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Thoughts about Future Manned Space Flight

by Justin Kugler
Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science


My name is Justin Kugler, and I will be a senior (12th grade) at the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science this coming fall. Right now, I am a summer research intern at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. It is my dream to be an astronaut one day, and I do believe that this opportunity at NASA this summer has afforded me many wonderful insights into the way things work here at NASA and valuable experience in the field. Since it is my wish to fly in space in the next century, I have my own thoughts about what I envision manned space flight in the future to be like.

For starters, sub-orbital and orbital flights will be common and commercialized to some degree. Currently, NASA and Lockheed Skunk Works are developing the VentureStar, a lifting body spacecraft designed to cut launch costs by 90 percent and use the highly efficient linear aerospike rocket engine. photo of X-33 aircraft This craft and its prototype, the smaller X-33, should open up a new era in Earth orbital flight. Less launch costs means more launches with more payloads and, potentially, more people! Companies like Lockheed-Martin are now in the race to develop their own commercial space craft. As a matter of fact, Lockheed is expected to run its own VentureStar fleet. One of the requirements of the competition for the X-33 contract was the ability to produce, launch, and maintain a fleet of the spacecraft, after all.

With the obstacles of astronomical launch costs and highly complex, outdated equipment out of the way (the Space Shuttle Orbiter still uses cathode-ray tube monitors and 1970's computers!), NASA and the corporate world can truly focus on the fun part of manned space flight -- the mission. I would like to see not just the International Space Station in orbit, but factories, "spaceports" for intercontinental and orbital travelers, and eventually even hotels and cities in orbit for the massive orbital infrastructure that we could develop. Many of our modern amenities have come about from advances made in the space program, we have all heard that before. But think about the relatively short amount of time we have spent in space and the number of advances in technology and industry made. Then think about all the possibilities for a space factory that is up in orbit continuously. And of course, we will need people up in space to run the factories. And we will need shelters for those workers, and I don't think that a simple bunk and microgravity shower will suffice for the long-duration tours there. The potential for a brand-new industrial and social revolution in space is there. We just have to take it! And that is where corporations come in. They will not only want to take advantage of the new market; they will want to make it profitable, efficient, and a viable investment. And such initiatives will only serve to push the effort for mankind's permanent expansion into space further!

But colonizing the space around Earth is only the beginning. Our eyes should also be on the Red Planet, Mars. Currently, NASA is developing advanced plasma rockets that can use spiral trajectories to get a crew to Mars in less than half the time of conventional rockets. Mars surface stay times could range from 30 to 240 days (short) or 468 to 661 days (long). No more of the minimum five year missions to Mars, we can get our astronauts to Mars and back within a year, if necessary! Once we have established a presence on Mars, using native resources for fuel, brick, etc., mankind's next major push should be the colonization of Mars. This planet has a nearly infinite amount of resources compared to the Moon. Mars soil and atmosphere is very good for growing plants, granted that a greenhouse on Mars will need to be pressurized and oxygenated somewhat, but not nearly as much as a manned habitat dome. The planet has an abundance of minerals and its soil is perfect for making an adobe-like brick, there may be permafrost and hidden water pools under the surface, and the atmosphere itself (mostly carbon dioxide) can be reacted with hydrogen to produce methane and water. The methane can be used in an internal combustion engine or as rocket fuel, returning the carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The water can be used as coolant, for drinking, for watering plants, or can be reacted to separate the hydrogen and oxygen. The oxygen can be used to breathe or in the methane-fueled surface vehicles or rockets. The hydrogen can be reacted with atmospheric carbon dioxide, starting the cycle over again. A good book to read is The Case for Mars by Dr. Robert Zubrin. In this book, he outlines the plan to get to Mars in the next decade. (Where do you think I learned about all that stuff? :)) Once the human colony is established, terraforming is the next step. We may not be able to "clone" Earth on Mars, but a breathable, relatively normal atmosphere and surface water are possibilities for the far-off future of Mars.

That is a lot to digest! But even as these projects and endeavors reach their objectives and complete their tasks, it will still only be the beginning. Like the Semisonic song, "Closing Time," goes: "Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end." These are only the first, but crucial, steps out of the "cradle" of humanity, as Tsiolkovsky called Earth. And as he predicted, "Mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever." Manned missions to the gas giants should become available as rockets and life support systems improve. Perhaps even colonies on their moons will spring up? But that is still not quite enough, we will only have paved the two-way streets in our neighborhood. Interstellar, and eventually, intergalactic manned spaceflight will hopefully be the highways of mankind's future. Perhaps we will meet a few kindred races along the way! The point is that the avenues for mankind's permanent expansion into space are as limitless as the skies above. We only have to look past ourselves, past the politics, and past the inevitable risk involved. We have to take a chance on the future, on our children's and grand-children's future. They will have to account for the mistakes we make now. Let's try to do something right, to give them a legacy to believe in -- a hope for our future.

 
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