Monday, September 11, 2006

Space age in reverse

If you look at the history of the space program, it could almost have run in reverse. This is a suprisingly plausible alternate-history space program:

1950's: Entrepreneurs begin building small suborbital craft that can take rich people on a thrill ride up to 75-100 miles above the surface for a few minutes

1960's: The government decides to start building a human presence in space. The Space Shuttles - large, reusable vehicles - are constructed. After a few test flights, where the craft is launched in fulll daylight and covered with cameras, they begin hauling up small pieces of a space station, and sticking them together in orbit.

1970's: As the piecemeal station is finally put into a state where it has at least a little bit of value, the frequency of shuttle flights increases. Not much science is done on board the station, but we learn a lot about how to build (and not build) a space station.

1980's: The piecemeal station is abandoned as we realize that most of this stuff can more easily be done directly on board the shuttles. Their flight frequency increases dramatically.

1990's: We decide to try the station idea again, but this time, we use the upper stage of one of the new moon rockets that are being built to make a space station that can all be launched in one shot. Within a couple of weeks of the launch, it's fully ready for habitation. It's much simpler and lower-maintenance, allowing more real science to be done. Major experiments are done on the effects of extended time in space.

2000's: The first missions are launched to the moon. Simple missions, carrying only a few people to the moon, and only long enough to spend a day or two there, but enough time to do real science and exploration

2010's: The Air Force becomes interested in space and begins researching its own launchers and planning its own space station. Meanwhile, the US Government begins researching Orion, a nuclear-bomb-powered spacecraft capable of carrying 1000 people to Mars.