With the recent successful launch of the Dragon crew capsule I thought I’d post this “blast from the past.”
I’m a big proponent of space science, don’t get me wrong, but my major interest in the “space program” when I was younger was the idea that maybe someday I could go, I could walk on the moon or mars or visit, maybe live in, a space colony. That was what I wanted: “I wanted the hurtling moons of Barsoom…” and if not Barsoom, then at least the real Mars.
When it became clear that it was never going to happen, a lot of my passion dried up. Oh, there was still the academic interest in space science, in understanding the sun and the planets, in maybe seeing if there is life on other worlds, in the solar magnetosphere and its motion through interstellar space.
But the passion that used to drive me was gone.
That’s where NASA (and their political masters) dropped the ball, IMO. While I have nothing against the folk doing Space Science, I really think most of whatever budget they had should have been doing toward “access to space” technology. Improving rocket reliability. The strong, yet lightweight structures for flight airframes. Real hardware rather than whole forests of paper. Stuff done to bring, and presented as bringing, us closer to the day when you and I can go. We needed the space equivalent of the NACA cowl and 4 and 5 digit airfoils so that private companies could build private hardware that could carry private, commercial passengers to private space stations.
Instead we got Shuttle, and no new human carrying hardware until, well, nothing yet. And with Shuttle gone, we’re left with even older technology (Soyuz) to get humans into Space. I mean that span carried us just about from the Ford Trimotor to the Boeing 707. Yes, space travel is hard, but more than 30 years after Shuttle’s first flight we don’t have anything better?
That passion got ignited again back on the old electronic service GEnie. Geoff Landis made the offhand comment that “what we needed was a rocket that individuals could make and that could carry a person up a hundred miles or so.” I took the idea and ran with it. Geoff and I did a bunch of back and forth. Some other people stuck there nickel’s worth in. And the result was the SpaceCub concept. We presented it at the NW Space Development conference. New Scientist included a bit about it. I was interviewed for an AAAS broadcast (I really wish I could find tape or transcript for that).
For a while there, it looked like I was going to be able to go somewhere with it. At the college I was attending we had a visiting scientist from Russia. He put me in contact with his old professor. The professor put me in contact with someone from Energomach (manufacture of key rocket motors–including the verniers from the RD-107/108 that Geoff and and I were looking at for SpaceCub). And . . . well, there was no money for any “and” and I had to move on with the task of getting a job and providing for myself.
The real problem, even more than money, was the legal issues. I looked at the treaties of which the US was a signitory. I looked at the law, as it existed then. And, well, it looked pretty bad for anyone wanting to actually try something like SpaceCub. So, well, my old web page about it is still up, but that’s as afar as it ever went.
But, not long after the X-Prize was announced. The specs for the prize matched what SpaceCub was intended to do, carry passengers to a height of 100 km (international definition of the beginning of Space) and bring them back to Earth, and do it over and over again with minimal time in between flights. I spoke to one of the folk there and he swore up and down that they weren’t influenced by SpaceCub but, well, as Geoff said, before we came along nobody was talking about manned suborbital flight. Then after we started getting some press, suddenly they were. I don’ t know. I have my suspicions, but I don’t know.
Apparently the Rutans and Richard Branson think the legal issues can be dealt with since they’re building a business to do what SpaceCub was supposed to do for (admittedly relatively well-heeled) individuals–private, human carrying rocket flights into space.
And so, my hope is back a little bit. But I’m afraid it’s not hope resided in NASA or the government, but in the Rutans and Bransons of the world.
And add Elon Musk to that list. He wants to go to Mars. I, for one, don’t want to bet against him making it.