Space flight: It’s not all rocket science – pt1

Towards the end of April 2012, there were several headline grabbing space science stories published by British (and other) media outlets. Two stories which drew my attention discussed asteroid mining with backing from Google bosses, and the legacy of the HOTOL (Horizontal Take-Off and Landing) project, Skylon. A third notable story in the new space race focused on a new robot satellite with an accompanying ‘boat’ to explore Saturn’s moon Titan.

At face value, many of these ideas may seem like science fiction. Arthur C. Clarke’s satellite in geostationary orbit paper was originally published in Wireless World during 1945. Many believed this notion to be closer to science fiction than a possible realisation. A decade later John R. Pierce of Bell Labs gave a talk about geostationary communication satellites, a paper was subsequently published in 1956; Pierce has stated that he was not aware of Clarke’s paper at the time.

Although Clarke is generally credited with this idea, it was an innovation to both great thinkers, as the idea of geostationary satellites in orbit was first described in Hermann Oberth’s book, “The Rocket into Interplanetary Space” (Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen) published in 1923. However in 1928 Herman Potočnik’s published under the pseudonym Hermann Noordung “The Problem of Space Travel — The Rocket Motor” (Das Problem der Befahrung des Weltraums — der Raketen-Motor) which describes using radio communication using Oberth’s geostationary satellites. For further information, please see Wikipedia entry “Concept of the geostationary communications satellite“.

Still to many scientists and non-scientists alike, such ideas were more akin with science fiction stories and their protagonists like Buck Rogers (Amazing Stories), Flash Gordon or Dan Dare. When this inventive idea became innovated into mechanical technology, previously formed concepts written as fictional words and drawings, left the pages of science fiction magazines to become physical fact several years later and the Space Race was born. The original concept for a rocket can be traced back to antiquity, however the first successful use of a rocket came during the ninth century by Chinese Taoist alchemists, who discovered black powder which lead to the invention of fire arrows.

Modern day complex mechanical rocket engines fall into the realm of scientific research, possibly brought on by science fiction stories and founded on jet engine technology. During the late 1930s inventors Frank Whittle in the United Kingdom and Hans von Ohain in Germany independently invented the jet engine; which a rocket engine is based upon. WWII helped fuel innovation leading to the V1 and V2 rocket engines, technology later captured and copied principally by American and Russian scientists and engineers. While the jet engine was being introduced into commercial aircraft during the early 1950s, America and Russia were innovating rocket technology and founded the space race of the late 1950s, which continued until the mid 1960s.

The Space Race took a break as Kennedy’s legacy through Nixon was achieved when a man was put onto the Moon. Space stations came next with more communication satellites, America had Skylab and Russia had Mir. The cold war started to thaw, fiction writing became more prominent with serial killers and spies, while space exploration was confined principally to science fiction through Buck Rogers (returning from Amazing Stories to the 25th Century via television), Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who and Star Trek bolding going into repeat runs.

Then from the pages of fiction, like a phoenix from the flames of lost hopes and dreams, arose the NASA Space Shuttle programme. An innovation which was principally in the making 20 years prior to the first Space Shuttle launch in 1981. We now know that inefficiency arose with the Space Shuttle’s design (and programme) due to differences of opinion between NASA officials and the US military, who wanted to use the Space Shuttle fleet to deploy ‘spy’ and other communication satellites.

America and the western world were rejuvenated with new hope. The 8-bit home computer was in the making, space-based science fiction was going through a revival on the silver screen and American and Russia were back in the space race; however distances further than Earth orbit’s were no longer in sight for manned space flight, except for in science fiction, as with Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010 Odyssey. On January 28th 1986 disaster stuck for Challenger and her crew. With the tragic loss of life, space travel was seen as dangerous and the romantic dreams of returning to the Moon was shattered.

Ten plus years on, space travel is seen as an expensive dangerous dream by many Americans when asked about NASA’s Space Shuttle programme. Science is something that is edgy at best and dangerous at worse, where notions of British science fiction writing dystopia have crept into a western philosophy for many. However in the East, China and India are initiating their space programmes while Russia’s cold war has fully thawed, Germany is reunited and Russia’s space programme has slowed down to a shuffle.

And so into the noughties, the lust for human space travel has almost ended not with a bang, nor with a whimper, but with a slow shuffle. While communication satellites and exploring robots have reached Mars (some have), humankind with international cooperation orbits the Earth in the ISS (International Space Station). A void has been left open with the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle fleet, while private commercial enterprise is expected to fill the space race gap. April 2012… Planetary Resources is announced, backed by Google, scientists and philanthropists, while in Britain, Skylon passes its rocket engine test officiated by ESA.