TCS Daily


Fifty Years On, Time for a New Dawn

By Rand Simberg - October 4, 2007 12:00 AM

Half a century ago, Americans awoke to a new world, in some ways much larger than the old one, roused by the beeps of a little metal ball, an artificial moon circling the earth every hour and a half. Called "Sputnik I" (Russian for "co-traveler", not to be confused with "fellow traveler"), its launch stunned the nation.

For over a decade, since the end of the great conflict against fascist totalitarianism, America had stood like a colossus over the rest of the war-torn world, confident in its ability to remain ahead of its adversaries technologically. We had, after all, developed the long-range bomber, the atomic bomb, the hydrogen bomb, the computer, transistors... Most were probably unaware that their own nation was developing space launchers and satellites, but if they had been aware, they would have been sure that we would be first in that as well. That we were not--that we were beaten to the punch by the Soviets, our new totalitarian enemy in the Cold War, came as a shock to the public, and one that the Eisenhower administration, in its own careful and deliberate development of such capabilities, with a public emphasis on civilian applications (e.g., the International Geophysical Year), hadn't anticipated.

To compound matters, almost five months later, when we did finally launch our own satellite, Explorer I, it was derided by Soviet Premiere Nikita Kruschev as "a grapefruit," being so much smaller than Sputnik, which weighed almost two hundred pounds. Ironically, one of the reasons that the Soviets had much greater launch capability than ours was because of their technological inferiority--it was much easier to build a large ICBM (from which the space launcher was derived) than it was to miniaturize the fusion weapons that the Soviets were developing (with aid, we now know, from the Rosenbergs) that the missile would have to deliver.

But the damage to our self perception was done, and the notion that the Russians were leading in what was viewed as the new military "high ground" (though its value for that purpose was often overstated, then and now), resulted in a frenzy of policy making, and kicked off the space race of the 1960s.

In the mid-1950s, many science fiction writers, such as Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein, were predicting that men would walk on the moon. But none of them were so bold in their predictions as to claim that it would happen in the coming decade. It made no sense--there was a logical progression to such things. In 1958, we could barely toss a few pounds into orbit, and in the first year of launch attempts, three out of four had failed. The notion that we would be sending people into space, in a couple years, let alone all the way to the moon within a few more, seemed like too far out a prediction even for a visionary writer of fiction.

But what would have seemed even more fantastic was the notion that, having landed men on the moon in the late sixties, the last one would trod on the regolith a few years later, and there would be no return for half a century. That was beyond science fiction, into the realm of dystopian fantasy.

Yet, in part because of the Sputnik panic, that's exactly what happened. In our rush to regain the technological lead over the Soviets, we took what tools we had at hand--ballistic missiles (expendable by their nature) and converted them to space transportation vehicles. Very expensive, very unreliable space transportation vehicles. It established the paradigm for how we would get into space with which we live to this day, as demonstrated by the fact that NASA is going "back to the future," developing yet another expendable launch vehicle family to take us back to the moon. This hurried approach ignored an entirely different branch of technological evolution, one modeled on aircraft, in which reusable, piloted vehicles would fly higher, and faster, eventually all the way to orbit. Such an approach, if successfully implemented, could potentially have given us reliable, affordable space transportation. What it wouldn't have done is to put men on the moon by 1969, which was the paramount goal at the time.

But if we had taken a more measured, systematic, natural approach to the development of space, unhurried by the Sputnik panic, while there are no guarantees, we might today have the spinning orbital space stations of the movie 2001, affordable transportation in cis-lunar space, the bases on the moon that NASA currently plans for the third decade of this century, perhaps even trips to, and bases on Mars.

We will never know, of course--history doesn't allow do overs. Or at least, not in any exact form. But it's not too late to decide whether our current approach is as flawed now as it was then, at least with regard to opening the high frontier. On the fiftieth anniversary of the dawn of the old space age, it's perhaps time to think about ushering in a new one.

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91 Comments

Space planes vs Apollo
The Space Shuttle will soon be retired.

Decades of research has not led to 'space planes'.

The next people to land on the moon are planning to use the same basic design used to go to the moon the first time.

It's nice to imagine that the X-15 could have lead to real space planes, it did not.

Now that the free market has been turned loose on the problem, maybe some real progress can be made.

space
It's good to finally see some private guys like Branson going to space planes. The NASA government programme was just another waste of money. There's a rumour that originally they wanted to just start another branch at the Post Office dept to run the space programme, but since people already recognized that agency as dysfunctional(and all others), they decided to start another one, thus NASA. Now they want another one to also run health care.

Remember however
that the original concept of the shuttle was just that, a space plane. It was altered from that because of inter-departmental funding issues.

So everything
that JPL has done was of no value?

To some extent
Actually it was what it is, with potential for other things on the "dream list". The idea of the shuttle was a re-usable platform for heavy lift to earth orbit and the ability to actually take people up to work on things in space (comsats, space stations, etc.) The Idea of also turning it into a passanger transport to take people into space, maybe even a moon station, was always a "for further development" one. The idea was to make near-space travel less expensive and the idea showed the potential to do that - initially. But, after the first shuttle accident, the launches slowed to a crawl and costs rose astronomically, then the program developed some serious bugs. These led to another destroyed shuttle and that is probably the biggest reason the program is being scrapped.

If it is replaced by something better, and something more far-reaching, that this is a good thing. If not, then I fear NASA will be completely dismantled and major space projects will be set back indefinately.

Maybe I'm some kind of romantic, but I would like to see NASA move forward to a moon base and a manned mission to Mars. These should have been accomplished 20 years ago and we should be looking to deeper space travel. Instead, we are still looking at these "baby" steps in space exploration (and exploitation) before we will be able to do anything else.

Why NASA?
Why not "Virgin Space"?

Why not a "Tyco Crater Company" like the Hudson Bay Company?

With all the baby boomers getting old and feeble, set up a retirement community in orbit or on the moon.

NASA shouldn't 'own' the moon or space.

wrong, it WAS a pure space plane originaly, not meant to launch verticaly
The Shuttle was originaly designed as a space plane meant to be launched exactly like Rutans Xprize winner was launched, from another plane-like launch vehical in hoizontal flight.

Every single problem the shuttle has had was caused by this "cheaper" method of launching that in time became MORE expensive due to the failures then the original design would have cost. The ice in the SRBs and the tile damage, these things cost more then they ever saved by not building the lift vehical.

IMHO hiring Burt Rutan to head NASA & allowing him to build the lifting vehical it was always meant to use would prolong the life of these currently built vehicals for at least 15 years. Launching off the lift vehical is several times easier on the airframe then the current launch design.

At the end of their lifespan these machines could easly be refitted for permanant duty in space, as emergency reentry vehicals if nothing else, as the next moon main vehical (not lander) if creative.

BTW, I personaly had a hand in the machining the Inconel nose frame of all shuttles currently flying. I know a LITTLE bit of what I write.

Absolutely agree
But space exploration, beyond satallite communications or a few "joy rides" into low-earth orbit, is presently an expensive proposition with no direct profit potential. Corporations are not the answer for all of it either. Generally, governements have foot the bill for exploration and corporations have followed for exploitation. The Government needs to get out of the near-earth business and leave that to private companies, but private companies will not likely get into the exploration business and that means the exploration and exploitation of the solar system, and beyond, will stagnate without NASA or some government backed group to lead the way.

This is one area where government may not be the most efficient, but they are thing going as they are the only entity with the resources to make it happen.

So far, yes
But do you remember why that Idea was scrapped?? (hint, it had to do with payload tradeoffs)

Only feasible medium-term way to see commmercial space travel.
If we are going to see a real expansion of human involvement in space, we are going to have to see it commercially exploited. The key barrier to commercial exploitation of space and space resources is the cost of getting mass in to orbit.

It costs a huge amount of money to lift even a small satellite in to orbit from the ground to Low Earth Orbit. Passengers require heavy life support equipment and a pressurized hull. Using a one-time launch vehicle costs a colossal sum of money. Building a re-usable launch vehicle (like the shuttle,) and paying for upkeep is even more expensive.

The solution is a space elevator. This will require some degree of government intervention, but I think it can be kept limited. NASA is already offering prizes for demonstration models that meet their standards. I am more concerned about the financing and security of the facility. Financing a $60 billion dollar facility will be, to put it mildly, difficult. With that much money on the line, guaranteed/low-interest loans might be needed. Furthermore, securing this facility will require troops and air cover. Some government will have to provide these.

I hate to say it, but the government is going to have to jump-start the spread of mankind in to space, but it will be a bit player in the effort once it has started.

Because...
...private space companies have not yet been proven to be profitable or able to assume the extreme risk involved. Maybe they will be in the future but, until then, it would be foolish to put all our eggs in that basket.

Frankly, I do not believe the private initiatives now blooming will bear much fruit. There will be accidents and, when there are, the investors will be racing for cover.

I could be wrong. I hope I am wrong. But, Space is hard. A lot harder than what a bunch of bold adventurers in buckskin could pull off.

Get Real
NASA has gone to space. Branson hasn't. Until he or some other space cowboy does, and I don't mean a puny 100 mile up and back down joy ride, there is no basis for concluding the private sector can pull it off.

You don't throw away something that is working because something that isn't yet available might work better. A bird in NASA's hand is worth ten or more in Branson's imagination.

Fundamentally unproven technology
Which means you have to do a lot of feasibility studies before dedicating a huge chunk of the budget to it. Materials aren't there yet, means of locomotion, stability of the structure under periodic environmental excitations... these all have to be worked out first.

everything, yes
Sure, even those prper scientists at JPL and NASA, and Werner v.Braun himself could have just as well have worked for a private company if they had wanted to persue that business.

Homesteading
Sure space is hard.

If the government is going to spend money on space, it should be for functions it is supposed to be doing, like defense.

Apollo was an exercise to beat the USSR to the moon. It was a defense program. Recent interest in returning to the moon by NASA is because the Chinese are planning a trip. Mars will soon be next.

If you want private exploration, dust off the concept of the Hudson Bay Company or the East India Company.

Guarantee a company a franchise on the moon or on Mars for a century or so, and some may decide to stake a claim.

getting real
Yeah, they went to space for political reasons wasting more tampayers money on it. But those same scientists could just as well have worked for any company that wanted to do the same thing, if they saw sound financial reasons for doing so. Governments have no reason at all to be fiscally responsible.

And...
...what are those sound financial reasons for doing so? I don't think tourism is enough. The New World was colonized because it promised all kinds of riches that were just waiting to be picked up and shipped back over. I don't see that happening in space unless we start to run out of more easily recoverable resources here on Earth and, I don't see that happening for at least 50 years, if not longer.

*may* decide to stake a claim?
Sounds a little too tenuous.

Before the Hudson Bay Company was established in 1670, the French government had a monopoly on the fur trade and, the English government commissioned the ships to explore the bay area. King Charles II then granted the Royal Charter to grant the company a monopoly over the 'Indian Trade' ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hudson_Bay_Company#History ). The company was protected from French attacks by the might of the British military. I don't see a similar situation for setting up trading rights with the Martians here.

The British military was similarly instrumental in securing the rights of the British East India Company which used trade routes which were initially explored by the military.

Without government support in the initial stages and continued support and protection, neither of these companies would have ever come to be. That's how it works, in my opinion. Only a government commanding the resources of an entire civilization can shoulder the risks and blaze the trail that private interests may follow. We are just not at the stage yet where private interests have the wherewithal to set the dynamic in motion on their own.

Could NASA win the X-prize?
I don't believe NASA could have one the X-prize with their current hardware.

and
That's what I mean. If no sound reasons, then don't do it, neither private nor government. If there are sound reasons then private ones can do it, and certainly cheaper than any government. And it doesn't have to be for running out of resources; we've never run out of resources anytime before, no reason to suppose in 50 years.

Making money from space
Private companies have been making money in space for decades with communication satellites.

Because NASA and other governments could not provide the launch facilities to accommodate the private market, a commercial venture has been launching communication satellites from an platform at sea. The company is called Sea Launch. (http://www.boeing.com/special/sea-launch/news.htm)

There are limited Clark orbit slots for communication satellites. Therefore satellites are getting larger and more complex.

There may come a time when it will be more cost effective to replace satellites transponders in orbit, keeping the bus in place. This would require either robotic or manned missions to Clark orbit to replace components.

A commercial need may then exist for manned space travel. Over and above the tourist demand.

As slots for geo-synch satellites are filled, alternatives need to be developed. One idea may be two satellites in the same orbit as the moon with a base on the moon to transmit to those satellites providing nearly full earth coverage. Polar Legrange orbits would provide 100% coverage.

A need for a lunar base would then exist.

If water is not available on the moon, it would cost less to transport water from Mars than from earth. A commercial need for manned Mars bases would be created.

Just leveraging the current space business model, a commercial need for lunar bases and Mars bases may soon exist.

Only because...
...it would be such a minor feat for them that they would be subject to public ridicule and charges of misappropriation of public funds.

I don't mean to denigrate the X-Prize participants. It was and enormous and necessary baby step forward for a private contractor to make. But, it was still just that: a baby step.

But...
...there ARE sound reasons. They are just beyond the short time horizon for payback upon which private industry depends and they carry more risk than private industry generally can assume. This is why our system has evolved such that government funds the basic research and, once the trail is blazed, private industry takes over. It is a good system that has served us well.

With your outlook, we never would have developed a space industry, with all of the billions in commercial benefits and military security it confers, at all.

Always more money AND/or a new direction.
NASA is simply the post office of space. And like the post office it has regulations to protect it from competition. Remember the X-prize? The head of the FAA was there to make sure the space craft was "safe". Of course there is no regulator at NASA launches.

With current capability, how could NASA win the X-prize?
Can they re-launch the same shuttle in two weeks?

But
That's only your opinion, you can't know that there would have never been any space industry. Werner v.Braun, and Goddard were playing with rockets long before they got any government subsidies. Has there ever been in all human history any basic research that was done by private guys, or companies? If the answer is yes, then you supposition is wrong.

Whatever
Your beloved "Hudson Bay" company, or any of the others, were johnny come latelies. As I said, they followed and espanded, only after a government run exploration found something. Totally unknown exploration has never been undertaken by any private company. Government's always came first; either for conquest or security reasons.

this will not work, at present, as a corporate concept in anything but near-earth orbit. No company will stake that claim until the government opens a door.

Oh come on!
Your answer is yes they could. And with a go ahead to use only available technology and anything readily available, they could do it with less than a six week window for first launch.

Marjon, the original configuration for the shuttle was a "piggyback" launch. If they were allowed to reconfigure any heavy lift vehicle in the air force arsenal, then put a fuel tank in the cargo bay, they could launch, land, refuel, and launch again in 24 hours given the short orbital height needed for the X-prize.

But I agree with Ridiculous, what would be the point?? It would be a goofy step backwards for NASA.

However, it was a needed baby step for a private entity. It has now proven viable, the next step is to take it higher, longer duration and with a heavier lift capability.

However, it was still a very expensive proposition with no profitability in sight int he near future.

If so, prove it
No, there has been no big-ticket, basic exploration done (with any results worth noting) without government. The system Rediculous notes has been around for 1,000 years or more. Dietmar, sure, there have been a million discoveries made by individuals, but few required any major expendatures by the individuals. Even then, you couldn't get investments until you showed a product or break through. Even drug companies these days don't pay for a lot of their R&D, that comes from charities and government grants.

Those boys you bring up were just that, playing with rockets. Like the Reich, they couldn't come up with the money or investment capital to actually push a payloadless roacket into low-earth orbit without government funding.

No, the proof is on you here, find me one major big-ticket exploration or reasearch project that ever got off the ground without government funding.

Let's see the numbers.
"The flight vehicle must be flown twice within a 14-day period. Each flight must carry at least one person, to minimum altitude of 100 km (62 miles). The flight vehicle must be built with the capacity (weight and volume) to carry a minimum of 3 adults of height 188 cm (6 feet 2 inches) and weight 90 kg (198 pounds) each. Three people of this size or larger must be able to enter, occupy, and be fastened into the flight vehicle on Earth's surface prior to take-off, and equivalent ballast must be carried in-flight if the number of persons on-board during flight is less than 3 persons."

You think a space shuttle could launch from a 747?

I would like to see the numbers on that.

The original intent was to only carry pesonnel.
Because the program was underfunded, they rolled in requirements from the Air Force to carry satellites.

The shuttle is the way it is because it was a typical government program with no direction and insufficient funding.

Apollo was successful because it had a well stated objective and was well funded.

Using Apollo designs to return to the moon is smart.

Developing a small, reusable personnel shuttle would be smart. Leave the heavy lifting to expendable rockets.

A better question to ask
There is NO WAY to prove if something could have been done or not. It is exactly like saying “but for FDR, the US would not have come out of the (Great) Depression”. Or, like saying, “NearNoad could not have been a Neuro-Surgeon”. I am a software designer (and developer). How can anybody say such things categorically?

The exact same reasoning applies to private sector space exploration and other big-ticket explorations and/or research projects.

So, (ALWAYS ) a better question to ask is; “Did the GOVAGs have the Right (not the Might, because they ALWAYS have it) to START the things they started”?

When you ask this Right question, then there is no mystery about (Private) Space exploration. The (now visible so called) benefits of Space exploration will be irrelevant to the discussion. Now that we are used to (the so called) benefits the GOVAGs’ directed Space exploration yielded, people are arguing that we would have missed them. But how could anybody have known then, when Kennedy commanded Americans to put man on the Moon by the end of the decade; that it would be achieved? The whole exercise could have been a gigantic waste of money.

After all, it is the Russian GOVAGs who first sent man into Space. Can anybody honestly say that the non-GOVAG Russians (or even the Russian GOVAGs, in their capacity as the non-GOVAGs) benefited from such an exercise?

How much more benefits would have accrued (to humanity as a whole) if only the GOVAGs of different countries left so many things to non-GOVAGs?

GOVAG; Noun :-

Any of the millions of people employed by the local, state/provincial and federal (central) Governments (of various countries).

Why GOVAGs (and why not just Government):-

To never loose sight of the fact that Government is NOT a disembodied machine but a system manned by flesh and blood mortals with all the attendant strengths and weaknesses.

US is in space for defense
It's called the high ground.

burden of proof.
Like the commenter below says, you can't even pove something would or would not have happened. But sounds like you're discounting all the major geniuses in world history, including also guys like James Watt, Einstein, all the others that did basic reasearch without government subisidies. You sound like just another apologist for predatory governments stealing money under threat of death for their faccist pet policies.

Lewis and Clark
Jefferson sent an expedition to explore the LA purchase not for conquest or for security, but for homesteading.

I would suggest that more exploration of the west was undertaken by private citizens for economic purposes than was done by any government. The mountain men knew the Rockies like the back of their hand.

No private enterprise will risk their capital if a government will come along and confiscate their property. As long as government can use force to take private property, there is no benefit for private exploration.

Missing the point
The government funding of basic research has worked. The private route has not yet proven it can shoulder the initial costs or risk. Only a fool would throw away something that works for a pie-in-the-sky promise that something untried and unproven will work better.

faccist (sic)?
I invoke Godwin's Law. This thread is now closed.

Try a C5A
Or even a modified B-52 or B1B. There are several ways it could be done, my preference would be a belly cradle, but I'm no engineer.

Afta afta
Lewis and Clark were send out, in fact, for several reasons and homesteading wasn't on the top of the list. 1. Jefferson wanted to try and find a Northwest passage to the pacific. 2. The government wanted to know what the hell they just bought. 3. Jefferson wanted to find out if there was any way to secure the territory. 4. To survey and record the territory.

The "Mountain Men" are a fantasy. Most mever strayed more than a couple of weeks walk from a town or fort (call it 200-300 miles at most). The few who did folowed indian guides to good beaver, mink and musk rat grounds for pelts. Most knew the trail there and, maybe, a 100 sq.mi. area around it. Many of your "Mountain Men" just traded with indians at known meeting spots. There were a few true adventurers who found new mountain passes and trails, but many of them were employed by the government to get settlers into the region. The Jim Bridgers of the world were a rare breed, and even they were employed by the government at times.

On the other hand, once the way was opened, yes, the true mapping of the region was done by private citizens and companies.

Silly Argument
You know, NASA doesn't even work like that. The Shuttle wasn't built by NASA. NASA's rockets weren't built by NASA. NASA puts out an RFP and private contractors bid on it. If NASA wanted to do such an elementary launch, they would get Boeing or LockMart or Orbital Sciences to scrub it up in short order. Or, they could fund a bunch of backyard space cowboys to try to figure out a way to do it cheaply, which is what they are doing with the Centennial Challenge.

Do you have any idea what kind of payloads NASA launches into LEO, MEO, GEO and higher orbits on a regular basis? Do you think the Shuttle is all NASA does?

B-I-N-G-O
But the idea of a heavy lift, re-usable vehicle was actually a good one. So good that the Russians had to try and emulate it and expand on it. There are advantages to the Shuttle design.

But you are right; the Shuttle was originally designed as a "Space Plane" and the concept was to take off an airplane at above 60,000 feet with enough internal fuel to get into a high orbit and even, possibly, go to the moon and beyond.

I fully agree with your next two sentences.

Using Apollo designs to return to the moon is rediculous, if the purpose is to build an outpost there. If you just want to go back to the moon, fine. Your smaller shuttle is a better idea, but it will need some lift capability to take pre-fab parts up for assembly on the moon.

It (Space exploration by GOVAGs) WAS untried when they (GOVAGs) started it
There is a first time for everything.

How can anybody know for SURE how a project such as Space exploration would yeild any useful results?

And, how does the fact that it did yield some results preclude the possiblity of similar results if Private people had undertaken such a project?

As far as the risk factor is concerned, that is the whole point. The GOVAGs who authorise and plan for such projects do not risk anything personally. They are taking chances on OPM. If they succeed, they get credit and accolades. If they fail? At the most, an ealry retirement with all benefits in tact. But more probably, they get a bigger budget.

Finally, there is no need for such expressions as "Only a fool", to explain your view point.

politics
The Shuttle was intended as an interim solution to a true SSTO (single stage to orbit) reusable vehicle.
This was a political and technical compromise to lower both development cost, risk, and time.
The plan was to have its replacement in place by the mid 1980s, and studies towards that goal were started, leading to several concepts and prototypes.

All these replacement programs were cancelled by the Clinton administration.
Venturestar, Hyper-X, etc. were all viable and could have worked but weren't in the short term interest of politicians looking for reelection (and thus votes) in districts with little aerospace industry, so budgets were slashed to the point where NASA (and their industry partners) could no longer maintain these programs.
With defense budgets also decimated the military couldn't step in and provide funding and facilities (men, equipment, time) either (as they'd done in the past).

Given the massive cost involved and extremely limited shortterm profits to be gained, development of a true SSTO (especially for passenger and LEO cargo use, the only step we can take with current technology thanks to the lack of continued development) it is not conceivable at this point for private industry to fund the bill themselves.
For that to become profitable there'd need to be substantial economic activity in space, with frequent (several times a day at least, most likely even more frequent, like several times an hour) roundtrips to orbit needed to create a requirement for a fleet large enough they can be profitably built, maintained, and marketed.

This will require more than a small space station that takes in the odd multi-milionaire tourist once every few years.
For such limited use an SSTO isn't economical (unless maybe it were something along the lines of Venturestar, with turnaround times measured in days instead of months or years and subsequently far lower launch cost per pound), as is indicated by the replacement of the Shuttle with a disposable launcher (all of NASA at the moment doesn't launch enough into LEO to make an SSTO profitable, a situation that would possibly have been different had the original scale of the ISS not been reduced so drastically).

So we're in a situation where there's no political will to invest in economical space transportation, no economic requirement for it coming out of industry, and no economic benefit for current launch organisations (in no small part because of that lack of political will).
That such economic space transportation is vital for the longterm survival of the species is of little consequence to politicians, who think solely of their own personal power and prestige, nor to most industrialists who are bound hands and feet to the quest for ever higher short term profit margins in order to keep hedgefunds and other speculative investors happy.

As a result the only development into SSTO vehicles is being done on what's effectively a hobbyist level, by people such as Burt Rutan and others with some money (but not enough probably to let it come to fruition) and vision.
And they're being hampered left and right by government regulations which effectively ban people from performing space launches as a private venture.

minor?
With the current inventory NASA has they would be incapable of competing in the X-Prize competition, and with their bureaucracy they would have been incapable of creating something that could compete (or if they could, do it in such a way that it would cost less than the prize money).

NASA has nothing, has scuttled deliberately every single project that promised to lower launch cost and reduce turnover time for reusable space vehicles.
That attitude has been at the core of the technology policy of the agency since about 1990 at least.

In such a "corporate" culture it's inconceivable to do anything efficiently, cheaply, and safely that could become profitable.

they can't
The current turnaround time for the Shuttle (and that's without reconditioning the boosters, let's assume they take fresh ones off the shelf) is several months at least.

The piggyback launch idea was indeed proposed but is impossible to implement with the current design as the main engines lack the power to pull it off, and even if it did have the power it lacks the fuel storage to carry enough fuel to carry it into orbit.

Another major problem is of course that the Shuttle uses a disposable main tank, something AFAIK not allowed under the X-Prize requirements which dictate a fully reusable launch vehicle.

In contrast to what you think, developing something along the lines of SS1 would be a step forward for NASA (as well as indeed a step back, as they have done it before with the X-15, technology they decided to not pursue to its logical conclusion for political reasons).
It would require NASA to change from a government style bureaucracy to a corporate style environment where efficiency and drive for success are rewarded rather then discouraged.
It would require NASA to finally get serious about creating reusable launch vehicles with a low launch cost and short turnover times.
It would require them to work to set goals with set budgets rather than open ended goals with unknown budgets.
It would bring them into the 21st century.

see the reason why we fail
And there's the reason why the US (and Europe, and many other countries) are failing fast, especially in R&D and exploration.

We've become so risk-averse that anything that's not yet "proven technology" is automatically discarded as unreliable, too risky to even look into.

A space elevator is possible, the physics are sound.
The "only" thing that remains doing is engineering (which may require development of some new materials to make the thing a practical proposition, but we already know roughly what those materials would need to be, so we're halfway there).

If your argument had been used by the Wright brothers, they'd never have invested their savings in a rickety little aircraft with a homebuilt engine running on a fuel to that date used mainly for heating homes.

If it had been used a hundred years earlier there'd have been no railways, no mechanised industry at all, as people'd have discarded the idea of the steam engine as too preposterous to ever work.

If it had been used in 1492 Columbus would never have sailed and found what's now called America.

moon and mars
The moon and Mars may make nice tourist trips, but they're not economical as sources for raw materials.

It's far more economical to use the asteroid belts for raw materials and place your permanent bases/colonies/stations in HEO, like in the Lagrange points.
Smaller stations in LEO can be used as staging areas, where people and cargo are transferred between launch systems placing them outside the earth's gravity well and pure space vehicles to transfer them to their final destination.
ISS could become the prototype for those, providing a jumpoff point for repair and exploration missions.

almost
I agree with the small SSTO launcher for personel, combined with a large heavy lift vehicle (which may be disposable for all I care, see what comes).

What I don't agree with is using it (after an initial construction phase) to place prefabricated elements of space construction projects into orbit.
Such elements should be fabricated in orbit from locally available materials.
Sending automated vehicles to the asteroid belt to catch a few metal asteroids is is far cheaper than launching the same amount of metal from earth (after an initial investment phase to build the mining infrastructure and ore processing plants in orbit of course).

That's the way we want to go in the intermediate to long term, I see the launching of (sections of) space stations and vehicles from earth (or indeed the moon) as a purely intermediate step towards a (ideally fully) self sufficient space economy that needs no shipments from earth except those it trades to earth.
Metals and certain ceramics and medicine from orbit exchanged for luxury items, artworks, and other medicine from earth, at least initially also some water and fertiliser.
Get your water from asteroid mining, extract atmospheric gasses from that.

fuel
The Shuttle in its current incarnation lacks the fuel capacity to reach orbit when launched piggyback.
That fuel capacity was traded in the design phase for cargo capacity and a traditional aircraft shaped design rather than the bulkier lifting body shape originally envisioned (which would have provided room for fueltanks).

Utter rubbish
Private industry does not and never has had the interest in fundamental solar system exploration conducted by JPL.

But you failed to address my point. You contended that government programs were a waste of money. Now you concede that JPL and NASA actually have some proper scientists, implying that they've done some useful work.

Hence, your own statements show your original proposition was wrong.

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