Friday, September 7, 2012

The next space shuttle is a "family car"




It has been argued that the only way to make space travel more appealing to the masses is to begin using space for industry.

If so, then let's hope the Dream Chaser under development by the Sierra Nevada Corporation is a step in that direction.  Dream Chaser is one of three finalists under consideration by NASA to replace the now defunct space shuttle fleet.  Of those three design proposals, Dream Chaser is the only one that adheres to the "space plane" stylistic.  It is somewhat surprising to see this as the other designs are capsule-like, not altogether that different from the Apollo modules that sent men to the Moon.  So then what sparked the inspiration for Dream Chaser? 

Here's what it says in the link:

"The space plane’s squat, compact shape was inspired by a fuzzy 1970s spy photograph of an experimental Soviet aircraft. Nasa engineers spent more than a decade reverse engineering and developing the concept.  They even built a full-sized mock-up before the project was quietly shelved. SNC has now been working on Dream Chaser for the last nine years and, with a recent extra $212 million from NASA, is getting close to finally turning the dream into reality."

Wow. 
Comparisons to compact cars abound in this article about the proposed spacecraft, stressing its economic efficiency and return on investment, something that the space shuttle program was never quite able to deliver.* 

" “We look at it what jobs are needed,” says Sirangelo [head of SNC Space Systems]. “We’re not taking big pieces to and from the Space Station any more, we’re taking people and critical cargo back and forth and it’s designed in size for that purpose.” "

The Dream Chaser would be launched atop an Atlas 5 rocket, one of the most reliable space systems ever developed.  The BBC article also says that an ESA Ariane rocket could do the job as well.  Once in space, Dream Chaser would deliver its crew or cargo to the International Space Station (or whatever the mission) and then glide back to Earth.  All of this, according to SNC, could take less than ten hours.

It really does sound like taking the family car for a spin, running an errand or two, then coming back home.  It harkens a slight bit to the rollicking notions of fast and easy space travel that are replete in early-ish science fiction, where inspiration for spaceflight initially took place.  This mode of travel may be the key to moving forward.  Space travel that is both practical and useful can create greater interest.  Greater interest brings more investment.  It may be an unfortunate truth that the way to a greater human presence in space is through the lures of capitalism.
I have to remain hopeful that something is going to rejuvenate the world's interest in space travel.  Let's hope that SNC and NASA deliver on this one.


*Please don't misunderstand.  I am not ripping on the space shuttle program.  The space shuttle is an iconic symbol for me.  Every man and woman who worked on the program is owed our gratitude.  Thanks to the shuttles, the ISS was built, satellites were repaired, and the Hubble Telescope worked again.  The problem was that the cost ended up being a bit more than was expected for an "economic and reusable vehicle."  That's not the shuttle's fault.


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