Friday, December 16, 2005

The Way The Future Wasn't

Back in the early days of the space age – the late 1950s – it seemed that the US had decided on a practical plan to conquer the frontier beyond the earth’s atmosphere.

First: build a vessel that would launch on the top of a rocket but would return to the earth like a plane, gliding to a landing with its wings. Second: use the space plane to transport the materials needed to assemble a station orbiting the earth. Then, use the station to build ships that would take man to his nearest neighbor, the moon.

That’s the plan laid out in the book, Space Flight: The Coming Exploration of the Universe, by Lester Del Rey (1958). Aimed at young readers, this book features illustrations by John Polgreen that originally looked futuristic, but nowadays look retro. There’s something about a “spaceman” in his protective suit, floating above the earth with mechanical claws attached to his gloves and boots, that says 1950s movie sci fi.

I wonder why the plan laid out in the book was abandoned. After all, the space station and the shuttle came after man landed on the moon. Was the plan impractical, too costly? Or was it because that President John F. Kennedy kicked off the space race to get the stars and stripe unfurled on the moon before the hammer & sickle? I suspect the latter. Word came down from the top: Cut to the chase; drop the shuttle and the station.

With such a non-fiction book, Lester Del Rey most likely consulted with government experts. Thus the plan presented was probably the official one as of 1958.

As part of the official plan, the moon ships would have been built in earth orbit using construction globes, maneuverable spheres with robot arms – and, of course, the standard claws – all operated by a man sitting comfortably in the globe.

Since a moon ship didn’t have to be streamlined for the earth’s atmosphere – it would leave and return from the space station - the vessel would have a simple design, a rough frame holding together a set of fuel tanks and metal globes. Each ship would be topped by a spherical living quarters for the crew. This globe would have a couple of external antennas, radio and radar, sticking out into space, giving it that weird insect look.

Three ships would go to the moon, two of them manned and the third one serving as the supply ship. As Del Rey explains about the first lunar expedition: “About fifty men will go with the ships, since it takes many different branches of science and types of skill to explore a whole world.” He adds that since no one was sure how many trips could be made – the project would be so expensive – the astronauts had to learn as much as possible in one trip.

All three ships would land on the lunar surface. Compare this proposal to the Apollo program. One ship with only three men went each time. The ship had to separate into two parts, the orbiter and the lunar excursion module. One spaceman – I mean astronaut - had to stay behind in orbit while the other two explored the surface. On the return home, the LEM had to link up with the orbiter. In Space Flight that step was eliminated: the ships took off from the moon; the only link-up to be made was with the space station.

At the same time the plan in Space Flight seems to have its own potential for disaster. What would happen if the supply ship crashed? Would most of the food and water be destroyed with it?

But that point is moot. The official 1958 plan is gone, down the memory hole for most people. NASA is getting ready to phase out the space shuttle for a crew exploration vehicle (CEV). Apparently NASA is going retro. The CEV will be an updated version of the space capsule atop the rocket. It won’t land like a rocket plane.

And, more importantly, the CEV doesn’t even have the cool look of a metal sphere with weird insect antennae sticking out.

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