The US Space Program, like the British Rifles, has only two marches, quick-time and dawdle. With the final Space Shuttle launch in the next few days, the pace seems to be set at dawdle.
The pioneering work of Goddard was largely ignored
The US largely ignored the pioneering rocket work of Goddard, only to spend great effort in rounding up as many leading German rocket scientists, tons of documents and drawings, and rocket equipment as possible in 1945.
The US and the USSR both seized German rockets and scientists in 1945
After firing off a stock of captured German A4 rockets NACA began to slide into dawdle and those Germans working on the US Army program were told that there would be “consequences” if they fired any rocket further than 200 miles.
The USSR gave the US a nasty shock with satellites and Gagarin. The longer term threats were equaled by the short term propaganda victory
It was only after the Russian successes in orbiting satellites and the first astronaut that the US was stung into action. It was realized that the old military maximum that the soldier with a height advantage could dictate a battle still held and that sending men into space introduced a new height advantage. The prospect of missiles based on the US doorstep in Cuba, and the orbiting of spacecraft that could be equipped to launch nuclear weapons, changed the military balance of power.
The US Moon landing was a major success achieved in quick-time
In responding to these perceived threats, the US space program switched into quick-time and scored the dramatic goal by landing men on the Moon.
Before the Apollo Program was completed, the US went back into dawdle and NASA, as the new space and aeronautics agency, was threatened with disbandment.
The only lifelines were SpaceLab and Space Shuttle. How far the related programs were a desperate attempt by NASA to survive is debatable. The Space Shuttle was sold as a reusable and low cost space vehicle for taking people and materials into a low Earth orbit to build an orbiting space station. The reality was an incredibly complex space vehicle that was a major step forward in preparation for space exploration, but failed to deliver fully on the expectations of US politicians for a low-cost vehicle. The loss of only two Shuttles across 134 missions is a major achievement but politicians focus on the bad news for any program that requires major funding. The idea of launching space station components that were originally designed as rocket stages was a quick-time solution.
The ISS has provided a platform to monitor prolonged human exposure to conditions in space and demonstrated that assembly of complex structures is possible in Earth orbit
The International Space Station has been a great success, but it has demonstrated that the launching of rockets with payload stages can offer a cheaper and more reliable launch system than Space Shuttle.
The difficulty that NACA and NASA have faced is that they were established as civilian organizations that make nothing. Essentially they have been a research and development agency and a procurement system, with space craft being built by aerospace defence contractors. Politicians have consistently tried to divert money from space exploration to social spending. The public is most attentive when men are launched into space, but their enthusiasm wanes until a new space spectacular can be staged or the final launch of a program is reached.
The STS-135 Shuttle mission will probably be followed by a massive audience because it is the end of an era.
US President Hussein Obama seems determined to cut off funding to the US space program and hopes that commercial organizations will step forward to take over.
The current US President is focused on his second term election and is looking for any US Federal spending that can be slashed to reduce the deficit. This includes a determination to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan prematurely if only to produce a propaganda advantage before returning them after his re-election. This muddled approach to funding military and space programs has bedevilled the US since 1945.
Robot systems produce excellent data without being constrained by human frailty and time frames
To win public support, a space program has to plan new human space spectaculars, but the exploration returns can often by won by sending out robot systems. The mass of information collected by NASA, through sending out probes, robot landers and orbiting telescopes outside the obscuring pollution in the atmosphere, has been immense, but is largely ignored by the public who pay the taxes to fund the launches. However, the Apollo program had run out of public support until Apollo 13 ran into serious trouble and became a new spectacular. People around the world followed the astronauts attempts to turn their lunar lander into a lifeboat and struggle to overcome power lost to preserve their computer for the critical re-entry stage of their return.
Science fiction already envisages the warp speed exploration of the Universe, but it will only become possible if mankind invests today in the steps currently practical
The greatest challenge is that the distances and voyage times for space travel are so enormous that they are beyond the short focus that politicians and taxpayers can maintain. The climate fraudsters realized this when they began very successfully to convince taxpayers that cities would be submerged in only a few years as a result of climate change which they maintained was entirely the result of human actions. As each deadline is approached, the timetable is quietly moved out as flat-Earth and end-of-the-world believers have always done. It can be argued that NASA has been too honest for its own good.
It is unfortunate that NASA was not able to fund and develop a successor to Space Shuttle. The development of a vehicle that can take off and land like any aeroplane, but has the engines to take it into Earth orbit would have provided the next human space spectacular, as would the assembly at an orbiting space station of a space craft to revisit the Moon and undertake voyages through the Solar System.
In little more than a half century, manned flight progressed from motorized box kites to a near space plane.
The brief and spectacular history of manned flight demonstrates how rapidly progress can be made. Much of what currently looks difficult to impossible can be achieved in a very brief period, but not if the program dithers between short burst of quick-time and long periods of dawdle. Not developing a Space Shuttle successor is much like someone in 1912 deciding not to develop beyond fabric covered biplanes on the grounds that they were expensive, unreliable and limited in what they could achieve.
Half a century from Gagarin’s Vostock I to the planned Orion seems a rather less impressive progress for space travel
Limited travel can be provided on the edge of the atmosphere for a few rich people
Initial commercial contributions are likely to be in the operation of commercial transports that take a brief space “hop” on the edge of space, or undertake limited orbits in low Earth orbit. Quazi-commercial space flight will be the development of new launch and space vehicles by commercial companies that bill Governments for each launch.