramjet powered craft would be able to reach space without having to haul up much of the oxygen it must currently carry. The weight, power and danger of space travel would be greatly reduced if scramjets could be used. The scramjet prototypes are designated X-43A and this research is under funded and going at a terribly slow pace. A company in Australia is competing with NASA in development and is making as much or more progress as NASA's better funded project. Development of hybrid jet engines capable of taking off from a runway to fly has high as 120,000 feet would revolutionize space flight. The energy needed to go the extra 80,000 feet would be minimal for low orbit.
Nasa's latest Scramjet Test failure
A Ray of Hope: The United States Air Force announced about the same time as the cruise missiles were being launched toward Baghdad, that it was looking into starting a new project That project was to develop a cheap and fast system of launching satellites, people and weapons into space. One of their concept ideas is to launch conventional explosive bombs from space that would re-enter the earth going thousands of miles an hour to penetrate deep into the earth to take out bunkers that have kept the likes of Sadam alive. Our current bunker busters just don't have what it takes to strike several hundred feet below the surface. It is this and other ideas by our technological generals that will make our people in uniform safer and give us civilians new tools to advance ourselves. Perhaps like GPS and the Internet (another DOD invention) the military will continue to push us to where "no man has gone before." As for NASA, they continue to represent more of the past than the future. They continue to use computers in the Shuttle that have less power than those in a typical army tank.