SETI bioastro: Fw: Article: Op-Ed Contributor Buzz Aldrin: Fly Me to L 1

Date: Fri Dec 05 2003 - 07:34:23 PST

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    Op-Ed Contributor: Fly Me to L 1

    December 5, 2003



    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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