Paper Rockets

I hope you’re reading this on some obscure history blog sometime in the 22nd Century, smiling wryly at my lack of foresight as you Hyperloop across Mars, past Calrketown, Saganville and New Bezos on your way to Muskbury. I really hope you are because I’d like nothing better than to be proved conclusively wrong with this crazy idea – maybe Space X won’t get us to Mars. If they don’t, it wouldn’t be the first time the space dream has come crashing to earth. This article – ‘Paper Rockets’ and the one that follows – ‘The Interplanetary Marshmallow Test’ – were published in the British and US Mensa magazines to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo Moon landing. Though different, they have some overlapping themes and language so I hope you’ll forgive any similarities.

A giant, 50 metre tall rocket with the lifting power of four Saturn V’s, fully reusable and capable of putting 500 tons into orbit every flight. Based on a scaling up of proven flight hardware and developed along a sound engineering track, this heavy lift rocket could give us cheap access to low Earth orbit by the early 1980’s. Yeah, that’s not a typo. You probably thought I was talking about Space X’s BFR (recently rechristened as ‘Starship’) but I’m not. The above was a late 1970’s proposal for a Heavy Lift Launch vehicle from Boeing Aerospace.

Image: NASA.

Columbus of Space

In the heady days between Armstrong’s first step and Cernan’s last, there was serious talk of Moon bases and Mars trips within a decade. Armstrong was the Columbus of space, leading us into a glorious exploration and even colonisation of the solar system. Obviously, that didn’t happen. In the space doldrums of the late 70’s, Boeing’s Heavy Lifter seemed just the thing to get humanity back on the right space track. I was as excited by that spaceship’s line drawn prospects as any modern space cadet is with Space X’s sleet CGI animations. Boeing’s bird never flew of course, sharing the same fate as the majority of spaceship projects. Most, like the Heavy Lifter, never left the drawing board. A rare handful made it to the prototype stage.

You can probably name a few yourself. Remember the Venture Star and its X-33 and 34 prototypes that were supposed to replace the US’s cancelled Shuttle programme? How about the DC-X Delta Clipper that crowds gathered to watch take off and land vertically in the mid ‘90’s? Perhaps the British Black Knight and Black Arrow rockets or the HOTOL and Saenger space planes sound familiar? Does the European Space Agency’s Hermes or the Skylon ring a bell?

You may never have heard of the Tupolev OOS, the Astro, M-19 Gurkolyot, Silbervogel, LKS spaceplane, VR-190, Kliper, Big G, LK700, HL-20, STAR, Orion, Sea Dragon, China’s Changcheng 1 or Japan’s Fuji. Or for that matter, the MTKVP, Martin 410, the X-15B, VKA-23, MTFF, SERV/MURP, MKBS, Douglas Model 684, Shuguang-1, Almaz, Roton ATV, MAKS…etc, etc. Each of these proposed vehicles carried the fresh, hopeful dream of space. Each now a curling, faded blueprint or forlorn and all but unrecognisable rusting husk in some abandoned hanger. In the end, they were just paper rockets and paper rockets don’t carry astronauts

Bait and Switch

Three years before Sputnik ushered in the Space Age, Isaac Asimov published ‘The End of Eternity’ where well-meaning time police constantly re-wrote history to prevent dangerous and wasteful spaceflight from ever being developed. Despite their best efforts, each new time period re-invented their own version, each new generation displaying a curiously salmon-like persistence trying to make the leap into space. Asimov would probably have been horrified to realise that was the book’s most prescient prediction. OK, we (probably) don’t have secret time police manipulating us but actual space flight, in the US at least, has followed pretty much the trajectory described in the novel.

In the 60’s pundits talked of Moon bases by the ‘70’s. In the ‘70’s they dreamed of orbiting space colonies by the ‘80’s. In the ‘80’s it was men on Mars by the end of the century. Every US President makes bold speeches announcing bold space plans in an effort to conjure the increasingly faint spirit of Kennedy. Each succeeding President cancels those plans to make their own bold statement and births bright new dreams as the ghosts of the old sidle off stage left. Bush’s 2004 ‘Constellation’ Moon plan was cancelled to make way for Obama’s Mars initiative, which was cancelled in turn for another Lunar project. Last March, the US Vice President announced a bold return to the Moon which Congress equally boldly refused to fund in May (the new Moon project lead resigned after 6 weeks). Even NASA’s ‘Apollo redux’ SLS (Space Launch System) rocket was supposed to be regularly putting 70 tons into orbit two years ago but hasn’t yet managed it’s first test launch. The reality is that, for governments, the dream of going to space is a useful fairy tale, a PR game of space-based bait and switch forever selling the sizzle but never delivering the steak.

NASAs Venture Star was a single-stage-to-orbit space plane )left) intended to replace the Shuttle programme but proved too expensive and technologically ambitious. The current Space Launch System (left) is already massively over budget and years behind schedule. When operational, the non-reusable rocket may cost a billion dollars per launch.
Images: NASA

The Salyut, Mir and Skylab space stations were abandoned to fall burning from the sky. The USSR’s N1 moon rocket, Apollo, Buran and the Energia launcher (for which the term ‘BFR’ was originally coined) as well as the Delta Clipper and the US Shuttle were cancelled. All, essentially, because the money ran out. ‘Because the money ran out’ might be the eulogy for Musk’s ambitious colonisation scheme too. It’s by no means impossible that Space X’s BFR will never fly and the latest dream of space will waste away on a steadily dwindling drip of hope till the final life support plug is pulled.

It IS rocket science

Rocket science, it turns out, is hard. Every flight tests the limit of human engineering ingenuity and materials science in a fiery cauldron of speed, heat and pressure. The universe is the hardest task master, intolerant of error and ready to meter out harsh punishment. The tiniest slip will doom a rocket’s flight to an expensive and ignominious disintegration. Time and again our reach has exceeded our grasp. In the ‘90’s nobody wanted to go into space on ‘disintegrating totem poles’ instead we aimed for smooth space planes that took off from runways and boosted into orbit with their aerospike engines. Except that none of these space planes ever got off the ground (literally). They were simply too complicated, the engineering and materials needed to make them work proved beyond our ability despite years of research and development.

But the dream is hard to kill. Just like the characters in Asimov’s novel, each new generation dusts off the old ideas, learns from the past’s failures and throws itself against the sky – the “restless few drawn by a craving they can hardly articulate or understand to undiscovered lands and new worlds” as Carl Sagan so eloquently phrased it. Now we’ve gone back to the totem poles but his time round, thanks to Space X and Blue Origin, they are, at least, reusable. It’s a ‘three steps forward, two steps back’ sort of progress but it is progress. We inch across the sky in an achingly slow race where we want to be the Hare but barely qualify as the Tortoise. This makes an uncomfortable truth for wannbe space cadets, dreamers and hopeful explorers and I hate to be the one to say it but; it won’t be you. It won’t be your kids or probably your grandkids. It may not even be their grandkids. The dream of space may take a long time to realise.

As individuals we are impatient and loose heart quickly when progress stalls (and stalls, and stalls). As a species though, we’re in this for the long haul – and not for the first time. Humans colonised Europe, Asia and the Americas from Africa. It’s a sentence you can say in a single breath but that breath encompasses tens of thousands of years and millions of lives. Polynesian sailors took half a millennium to settle the Pacific islands, which doubtless involved innumerable stories of setbacks and successes that we’ll never know about. Leif Erikson and his Norsemen explored North America a thousand years ago but nobody was interested in following in his footsteps for another five centuries. Even when they did, there were nearly 130 years between the Santa Maria and the Mayflower and those settlers didn’t even have to bring their own air.

Per ardua, et ardua, et ardua ad astra

If there is a lesson to be learned from the history of human exploration, it’s that the lack of progress in human spaceflight over the last half century is hardly a blip in the long term. Experience would council patience. Patience, but also perseverance. Accept the losses but keep the small victories and pass them on. If humanity is to live beyond the cradle of Earth then it’s a journey that will make all our previous wanderings look like a stroll across the road. If we succeed (and succeed we must if we are to escape the fate of all those other extinct species lost in the past) then future histories may consider Armstrong as the Leif Ericson rather than the Christopher Columbus of solar system colonisation.

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