Saturday, September 20, 2008

Should NASA’s Space Shuttle Fleet Be Retired?

With no suitable replacement before it’s much publicized retirement date of 2010. Should NASA’s aging space shuttle fleet be retired knowing that existing stopgap measures like the Soyuz spacecraft could stray into hostile territory?

By: Vanessa Uy

While the harrowing incident of the Soyuz spacecraft straying off-course by more than 400 kilometers from its planned landing site. Almost a headline story back in April 21, 2008 - now fades into obscurity. But there are some of us who still care beyond the 8.2 G pull of such an “uncomfortable” Earthbound ride. The April 21 incident highlights the Soyuz spacecraft’s inherent problem: it can’t be controlled with a reliable degree of certainty on where to land. Worst of all, replacement spacecraft of comparable controllability to NASA’s current fleet of space shuttles won’t come on line at least until March 2015.

America’s NASA developed their space shuttle fleet in the first place to meet a requirement for a spacecraft / return vehicle that can be piloted back to the Earth’s surface to a precise location. Like a paved runway commonly used by large commercial jet-powered aircraft and preferably on US soil. A feat that space capsule-type vehicles like the Soyuz spacecraft – despite their lower operating costs – can never do.

Though it never happened yet, returning astronauts from the International Space Station using an Earth return vehicle similar to Soyuz might accidentally land in a hostile territory. Like the tribal areas in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, which is technically not that far from the Russian controlled Central Asian plains which their space capsules regularly lands given the number of kilometers the Soyuz spacecraft could stray. And there are no international treaties yet that protects these astronauts from being taken hostage. Like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants would even respect it if preexisting ones exists. The Somali pirates who recently abducted vacationing French tourists in a luxury yacht sailing in the waters of the Horn of Africa between Somalia and Djibouti probably never even heard of the International Maritime Conference in Washington in 1899, or would give a damn if they had.

So astronauts and space tourists will have to settle to pray for luck that they don’t land in a hostile region and be taken hostage by militants. Given the extremely cramped -quarters of our current space vehicles, carrying infantry weapons like modern assault rifles could be very inconvenient for our astronauts. I just hope that computer game billionaire Richard Garriott will have the best of luck as he underwrites and personally makes Project Immortality a feasible reality.
By the way, Project Immortality is about storing digitally-sequenced human DNA on the International Space Station or ISS to avert a “Doomsday Event” – i.e. mankind won’t just go extinct if our planet ever becomes biologically uninhabitable because viable genetic material of humans are stored safely in space. Does this remind you of an episode of Star Trek about those genetically enhanced “├╝bermensch”? Richard Garriott’s bravery is admirable though, given that the Soyuz spacecraft could have him landing in front of Osama Bin Laden's cave.