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Future of Space Travel

 

Statement of the problem

            The space programs run by NASA are funded by the government through taxpayers’ money. The annual expenditure of NASA space missions is in the tune billions of dollars. The policy makers are increasingly becoming critical of NASA with questions being raised as to whether the government should continue supporting its programs. A majority of the funds allocated to NASA by congress are used to finance its shuttle operations. These costs have been rising over the years thus leaving little or no funds for research and development thus limiting its ability to develop more programs (The Associated Press, 2003). Appeals made to congress for additional funding have been rejected as it the general perception is that NASA is becoming a burden to the tax payer and the government. NASA is currently in the process of launching a new shuttle as the existing one has become too expensive to maintain in addition to safety concerns as it uses technology which is almost becoming outdated.

Research Questions

This paper discusses the future of space travel by reviewing four major areas of interest; (a) Past and current shuttle cost publications;  (b) Past and current Shuttle technology publications;  (c) Current shuttle safety concerns publications;  (d)

Private commercial space flight safety concerns publications; (e) Current space technological advances publications; (f) Private commercial schedule and costs publications.

Methodology

            In order to address the research questions adequately, several articles posted on the web have been reviewed. These provide the relevant information and go a long way in providing the material discussed in this paper.

 

Review of Literature

High shuttle costs

Shuttle costs are generally classified into two categories: development and operational. The development costs are associated with the expenditure incurred in the construction of the shuttle. Put simply, they are costs incurred before the first operational flight. The construction of the current shuttle was undertaken between 1971and 1982 with an expenditure of $17 billion incurred to completion. This means that the total annual expenditure during this period was approximately $1.7 billion (Lawler, 2004).

Operational costs on the other hand represent the total expenditure incurred in running the shuttle which is used in space missions. Operational costs totaling $34.5 billion were incurred in between 1982 and 1992. This represents an annual expenditure of $3.45 billion. Considering inflation during this period, this figure is adjusted to $ 4.6 billion. The shuttle operates a predetermined number of flights every year. The average cost per flight can be derived by dividing the annual operational costs by the total number of flights per year. If you take the average number of flights per year to be 4 between 1982 and 1992, then the average cost per flight would be approximately $1 billion. If the flight were doubled to 8 per year, the cost per flight would be $0.5 billion. This therefore means that the greater the flight frequency the lower the cost per flight.

One of the main reasons attributed to the high shuttle costs is low flight frequency. The number of flights undertaken per year falls short of what was projected in the feasibility study. This has compromised the cost efficiency of the shuttle’s operations leading to high flight costs. The reduced flight frequency is a direct result of the shuttle’s underutilization. The shuttle was built to serve three primary functions; to facilitate the transportation of experiments into space, launch spy satellites in space, test military equipment and launch satellites for the private sector (Lawler, 2004). However, shuttle has been used mainly for space experiments. The military adopted other means of testing equipment after the 1986 Challenger catastrophe. The private sector is not also keen on using the shuttle due to the prohibitive costs of launching satellites.

The envisioned functions were taken into account during the design of the shuttle. Its therefore has an extensive capacity which is not fully used. It is like a truck being used as a sedan. The truck’s fuel consumption and maintenance is ordinarily higher than that of the sedan irrespective of its use. NASA has therefore built another shuttle designed to serve the existing functions which is expected to be launched in 2010.

The technology used by the shuttle is outdated thus making its maintenance and operation costly. It costs $500 million to launch the shuttle. The shuttle’s main tank, which is only used at the time of launching, costs $100 million. On the other hand, in Russia it costs about $85 million to launch a shuttle. The aerospace companies who built the shuttle have continued to reap huge benefits from NASA’S use of the shuttle for over twenty years (Iannotta, 2009).

NASA has operated as a monopoly funded by the government. The level of accountability has also been low with projects being abandoned halfway. This is in spite of the fact that NASA costs the exchequer $15 billion every year. This is money which, if well utilized, could transform space travel. NASA should adopt modern technology which will lead to huge saving on shuttle operating costs. In addition, NASA has the cheaper and safer option of using expandable launch vehicles to transport people and materials to space.

Advantages and disadvantages of commercializing space flight

Advantages

With the commercialization of space flight, space travel will no longer be a preserve of the government. The space flights will be facilitated by private corporations through their own spacecrafts. The private sector is primarily driven by profits generated through the efficient use of existing resources. The various space travel companies will therefore seek to outdo each other by using modern technology to provide cheaper and safer space travel in a bid to gain market dominance. Government agencies like NASA will be able to cut back on their costs as they will outsource the transportation of people and materials to these companies. In addition, this will enable them to focus on their core functions leading to greater discoveries on the nature of space.

Disadvantages

The risks associated with space travel are high particularly due to safety concerns. If a shuttle develops mechanical problems, it cannot crash-land like in the case of ordinary aircraft.  A minor fault may therefore have catastrophic consequences. Space travel is an energy intensive venture. The world is already experiencing an energy crisis and this will only aggravate the current situation. Space travel is also very expensive and therefore a majority of the population may not afford it.

Technological advances which will help to make commercial space flight feasible

The greatest challenges to space travel are associated with performance, reliability and safety and cost. Commercial space flights will only be possible through the use of appropriate technology in building space crafts and thus address the above challenges adequately. One such technology is nanotechnology. The concepts underlying nanotechnology hold the key to future space travel as it fully addresses the existing challenges.

To begin with, one of the major issues associated with performance and reliability is the weight and strength of the material used in building space crafts. The ideal space craft material should be light and strong. This almost seems impossible as most materials are either one or the other but not both. The solution to this puzzle lies in the basic concept of nanotechnology through which the manipulation of matter at the atomic and molecular level is achievable (The SpaceSite.com, 2000). In this regard, it is possible to alter the molecular and atomic structure of matter so as to achieve the desired results.

This has facilitated the development of several materials with the qualities required for building space crafts such as Carbon nanotubes and diamondoid fibers. Carbon nanotubes have the highest strength-to-weight ratio among all existing materials. It is on average 50 to 100 times stronger than steel and less than 20% of its weight. Diamondoid fibers are much lighter but their strength is slightly less than that of Carbon nanotubes. The combined use of these materials will reduce the weight of spacecrafts by nearly 70% while making them stronger and hence safer (The SpaceSite.com, 2000).

High performance can be attained through solar powered ion engines using nanotechnology. The technology enhances the efficiency of solar panels by nearly 100% thereby boosting performance especially with the structural adjustments which make the aircraft lighter. Ideally, this can lead to an exhaust velocity of 1,000,000 m/s and acceleration of 9.8m/s2. This may not be achieved instantly but with time it might become a reality with greater understanding of the technology. The fact that the spacecraft is partially powered through solar energy will also play a big role in meeting the high energy requirements of space travel.

In order to for the commercialization of space flights to become a reality, the process of building spacecrafts must be cheaper and faster. With the existing technology, it takes approximately 5 to 10 years to build a new spacecraft. The demand for spacecraft will rise as a result of commercialization and therefore the time period between ordering and delivery must be shortened so as to serve the needs of the industry adequately. The development cost must also be brought down especially if space travel is to become cheaper. This can only be achieved through better technology. In this regard, the spacecraft building can be made more efficient in terms of time and cost using a combination of artificial intelligence systems and nanorobotics.

NASA has embarked on an ambitious project aimed at developing nuclear propulsion systems for spacecraft. This represents a break from tradition where chemical rocket technologies have been as the major source of energy in spacecrafts. Spacecraft speed has been limited by the current technologies for the last four decades. With the new nuclear propulsion systems, the current speed could be tripled to 29,000 kilometers per hours. With this kind of speed, the time taken to travel to mars using the current technologies would be reduced by nearly 75%. (Knight & Carrington, 2003).            Spacecrafts consume a lot of fuel to get into space most of which is used to provide power to overcome the earth’s gravitational pull. Therefore, once the spacecraft is in space, the power generated from chemical propulsion systems is determined by the remaining amount of fuel. In most situations, the fuel left is usually not enough to generate a lot of power. The spacecraft therefore progresses gradually to its destination. Through nuclear propulsion, the power generated builds up gradually leading to higher speeds as the spacecraft progresses with the journey. The duration of space missions will not also be limited to the quantity of fuel carried. This will facilitate missions into deeper space for studying purposes.

The new technology will facilitate the installation of nuclear generators which will be used to provide power to the spacecraft’s electronic devices. This is especially vital during long distance missions as the spacecraft may find itself too far from the sun to rely on solar power.  The generators, referred to as radioisotope thermoelectric generators, produce electricity using the heat produced during the process of radioactivity. The launching of spacecraft will also be made cheaper through the use of nuclear enhanced air-breathing rockets. This involves the use of a nuclear reactor to heat hydrogen contained in a tank within the space craft which mixes with air thus releasing great amounts of energy (Knight & Carrington, 2003). This is more cost effective as compared to the current system which uses a tank worth $100 million. For now, this is a gigantic step in reducing the time spent on missions. Besides, reduced mission time translates to a reduction in the overall costs of space travel.

The cost of commercial space flights

The inception of space tourism by Russia is regarded as the first step towards the commercialization of space flights. There are already several companies which have been formed to facilitate space tourism the most widely known being Space Adventure (Kuper, 2005). The space tourism industry currently boasts of six visitors. The low number of visitors is as a result of the high cost of space tourism. Space Adventures facilitates flights to the International Space Station at a fee of between $20-28 million. This is what is referred to as sub-orbital space tourism.

The future of space travel, however, lies in the more affordable suborbital space tourism. This is a space tourism developed by several companies including Space Adventures, Virgin Galactic and Armadillo Aerospace among others. The suborbital flights reach a maximum altitude of 100-160 kilometers. This enables the tourists to experience weightlessness, view a twinkle-free star field and a view of the earth from space. The space tourism companies estimate that the suborbital flights will be charged $200,000 per passenger (Said, 2004).

Virgin Galactic has already begun making sales on the suborbital flights with 200 seats sold as of 2007. It is however estimated that the price of the suborbital flights will drop ten fold to $20,000 as they become more popular. This is projected as being achievable in the next 5-10 years. By this time, the industry is expected to have streamlined all the existing bottlenecks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reference:

Iannotta, B. (2009). Space Shuttle Extension Options Carry High Costs. Retrieved May 11, 2009 http://www.space.com

Knight, W. & Carrington, D (2003) NASA boosts nuclear propulsion plans. Retrieved May 11, 2009 from http://www.newscientist.com

Kuper, C. (2005) Space Travel Has a Small Future. Retrieved May 11, 2009 from http://www.space.com

Lawler, A. (2004) Rising Cost of Shuttle and Hubble Could Break NASA Budget. Retrieved May 11, 2009 from http://www.sciencemag.org

The SpaceSite.com (2000) Nanotechnology and Space Exploration. Retrieved May 11, 2009 from http://www.thespacesite.com

The Associated Press (2003) Critics scrutinize cost of shuttle. Retrieved May 11, 2009 from http://www.usatoday.com

Said, C. (2004) British tycoon wants to fly you to space. Virgin Galactic plans to sell $200,000 rides. Retrieved May 11, 2009 http://www.sfgate.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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