Orbital Grout

Isn’t it great that we now have the technology to stick an astronaut to the end of a robot arm and have him peel troublesome grout from a space shuttle’s belly in orbit? Next stop, the moon! Oh wait, first we have to see if the flimsy cloth we use for insulation might not fly off in the wind. Then, next stop, the Mars!

The funny part is, when we finally do get on our way to “The Moon, Mars, and Beyond,” it looks like our spacecraft will be old-fashioned capsule-on-rocket stacks in the Golden Age Mercury/Gemini/Apollo tradition, with parts cannibalized from the existing Space Shuttle System. So after all these years of piggybacking the orbiter on a foam-covered fuel tank with solid rocket boosters, we go back to multi-stage rockets, capsules, and parachutes — and find that those old ways worked better and cheaper after all.

Not to say that the shuttle is a complete failure. It was a great idea on paper, and one that would have worked if we only had the money and hardware to be able to produce powerful rockets which could deliver huge payloads without having to worry about compromises of mass and funding. That’s something the Russians seem to have done well early on with their Vostoks. A lot of these design problems with foam and orbiters-astride-fuel-tanks and such would be less of an issue if we only had ten times the thrust of a Vostok 8K72K or Saturn V, plus unlimited, no-holds-barred freedom and funding to design all sorts of outlandish launch vehicles made of impervious armored materials capable of flying around space while repelling just about any kind of impact or radiation. Like a starship! Yeah! Get on it, NASA!


  1. Tim says:

    Dude, if the system works go with it. Sometimes the low-tech answer is the best.

    Now, if we plan on going farther than Mars, we’ll need something a bit bigger. Warp drive for the next star. But Mars works with the 1960s technology that got us to the Moon.

  2. Paulo says:

    I was hoping to hear from you, Tim, given your avionics background.

  3. filmgoerjuan says:

    Idle Words has an excellent overview on the problems with the shuttle and with NASA’s self-justifying policies. I’ve been reading criticism about the shuttle program for years now (mostly in The Economist…about the only place I would regularly see anything approaching real journalism — as opposed to the P.R. “gee whizz, flying in space is cool” fluff most of the media seems to go along with).

    I’m all for the manned (and unmanned) exploration of space, but the shuttle and NASA’s manned space program are seriously out of whack. Throwing money at the problems (or more recently, cutting back the money but still throwing it at the problems) isn’t the solution. Time to take a break, shake down the organization, set some serious, feasible, financially realistic goals and get cracking on doing some real science/exploration.

  4. COD says:

    I’m reading “Failure Is Not an Option” right now. It’s flight director Gene Kranz’s excellent recollection of the space program.

    Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo were all held together with duct tape. Those programs could never happen today. They took many risks that would never be acceptable in current times.

    The explorers in human history have always taken risks. We need to get back to that mentality.