Thanks to the history of the early 1960s a lot of golden anniversaries of space milestones are coming up, and a couple of posts at the Atlantic magazine website called one to my attention.
Fifty years ago today, JFK declared that the US would reach the Moon within a decade, thus launching the Apollo program. Forty years after the deadline he set we are still living in its shadow. The two Atlantic pieces reflect, for the most part, one on JFK's decision, the other on its technological consequences.
Going to the Moon was, in some important sense, a stunt. Recently released tapes, as reported in the first linked piece, evidently shown JFK's own subsequent misgivings - mainly, it seems, about the cost, and the lack of dramatic progress as he looked toward the 1964 election. He mulls pitching a military use for space: not on the actual merits, but as a way to make it more politically acceptable.
This is not especially helpful to my own position in a recent post. (But it does not really challenge the core argument about public initiatives. YM, of course, MV.)
The other linked article deals with the path not taken, though I disagree with the author's interpretation of that path. NASA evolved as a vastly ramped up version of a previous agency, NACA, which dealt with aviation, and the idea of flying into orbit was well established in the rocketpunk era. It is certainly elegant; the problem is that it is extremely difficult.
Even 'conventional' ramjets overheat much past Mach 5, and while scramjets have now been successfully flight tested, these tests were enormously expensive, and tested only small scramjets operating for a few seconds. Given that high speed flight has been around even longer than orbital space travel, this does not encourage much confidence in flying to orbit as a practical technology. The Atlantic author sort of glides past that issue, but while you can glide back from orbit you have to get up there under power.
If my remarks here seem to contradict things I have said previously on this blog, it is because my feelings on the subject are in fact contradictory. A reusable two-stage orbital vehicle is, I would guess, technically viable. Perhaps, on a smaller scale, a three-stage vehicle with the first stage (or 'zeroth') stage based on jet transport technology.
But it is by no means clear that such a vehicle, if built, would make orbital spaceflight dramatically cheaper than the way we get there now. Or perhaps even cheaper at all. The problem is that any such reusable orbiter must have added weights and complexity in order to return for re-use, thus a reduced payload relative to its overall size, cost, and complexity. The savings from re-use may not be enough. Almost certainly they are not enough at the current tempo of space missions.
This is where I am supposed to neatly wrap things up and tie them in a bow. But since my views are complex and contradictory, I can only throw the question out for further discussion.
The image of a moonrise above Arizona saguaro comes, as so often, from Astronomy Picture Of the Day.
And a bit more honest plugola: Pending my setting up a proper permanent sidebar link, etc., a few more posts of mine are up at IBM Infoboom:
Business Analytics: Avoiding Too Much InformationClick love is very much appreciated!
The Open Virtualization Alliance: Virtual Storage Goes Open Source
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