I remember when I was a teenager, when the first American Space Shuttle was unveiled. It was kinda fat and chunky looking, but it was still a real spaceship. It was a beginning. I was sure that within my lifetime, we would eventually have spaceships like the elegant Orion Space Clipper that was featured in the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey":
Wow. Well, here it is, 2008. NASA is going to retire our clunky space shuttle by 2010, and introduce a newer, next-generation spacecraft to replace it. Coincidentally, it's going to be called "Orion", and will be used to shuttle astronauts to and from the International space station, AND to the moon and back. That's right, we're going back to the moon, and it's scheduled to happen no later than 2020. Then, on to Mars...
Fabulous! Soon we will get to see this new Orion spaceship, which is being built right now. But we don't have to wait until it's finished to see it, NASA has already made the plans public! So here it is, the NEW Orion space shuttle:
But, but... that's an APOLLO space CAPSULE, isn't it? Well, it's a similar design. It's actually 2 and 1/2 times larger than the Apollo version, it can hold up to six astronauts for shuttle missions, and four astronauts for Lunar missions. Here is a picture of the Orion with a lunar module attached:
Looks familiar, doesn't it? I had trouble deciding wether to call this post "Back to the Future" or "Everything old is new again".
So what happened to our beautiful Orion Space Clipper? Why are we going back to designs from 40 years ago? There's two major reasons I can think of: cost, and safety.
These old designs are tried and true. We know they work. Update them with new technology, and they work really well. I also suspect that with new technology, they are cheaper to build than anything else. Here is a picture of the new Orion capsule with it's solar cells and antennae dish deployed:
We are simply building on old technology, using what we know works, and making it better. Click here for more pics of the Orion spacecraft.
The space shuttle aircraft we've used for the past three decades are made from a more bold and ambitious design, but are also more complex and fraught with dangers. Consider the Challenger accident, the shuttle that exploded after launching; the Columbia burning up while returning to earth.
The Challenger crew could not be saved. However, with the new Orion design, the crew can be saved if the rocket explodes on the launch pad, or in the air. The capsule has a rescue rocket on top, to lift it way from danger.
The Columbia crew died when their damaged heat shield failed on reentry. The Orion capsule's heat shield is protected from damage during liftoff, and is a round shape that is easier to build and maintain.
Every time astronauts die, people call for an end to the space program. By going back to old designs and improving them, we are saving both money and lives. It's hard to argue with that. So I may not see this in my lifetime:
But hopefully I will see this:
If we have to sacrifice elegant design for the safety of our astronauts and the efficiency of our space program budget, then so be it. As we learn more we can get fancier; but we need to grow into it at a natural pace. Slow but steady progress with it's attendant successes will get us where we want to go.
The new back-to-the-moon mission is called the Constellation Program. The link goes to NASA's website, where you can find out lots more details about the mission and photos of the various spacecraft being developed. I had lots of fun looking around there. If you are a space fan, be sure and check it out.
It's back to the future... are you ready? I am, let's go!
First, the moon once again. Then look out Mars, here we come...