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NASA’s Groundhog Day

On October 27th 1961, 48 years ago, the first Saturn 1 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral. This mission, SA-1, was not a complete rocket, and it did not go into orbit. Only the first stage was live, with the upper stages being merely dummies, and it performed only a sub-orbital loop. It was not even the rocket that was planned to take men to the moon. That would be the Saturn V; this would instead lead to the Saturn 1B, its little brother. And when it eventually flew with men on board, it would carry not the winged spacecraft of SF lore, but a conical capsule that would fall to Earth beneath parachutes. But it was a first step.

On October 28th 2009, 48 years later, the first Ares 1 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral. This mission, Ares 1-X, was not a complete rocket, and it did not go into orbit. Only the first stage was live, with the upper stages being merely dummies, and it performed only a sub-orbital loop. It was not even the rocket that is planned to take men to the moon. That will be the Ares V; this will instead lead to the Ares 1, its little brother. And when it eventually flies with men on board, it will carry not the winged spacecraft of SF lore, but a conical capsule that will fall to Earth beneath parachutes. But it is a…

You know what? I’m not even sure what it is, other than Groundhog Day on a cosmic scale with a budget to match.

I’ve lived and breathed space exploration since I was a child, but I’m finding it really hard to get excited.

4 Comments

  1. Bobby

    Well, for me it was very exciting!

    Not so much for what they did, you’re right in that this has all been done before, but for what it means: they’ve stopped messing about with the shuttle and LEO (Low Earth Orbit) flights, and planning on doing more long range missions.

    The Shuttle, useful as it was for going into low orbit, was very limited by the fact it could only go into low orbit. I do think that one of the biggest brakes on space exploration was ‘we built the Shuttle, so we’re going to use it!’ The Shuttle was great, but it shouldn’t have replaced the Saturns, but been used alongside them, each to their role.

    Now they’re going back to a more traditional rocket, that isn’t going to be limited to LEO, and so mission profiles will be greatly expanded.

    I have hope again that manned exploration will happen once more and not be limited to LEO.

    • Jonny Nexus

      You’re right. The thought of leaving Earth orbit again is pretty exciting. I was actually browing Wikipedia on my phone on the way in, reading all about Project Constellation and the Altair Lunar Lander – and it does all sound very cool.

      But I just worry that this isn’t the way to do it. They’re talking about a permanent moon base sustained by largely throwaway rockets and throwaway lunar landers. I just can’t see that happening.

      The way I see it is that a lunar base is only feasible if you have a fully reusable shuttle, a space station, fully reusable space tugs that spend their time shuttling between earth orbit and lunar orbit, and fully reusable luner landers that can fly up to lunar orbit, pick up cargo and people, and then bring them back down again.

  2. Roger Gammans

    I broadly optimistic about the new phase of space exploration we are entering.

    It sad to see NASA re-engineering what has gone before . But the Saturn is a 1960s design, we are forty year ahead in technology – it is just that the sheer energy requirements for lift haven’t changed. So the old designs is still viable.

    However I think the really exciting thing in Space at the moment is that the is actually a true space industry forming. Look at SpaceX – they have contract to deliver cargo to the ISS with a reusable craft, and Scaled Composites are building SpaceShip Two.

    This to me is what is exciting – the commercialisation is an important step along the way to activities such as asteroid mining which are of real benefit to the Human race.

    • Jonny Nexus

      I am pretty excited about the private companies with space ship resupply contracts. I wouldn’t be surprised if SpaceX’s Dragon beats the Orion into orbit – that would make things interesting.

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