There’s been something of a goal shift within the space industry recently. For quite a long time the focus was on returning to the moon and establishing a presence there which was born out of George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration. However since then the goals of NASA, and indeed the goals of the most promising private space company, have shifted from going back to where we once visited to charting a course to virgin territory. Whilst its entirely possible that both NASA and SpaceX are just looking to capitalize on the attention that’s been focused on the Mars Curiosity Rover by announcing plans to send humans to our red sister there’s no denying that both of them are seriously considering the idea and it seems NASA might be looking at some rather radical ideas.
There’s been quite a lot of talk about what the best way to get to Mars would be and most of them involve a way station of some sort, something close to Earth that we can use as a staging ground whilst we prepare for the actual mission. The ideas have ranged from simply using the International Space Station to establishing a base on the moon. NASA has recently started investigating the idea of putting a base out at L-2 (Lagrange Point 2), beyond the orbit of the moon. Such a base would provide quite a few advantages and not just to potential manned missions to Mars.
You see the Lagrange points are special places where the gravitational effects of all the nearby bodies balances out so that you don’t really need to do a heck of a lot to remain there indefinitely. That’s quite desirable because it means you have to take up less station keeping equipment and fuel with you, making room for bigger and better payloads. It’s for this (and numerous other reasons) that the Hubble successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, will be placed at L-2. There’s also one other advantage to L-2 as well and that’s the fact that you don’t need very much energy to get anywhere in our solar system once you’re there, especially if you time it right and get some lovely gravitational boosts along the way.
Putting a station there and maintaining it would be no small feat however. At L-2 you’re well outside the protective magnetic field of Earth which means that any potential space station has to be heavily shielded against the solar winds and cosmic radiation that will bombard it relentlessly. This either means a much smaller single launch station (ala Salyut and Skylab) or multiple successive launches. It’s not an insurmountable task but it’s definitely a step up from the ISS in terms of complexity and investment required. The L-2 location also makes getting to and from the station much more complicated than getting to the ISS or even the moon and that raises questions about how to handle things like emergency situations and resupply flights. Again there’s no technical limitation to this but you’re well into envelope pushing territory when you’re working out a L-2.
At the same time though I do believe that if you’re considering a base at L-2 you’d also better consider doing something similar on the moon, especially if landing on other planets is your end goal. You see we do have quite a bit of experience in building space stations and a base at L-2 would be an organic progression of that. However what we don’t have is any experience in building habitats on the surface of other planets and the moon, with its lack of atmosphere and harsh environment, would be an amazing test bed for potential habitats on other planets. This is not to say that a moon base is better than something at L-2, they both have their pros and cons, just that if L-2 is a consideration then the place 1.5 million kms before it might not be a bad idea either.
I think the most exciting thing to come out of all of this is the fact that NASA is investigating some things which really are pushing the limits of our capabilities in space. I’ve long said that this is where they need to be focused as the private space industry has shown that they’re quite capable of doing the day to day stuff which should leave NASA’s budget free to do some really incredible stuff. With that finally happening I could not be happier as it means that we’re not that far off from becoming an interplanetary species.
In principle, at least.
China really has come out of no where in the past decade in terms of space capability. 2003 saw them launch their first taikonaut into space aboard Shenzhou 5 and they quickly followed that up 2 years later with another manned orbital mission that lasted 5 days. Just 3 years after that China then completed their first extravehicular activity (EVA) showing that their ability to develop their capability rivalled that of other nations that had gone before them. Sure they might have bought some of technology from Russia but they’ve improved nearly every aspect of said technology, making it far more capable that it ever was.
Apart from Russia other space faring countries have been somewhat apprehensive in cooperating with the fledgling space nation. The general sentiment is that they wouldn’t have anything to gain and they’d only be helping them (which is ludicrous, considering the improvements they made to all the Russian tech they bought). This has extended as far as the International Space Station not having one Chinese national visit it, leaving China on their own when it comes to developing space technologies. To that end China just today launched their very own space station, Tiangong 1:
China launched their first space station module into orbit today (Sept. 29), marking a major milestone in the rapidly expanding Chinese space program. The historic liftoff of the man ratedTiangong 1 (Heavenly Palace 1) space lab on a Long March 2F rocket took place at 9:16 p.m. local time (9:16 a.m. EDT) from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center located in Gansu province in northwest China and is an impressive advance for China.
The beautiful nighttime liftoff occurred exactly on time and was carried live on China’s CCTV and on the internet for all to see. Chinese President Hu Jintao and many of China’s other top government leaders witnessed the launch from the launch control center as a jesture of confidence and support. Their presence was a clear sign of just how important China’s top leadership considers investments in research as a major driver of technological innovationthat is bolstering China’s vigourously growing economy and employing tens of thousands of people.
As a space station Tiangong 1 is a diminutive craft having only 15m² worth of pressurized volume. Within that space though it has sleeping quarters for a crew of 3 and exercise equipment. The life support systems are capable of hosting a crew for missions up to 40 days in length although that capability won’t be tested for a while. The next Shenzhou mission will be visiting the Tiangong 1 space station however it won’t be manned as it will just be a docking test flight. The following 2 missions will bring crews aboard the space station and they’ll remain in orbit for longer durations each time. After those missions Tiangong 1 will be de-orbited in preparation for the next Tiangong station.
The way China is progressing their technology is distinctly Russian in their origins. From 1971 to 1982 Russia’s Salyut program (which formed the basis for Mir and the ISS) used a similar method for testing equipment and expanding capabilities. During that program a total of 9 Salyut space stations were launched, visited by crews and then de-orbited at the end of their life. It’s a distinct difference from the American way of doing things which is to launch a much larger craft and keep it up there for as long as possible, ala Skylab. Adopting the Russian style of envelope pushing means China can iterate on their designs faster and improve their technology more quickly, which they’ve shown they’re quite capable of doing.
For the launch the International Astronomical Union presented taikonaut Zhai Zhigang with 300 flags that had previously flown on a Russian Soyuz as well as the last space shuttle mission. It might seem like a small gesture but it’s an indication that the world is starting to take China’s endeavour’s in space seriously and will hopefully begin to include them in their cooperative efforts. China has proved they’re quite a capable nation technologically and ignoring them would be doing us a major disservice.
The future of human space exploration is looking ever increasingly bright and China’s success with Tiangong 1 is just another sign of this. Hopefully their success spurs on the space superpowers of old to start innovating faster than they currently are as nothing gets people excited about space more than giants battling it out for technological supremacy. It’s quite likely though that the real competition will come from private industry and that’ll be quite a show to watch.
I must admit I don’t give the Russians enough credit for the work they do in space. If a Shuttle launches you can bet your bottom dollar that I’ll write a post up about it and guaranteed I’ll be letting everyone else know about it if they don’t read my blog. Still at least 5 times a year Russia launches up a Soyuz craft carrying 3 *nauts and in between those they launch another 4 or so Progress craft to resupply the International Space Station. So whilst their craft might not be as iconic and grandiose as the Shuttle they are in essence the innovators of cheap, reliable access to space and have been for many decades.
Really though Russia’s prowess in terms of pioneering space technologies goes much further than that. Today 39 years ago they launched an extremely ambitious project called Salyut-1, the first ever space station. For the most part you would call it an observatory as the majority of the work during the Salyut’s maiden flight was Earth facing observation plus a few deep space spectrographs. Like with all firsts in space there were many problems with the first flight being unable to dock due to their docking couple failing and the second crew, who were tragically lost upon re-entry but have since ensured that none will be lost in that way again, were forced out of the station due to numerous problems including an electrical fire (probably the worst thing that can happen in high pressure oxygen rich environments).
The Salyuts were fairly spacious for their time having just under 100m³ of area for the visiting cosmonauts (compare that to the ISS’s living volume of 373m³). Couple that with 20 portholes that littered the space craft and life up there wouldn’t have been too bad. Especially for those cosmonauts who were used to the cramped confines of the Soyuz which, up until recently, didn’t even have a window for the orbital module (not that it needed it anyway). Taking a tour of the inside reveals that most areas had enough room to be quite comfortable, they even had a treadmill.
True to their core philosophies of truly repeatable mission profiles Salyut 1 wasn’t the last of its kind. The Salyut mission profiles flew another 8 missions and were responsible for many of the components that made up the Mir Space Station that followed. The last of the Salyut series even managed to stay up in orbit for over 4 years and was visited repeatedly by a total of 10 crews. If you compare that to the American offering of the same time who managed to keep a station in orbit for 6 years but only ever managed to visit it 3 times you can see why that even today the core of our biggest space station ever is in fact a Russian module called Zvezda. It’s no wonder the Chinese turned to Russia for their space program.
The Salyut craft also had a slightly darker side with 3 of the missions (2, 3 and 5) designated as Almaz military Orbital Piloted Stations. These are the only (known) craft to ever fly weapons in space and whilst they didn’t carry anything really destructive, a Nudelman-Rikhter NR-23, it was still successfully fired at a test satellite on orbit. Other than that however they were just your typical military operation with the exception that they were piloted by humans on orbit rather than on the ground.
Despite this however the Salyut missions were another step forward in humanity’s endeavours in space and we owe a great deal to Russia for them. Without their courage and sacrifice there’s no telling how much longer it would have taken us to big something as impressive as the ISS or the technology to keep humans alive in orbit for a period that was measured in months instead of weeks. I believe I speak for many of us space nuts in saying that on today of all days we salute you Russia.