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Dennis Chamberland's
Science and Exploration
Today

 


BREAKTHROUGH!

It’s too expensive to fly into space. 

There, I said it.  The emperor is naked. It doesn’t matter how many of his loyal subjects stand around and deny it, the old guy is standing here in front of God and everybody, butt naked - and he’s disgustingly ugly as well.

 It’s too expensive to fly into space.  I said it again.

Why?  There are a number of reasons and nearly ALL of them politically inspired or with sorry political roots that run deep.  So to save myself several pages and you the agony of reading through it to get to the main point – let us skip the agony and get to the main point right now.  What we need is a breakthrough so that all of us together – along with my dog, my grandmother and my baby niece can all pile on a spaceship and get the hell out of Dodge.
In order to do that we need to get from here to there. 

Where’s “here”?

If you and six other members of your family reunion and your favorite dog drove down to the Kennedy Space Center and if congress and an army of security people didn’t try and stop you first, you folks could load up on a space shuttle and fly into LOW earth orbit for a week of fun and frolic.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that they would charge your VISA something around $500 million fore the trip. And it would be a fair charge – because this is roughly what it costs the taxpayer to provide this service for you.

In reality, this has been done before.  Not through NASA (because they won’t allow it).  It was done at least twice now by the sneaky Russians who stuff the astro-tourist onboard one of their own rockets after having billed their Master Card for $20 million.

As one my latest blogs indicated, the Russians are offering the granddaddy of all spaceflights – an orbital round trip to the moon and back for a paltry $100 million per seat.  At least one individual has indicated an interest.
But for you and me, that ticket price is just too steep.  We need a breakthrough.

Enter now Burt Rutan and his Spaceship Company (the real name). Rutan, of course, built and flew Spaceship One into space twice last year and won the X-Prize.  He and the Spaceship Company is now working overtime to build the Spaceship Two. Deposits on tickets are already being taken for the $200,000 ride into low earth orbit. Nearly 100 people have indicated a willingness to fly.  And Rutan has his sights on an orbital model as well.

But, I’m sorry. $200,000 is still way up there for the average Joe.  While Rutan promises the seat price will fall, we need a breakthrough. 

In my lifetime, I have witnessed scientific and engineering breakthroughs.  When I worked as a manager for a computer store in 1981, the first hard disk drive for home use came on the market.  It was a five megabyte model about as large as a big tabletop scanner.  It’s price?  $5,000!  One grand per meg.  At that price, a 1 terabyte drive in 1981 that today sells for $500 would be as large as a 4 bedroom home and would cost the 1981 consumer $5 billion.  Now that’s what I call a breakthrough!  We need something like that for space travel.

Is there any hope?  Yes there is.  As long as Rutan and his friends are actively working with some seed cash to make it happen  - as is being supplied by a number of wealthy backers, it can and will happen soon!

Where will it all lead?  Well – I’m not a prophet – but I believe that it will lead to the vision best described by Princeton Astrophysicist Gerard K. O’Neill – to huge orbiting space outposts in orbit around the earth, about the moon and about the sun.  These outposts make more sense that diving down into the gravity wells of the moon and Mars.

Yet, having said that – it is also true that building your own orbiting platform is also expensive – so that the earliest colonies will probably start on the planets and moons – but the later versions will probably not restrict themselves to being trapped in gravity wells.  Perhaps colonists will eagerly claim asteroids as a poor man’s space platform whose raw materials are already in place.

But – the near vision is in whether you and I will be able to fly into space in the near future.  And I believe that the answer is yes.  It seems evident that Spaceship One in all of its simplicity was the breakthrough that the common man was looking for.  Spaceship Two – which should begin flying in 2008 –will be an eye-opener for us all!

Thanks, Burt.  What took you so long?

Dennis Chamberland

 


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