Beyond the Shuttle's Orbit


Observers decrying the end of space shuttle flights, presaged in the Bush administration's announcement that no new orbiters will be ordered, should look at the bigger picture. First, barring an amazing series of catastrophes, today's four-orbiter shuttle fleet will be flying well into the next century. Not bad for a vehicle based on technology already 30 years old. Shuttles will clearly never achieve the flight schedule NASA planners envisioned when the world's first re-usable space plane roared off Cape Canaveral 10 years ago, but shuttles still have an impressive record, including the world's only in-orbit satellite repairs.

Attention should now be focused on the technological advances produced by America's long experience in space, and on others which could be harnessed to boost mankind's reach beyond the grasping force of gravity. New structural materials, new understanding of atmospheric effects, new electronics, even new methods of organizing space efforts have come to the fore.

Wide uses of satellites for communications and remote sensing have become commonplace, affecting even the way space operations are managed. The prospective National Aerospace Plane and the plans for new unmanned launch systems should benefit from these discoveries in ways the shuttle fleet could not. A new orbital maneuvering vehicle, discussed but never built, will surely be needed to support a manned space station, should that actually get off the ground.

Finally, the role of private companies in the manned exploration of space has never been fully defined. Private firms rushed to offer funds for a replacement orbiter after the Challenger's blazing demise. Those firms primarily wanted assured cargo-bay space for satellite launches. But with the steady push from both the Bush administration and the Reagan administration for private space efforts, it is only a matter of time before well-funded proposals for private manned missions come knocking.

The commercialization of space, the driving force behind the expansion of the launch vehicle fleet, eventually will bring economies of scale that benefit science and industry. There's no reason Americans should be so wedded to one kind of launcher all other avenues are blocked.

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