U.S.A.

Beyond Columbia—a new era

The shuttle is a step toward the science-fiction dream of routine space travel

Michael Posner April 27 1981
U.S.A.

Beyond Columbia—a new era

The shuttle is a step toward the science-fiction dream of routine space travel

Michael Posner April 27 1981

Beyond Columbia—a new era

U.S.A.

The shuttle is a step toward the science-fiction dream of routine space travel

Michael Posner

The television cameras caught it first, a distant blur on the brilliant blue canvas of the sky, a smudge of light fluttering in space. Seconds later, as two powerful sonic booms thundered overhead and a full-throated choir of 250,000 spectators sent up a raucous echo of celebration, the 80-ton bird, Columbia—America’s dream of its future in space—swooped out of the California morning, landing with almost routine precision on a rock-hard lake bed on the edge of the sun-baked desert. One minute late, but right on target, the future had arrived.

This triumphant maiden voyage—the first time a vehicle launched like a rocket has returned to Earth like an airplane, able to fly again—has been a fast-acting tonic for the American spirit, restoring what has been conspicuously absent for some time: the nation’s native sense of confidence. “This is the world’s greatest flying machine,” declared a jubilant astronaut, Robert Crippen, afterward. “We’re back in the space business to stay.” Even before engineers began probing the aircraft’s 31,000 heat-resistant tiles for damage sustained on re-entry (it was minimal), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced plans for the second shuttle flight, a four-day excursion this fall to test, among other things, the mechanical limb that will hoist satellites into orbit (see box).

The “high” may well be temporary and, if the shuttle one day comes and goes as punctually as a Swiss train, Americans may take it all for granted.

But there is no denying Columbia represents a quantum leap for the U.S. space program, dramatically cutting the cost per launch and enabling the U.S. to orbit large, ultra-sophisticated space laboratories, telescopes and satellites. Concludes satellite expert Peter Glaser: “Its significance surpasses that of the moon landing.”

The first satellite will be sent aloft late next year, when Columbia and three sister ships begin operational flights. Before the middle of the decade, some 50 commercial and reconnaissance satellites will be eased into orbit by the shuttle. Among the early passengers: Bell Telephone, ComSat, the General Telephone Co. and several foreign countries including Canada. But the most important client, for now at least, is the U.S. defense department. The Pentagon has booked passage on nearly a third of all scheduled flights and is even building its own launching facility at Vandenburg Air Force Base in California, assigned for completion in 1984.

Officially, the military’s interests in space are classified, the specific functions of its satellites closely guarded secrets. But it does not require genius to recognize that a 30-ton orbiting camera of the kind Columbia will carry is a handsome addition to the inventory of intelligence-gathering devices. Whether it is tracking troop manoeuvres by Warsaw pact forces or verifying Soviet compliance with this or that arms limitation treaty, the big spy satellite constitutes a distinct military advantage. And if the equipment malfunctions or needs maintenance, it can be brought down into the lower orbit of the space laboratory and be repaired by teams of astronauts.

Presumably, the Pentagon will also use the shuttle to experiment with more advanced satellite technology, especially high energy lasers (HEL). The air force has already spent roughly $1.2 billion on its HEL program and will soon experiment with firing a laser weapon from an F-15 fighter. By most calculations, creation of a space-based laser satellite is still 10 years away, but the Reagan administration seems anxious to speed development. Some $11.9 billion is budgeted for military space programs in fiscal year 1982, up from $8.4 billion in 1980.

As a weapon, the high energy laser would be frighteningly efficient. Essentially, it is targeted energy, a beam of charged particles that would melt, burn or at least disable oncoming missiles or rockets. Since its beam moves at the speed of light (297,600 km per second), the laser would be able to take on dozens of targets in rapid succession. But, as a flashlight beam diffuses through fog, so lasers tend to weaken as they move through clouds or atmospheric haze, losing the ability to pinpoint the vulnerable core of the target. A laser-equipped satellite would therefore represent a considerable advance. The high ground of military supremacy in space will not be easily won, however. The Soviet Union has been working on its own weapon for years and is reported to have successfully tested an anti-satellite laser more than 20 times.

If military and communications interests have been the first to sense the shuttle’s technological potential, NASA is hopeful that other industries will eventually climb aboard. Europe’s gift to the shuttle program, the Space Lab being built by the European Space Agency, will provide an environment for creating entirely new technologies: more powerful drugs, free of the side effects caused by gravitational impurities; stronger metal alloys; improved crystals for semiconductors. One pharmaceutical firm, Ortho, plans a joint project with McDonnell Douglas to manufacture something called an electrophoretic separator, the critical first step toward development of purer drugs. Another outfit has scheduled a series of crystal growth experiments. There have been expressions of interest from dozens of other companies, ranging from the tepid to the eager, but industrial demand for cargo space is far from approaching the level that NASA one day envisages. Ironically, the agency expects that the most active users of Space Lab will probably be the Europeans themselves.

In part, the reluctance to commit significant dollars to space research—the full cargo bay on Columbia will rent for a tidy $43 million—reflects lingering doubts about its utility. For the shuttle has not lacked critics. Even while astronauts Crippen and John Young were whirling through their 272-km-high orbits, Democratic Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin was offering a few carefully chosen words of derision on ABC’s Issue and Answers. “We’re putting up a truck in the sky and we’re being told it’s the Second Coming,” Proxmire noted. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t go ahead some day with the shuttle. I’m challenging whether or not the technology is advanced sufficiently far so that we should have killed so many of our good solid scientific projects.”

In fact, more than half of NASA’s recent budget has gone toward shuttle development and other programs have suffered. Planned probes of Halley’s Comet in 1986 and of the sun’s poles are now in limbo. Others, including the launch of the Gamma Ray Observatory (for tuning in to distant galaxies on ultra-high frequencies), have been deferred. Even technologically, there is less to the shuttle than is sometimes claimed. The system is not totally reusable, requiring disposable $10.8-million external fuel tanks with each launch. Although the orbiter is capable of flying 100 missions, its multimilliondollar engines will have to be replaced after 25 or 30 flights. And none of the vehicles is capable of flying into geosynchronous orbit (i.e. remaining stationary over a fixed point on Earth), 35,200 km above the Earth, where the most sensitive cargoes are destined; expendable boosters will still be needed to carry satellites to those distances and the shuttle will be unable to retrieve them for repair. As a technological marvel, Columbia clearly has its limits.

But for every detractor there is, of course, a champion. Says New Mexico’s Republican Senator Harrison Schmitt, a former astronaut who went to the moon with the Apollo 17 mission: “Historically, the ebb and flow of civilization has taken place on the Earth’s oceans. Now that ebb and flow is moving into space.” Says Schmitt: “We have no alternative but to go. The shuttle is only a technology. It’s not a purpose. The purpose is yet to be articulated.”

For Crippen and Young, the purpose was perfectly clear: to get Columbia up and down without incident. And despite a last-minute computer snafu {Maclean's, Apr. 20) which delayed the launch 48 hours, the actual flight was a textbook performance. Two booster rockets detached on cue, landing off the Florida coast, and were later towed back to Cape Canaveral. The external fuel tank separated on schedule. The cargo bay doors, opened to provide cooling for most of the 36-orbit flight, worked on command. The orbiter’s manoeuvring engines performed flawlessly. And the silicate tiles—designed, at a cost of $36 million, to withstand the searing 1,371 °C heat of re-entry—were apparently intact, but for a dozen random pieces lost during takeoff. Gliding at 30,400 km per hour toward its landing site at Edwards Air Force Base, Columbia sat for several exultant minutes shimmering in the mid-morning heat; after an hour, flight commander Young emerged, springing from the cockpit with the look of a man who has just savored the sweet wine of vindication. “We’ve just become infinitely smarter,” he quipped.

‘The ebb and flow of history is now moving to space’

The spirit seemed infectious. From around the nation and the world, the plaudits poured in, tributes to American courage, technology and ingenuity. Even the Soviet news agency, Tass, offered a careful salute, qualified by warnings about the dark intent of American military satellites in space. Astronomers likened Columbia to flights of the first commercial aircraft, which revolutionized society after 1930. Engineers compared it to the integrated circuit, whose development heralded the genesis of the computer age. At the very least, the Space Transportation System will make manned voyages in space a regular occurrence, pushing back the frontiers of the great unknown. In the decades ahead, the shuttle’s configuration will change substantially; it will become bigger, faster, stronger, capable of ferrying still larger payloads into orbit. Among the visions that inhabit NASA’s current dreams is creation of a chain of solar-powered giant satellites that could collect sunlight and beam it (by microwave) to Earth, for use as a fuel source. On Earth, solar energy is seldom efficient beyond a very small scale; collected in space, solar energy would be 10 times as efficient, if not yet cost-effective.

The practical benefits of this and other technologies are admittedly some years down the galactic highway. When most Americans contemplate the shuttle, they do not consider its strategic import in a military sense, or the commercial opportunities that await the bold—and well-heeled—gambler. What they feel is nothing more and nothing less than a tremor of old-fashioned American patriotism, nursed by the notion that the country is perhaps not so badly off after all, that there’s some old Yankee fire still burning in the hip flagon. Canadians have felt this, too; it is the sort of sentiment that followed Team Canada’s victory over the Soviet Union in 1972, or news of Kenneth Taylor’s courageous instincts in Tehran in 1980, a spontaneous gush of childlike emotion. Americans may not have fully grasped quite why Columbia is important or how computers guide its flight, but they were struck by the awesomeness of it. One watched it on the runway after the flawless desert touchdown, a curious bird baking in the sun; and for one exquisite moment there was wonder.