Into the Wilderness

At the dawn of the 21st Century, Americans are coddled and take many things for granted.

We get into our cars, we drive out in the country or up into the mountains, and we expect to find gasoline, food at the grocery or general store, and a motel that will have indoor plumbing and bedding for our biological needs. If we're really adventurous, we'll not take a car, but instead a motor home, so that we can stock up on food and supplies and rough it out in the woods for a while.

But when our country was young, out on the frontier, there were no groceries. There were no conveniences. Sometimes, if one went too far over the verge, there weren't even the basic things that we needed to live, like water. Yet many went out into the wilderness, risking life and happiness, often for no reason than to see what was over the next mountain.

Let's move back into the 21st, or even the 20th Century, for a moment, and change the subject slightly (but only slightly, as we will see in a few paragraphs).

When a pilot takes off in an airplane, one of the fundamental things he does before spinning up the propellor and becoming airborne is to check out the aircraft. He walks around it, examining the control surfaces, the pressure in the tires, the fasteners that hold vital wings to critical fuselage. He tests the controls and verifies that his manual activities result in aircraft response--rudder, aileron, elevator.

Then, he knows that the aircraft is ready for flight, and so is he.

Prior to each flight, the space shuttle undergoes the same procedure, except instead of a simple brief walk around by the pilot, it spends months under the tender ministrations of a division of troops, dedicated engineers and technicians, the "standing army" that claims so much of the cost of the system, to ensure that it is ready for its mission.

But consider: there are three phases to a space shuttle's mission.

The first is the launch phase, in which it is thrust out into the universe on a huge flaming tail of fire, briefly generating more power than the entire electrical output of the nation. We lost a shuttle during this phase 17 years ago, and everyone assumed that it was the most dangerous part of the flight.

The second phase is on orbit, in which the astronauts float, ethereally, accomplishing their mission. The sense of danger is almost nonexistent and palliated by the serenity of weightlessness and the silence of the emptiness of space, and beauty of the earth passing below, once every hour and a half.

The third phase is actually the most dangerous.

In this phase, the vehicle must reenter earth's atmosphere, and it must slow down by using the friction of that hypersonic air to drag it to almost the halt necessary for it to make final approach to the runway and land. It has an unimaginable amount of energy in orbit, and almost all of it must be dissipated into the thin gases at tens of miles of altitude, and (at least momentarily, until it can cool off) into insulating and heat-absorbing tiles on the hottest portions of the structure, particularly the nose and leading edge of the wings.

The ascent environment, assuming that there are no catastrophic disassemblies of the stressed propulsion systems (as occurred on the final Challenger flight in 1986) is a cake walk compared to the entry, at least as far as the orbiter is concerned.

Yet prior to ascent, engineers spend months refurbishing and inspecting the vehicle, preparing it for launch. In contrast, prior to the much more strenuous descent, after having gone through the rigor of ascent, almost nothing is done, unless there's an obvious problem indicated by sensors. It is simply assumed that the ground preparation readied the vehicle for the entire mission, and that nothing will occur on orbit to make the return problematic.

Why? Because there's no capability in the system to do otherwise. There are no facilities in space to inspect or repair a shuttle orbiter. There are no tow trucks to rescue it if it has a propulsion failure. There are no motels to spend the night if they can't return on schedule. There are no general stores to purchase additional supplies of food--or air.

Every flight of a space shuttle (at least those that don't go to ISS) is a flight deep into the wilderness of space, in the equivalent of a motor home on which everything has to go right. Because, there's no other way home and delay is ultimately death-- and "ultimately" isn't very far off.

I've written before about the fragility and brittleness of our space transportation infrastructure. I was referring to the systems that get us into space, and the ground systems that support them.

But we have an even bigger problem, that was highlighted by the loss of the Columbia on Saturday. Our orbital infrastructure isn't just fragile--it's essentially nonexistent, with the exception of a single space station at a high inclination, which was utterly unreachable by the Columbia on that mission.

Imagine the options that Mission Control and the crew would have had if they'd known they had a problem, and there was an emergency rescue hut (or even a Motel 6 for space tourists) in their orbit, with supplies to buy time until a rescue mission could be deployed. Or if we had a responsive launch system that could have gotten cargo up to them quickly.

As it was, even if they'd known that the ship couldn't safely enter, there was nothing they could do. And in fact, the knowledge that there were no solutions may have subtly influenced their assessment that there wasn't a problem.

The lesson we must take from the most recent shuttle disaster is that we can no longer rely on a single vehicle for our access to the new frontier, and that we must start to build the needed orbital infrastructure in low earth orbit, and farther out, to the moon, so that, in the words of the late Congressman George Brown, "greater metropolitan earth" is no longer a wilderness in which a technical failure means death or destruction.

NASA's problem hasn't been too much vision, even for near-earth activities, but much too little. But it's a job not just for NASA--to create that infrastructure, we will have to set new policies in place that harness private enterprise, just as we did with the railroads in the 19th Century. That is the policy challenge that will come out of the latest setback--to begin to tame the harsh wilderness only two hundred miles above our heads.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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