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The Development of Space

Moving people off the ground was an accelerating process until 1969.

The first human to live peacefully and quietly away from the surface of the earth accomplished this feat by using a hot air balloon made of silk in 1783 as he floated at the mercy of the wind. More than 100 years passed while balloons were the only technology for getting people into the air.

Around 1900, heavier-than-air controlled flight was finally achieved, first in gliders and then in powered flight by the Wright brothers. In 1903, the 30 m long, head-high flight was literally unbelievable to most people, but airplane development moved rapidly and steadily higher and faster - and heavier, spurred on by the demands of World War I.

Between the wars a new form of flight slowly came into being. Liquid fueled rockets were featured in a new form of literature called Science Fiction as they were being born in real life by unappreciated pioneers such as Robert Goddard. It required another World War to drive the rapid progress of controlled rockets as they became large enough to be considered as vehicles.

After that, the sky and its air was no longer the limit. Rockets have provided dramatic increases in both speed and power. The capabilities of large rockets were readily imagined, but to put someone in a stable position away from the earth's surface required a political competition between East and West for bragging rights - a non-fighting world war. The first satellites were in orbit in 1957, followed by the first manned suborbital flight, and finally, in 1961, orbital rocket vehicles. The attention was always on FIRST - the first satellite, the first person in space, the first person in orbit, and, finally, the first man on the moon in 1969.

The firsts have faded into unimportance. The first woman in space. The first space walk. The first space station. The first interplanetary mission. The first mission to Mars. The first private citizen in space. The first private semi-space flight (low altitude). The first vehicle to exit the solar system. Exciting for the aficionado, but the general public has not been enthralled with space since that first step on the moon. Now the feeling is cost for no return, effort without a goal. Even NASA has given up touting the commercial rewards of space.

While media and personal emphasis has been laid on being first, much more emphasis has been laid on people, rather than things. The first object, a Sputnik, was big news, but primarily because America always assumed that it would be first, and the obvious superiority of the competition gave the Soviet's ball of metal shock value. Robotic exploration is valuable, but there is nothing like being there, as witnessed by the millionaire private space travelers who swear to a man that their 10-20 million dollars was well spent getting them briefly into earth orbit. Their trips are also a sign of weakness in the space program, since they have only been possible due to the desperation of the Russian space program.

Progress in space travel has been minimal since the 1960's. The space shuttle has hardly been a shuttle. The space station has been an exercise in cost overruns. Satellite launches have not expanded. The only bright sign has been the proliferation of launch systems available (and struggling).

These days, the drive for space comes from intellectual curiosity, and it is expensive. Past exploration was driven by economics, religion, or conquest. None of these motivates the exploration of space. Radiation sickness is the 16th century equivalent of scurvy. Expeditions then, as now, are expensive, funded by governments rather than private citizens. The goal is, however, hazy. Colonization is not discussed, nor is permanent life in orbit.

Why has there been a slowdown in progress? Many writers and thinkers have tried to predict the course of science in general, and space flight in particular. Some predict fundamental breakthroughs that open great vistas for easy further development, while others assume an evolutionary growth, and a lonely few predict that the limits of our science have largely been reached. There has never been a linear development of technology - balloons, rockets, and even aircraft (arrows) have existed for thousands of years before being able to carry people. What has changed radically is technology, scale, and control of propulsion.

There has not been a new earth-to-orbit propulsion system developed in over 40 years, nor has a new and better propellant been created. Propulsion research is almost non-existent today. Scramjet research has had successes, then been scaled back. It seems as if this is due to a lack of interest, perhaps because the exciting avenues of propulsion research have not met their promise and faded, perhaps because the overall luster of space has dulled.

Economic estimates of the exploration and development of space assume no further developments in chemical propulsion.

This is a big mistake.