From: LARRY KLAES (ljk4_at_msn.com)
Date: Fri Dec 05 2003 - 07:34:23 PST
Op-Ed Contributor: Fly Me to L 1
December 5, 2003
By BUZZ ALDRIN
For the last 24 hours, news reports have been soaring into
orbit that President Bush and NASA are busy preparing their
vision for the future of America's space program - and that
this vision may involve sending astronauts back to the
moon, and perhaps establishing some sort of permanent base
there. I applaud the instinct, but I think that a moon shot
alone seems more like reaching for past glory than striving
for new triumphs.
Instead, I think the next step in our space program should
be to create a floating launching pad for manned and
unmanned missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond. This is not
a task for the unfinished International Space Station,
which is intended to be a floating laboratory rather than a
bridge to the heavens.
A much more practical destination than the moon or the
space station is a region of space called L 1, which is
more than two-thirds of the way to the moon and is where
the gravity fields between the Earth and Moon are in
balance. Setting up a space port there would offer a highly
stable platform from which spacecraft could head toward
near-Earth asteroids, the lunar surface, the moons of Mars
and wherever else mankind decides to travel.
Unlike the Moon and the International Space Station, which
is in low-earth orbit, L 1 is not the site of strong
gravitational pulls, meaning that spacecraft can leave
there without using much energy. Thus L 1 would be the most
sensible position for a base that would function as a test
area and way-point for robotic flights as well as a support
station and safe haven for human exploration of the solar
It would also be relatively cheap, at least in terms of
space travel. To create a port at L 1 we can use the
building methods that have already proved successful for
Skylab and the International Space Station - and we can
probably get it up and running for $10 billion to $15
billion, significantly less than the International Space
Station, which will likely exceed $100 billion in the end.
We can also save money by shifting away from using the
space shuttle as the transport vehicle and by developing a
new, more flexible launch vehicle and crew module to get
people and cargo up to the L 1 port.
Unfortunately, NASA's work on future vehicles - including
the much-ballyhooed "orbital space plane" - has stalled
since the disaster with the Shuttle Columbia. And even
before then, the agency had been focusing on the wrong sort
of craft: one limited to transporting four astronauts at a
time with little or no cargo-carrying capability. Such a
craft would essentially be duplicating what the Russian
Soyuz craft already does adequately: bringing several
astronauts up and back from a space station, but little
else. Moreover, NASA's "Supersized Soyuz" approach focuses
only on serving the International Space Station, rather
than working toward a more expansive vision.
There are better ways to invest our money in a new craft.
One that would be relatively quick and easy would be to
keep what works in the current space transportation system
- the rocket boosters, external tank and trained staff -
and combine them with new elements. The tanks and boosters
we now use will soon be predictable and safe, as a part of
NASA's post-Columbia efforts. And if we stick with them, no
new buildings or untested ground-transportation methods
would need to be built.
The big change would be to replace the aging shuttle
orbiter with a new crew module that would hold perhaps
eight or more astronauts, and build a so-called heavy-lift
vehicle, capable of carrying cargo, that would attach
behind the module. This craft would be capable of variable
crew and cargo configurations. The crew module would need
built-in escape and rescue capabilities for the people
aboard. The early version might have to make parachute or
parafoil landings in the ocean, although eventually it
should be modified to make runway landings.
Over time, more powerful engines and reusable rocket
boosters could be added to make possible sending even
larger payloads and more passengers into space at a lower
cost per person and per pound. But the important thing for
the president to think about at this point is the long-term
future of space flight and for NASA to pursue all avenues,
big and small, to come up with the best plan.
Unfortunately, NASA has limited its $135 million orbital
space plane development contracts to a few giants:
proposals by Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.
As a result, the space agency has shut the door on the
smaller, entrepreneurial companies that are responsible for
some of the most innovative current thinking on space
technology. The farther reaching scope of an L 1 effort
calls for collaboration and competition - two qualities
that should be part of the cultural change NASA pledged to
undertake after loss of the Columbia.
In addition, NASA might even look at a new competitor as a
possible partner. The modernized, Soyuz-like manned capsule
that China sent into orbit in October is potentially safer
and seems technologically more robust than the Russian
version. Working jointly with China would not only fill a
needed gap when America's agreement with Russia on using
Soyuz runs out in 2006, but it would also make a
potentially important political alliance. China and America
are on the verge of a new space race - with economic
competition expected from Japan, Europe and perhaps India -
and it is better to start off with cooperation than with
The tragedy of the Columbia, combined with China's
successful launch, have put NASA at a crossroads. America's
continued leadership in space depends on decisions made
now. President Bush should realize that the first step is a
bold new vision from the top.
Buzz Aldrin, an astronaut on the Apollo XI moon mission, is
chairman of Starcraft Boosters, which develops reusable
booster rockets for spacecraft.
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