This essay was originally posted last year and is now back with small changes. Enjoy.
The first decade of the 21st century ended with human space flight nowhere near to fulfilling the predictions made at the beginning of the space age. Not even close. Just as the Vietnam war robbed the space exploration budget, the end of the century found vast public funds, a truly mind boggling amount of treasure, spent on the cold war toys that have yielded guaranteed huge profits for the military industrial complex. Many of these incredibly expensive weapon systems do not work as advertised and very few of them have any application in the present war on terror. 911 did not stop the money flowing to new super fighter planes and missiles designed to shoot down other missiles. The promise of space was in truth sacrificed for the profits of the weapons industry. The expected moon bases and colonies on Mars were never funded and no human being has escaped earth orbit since the last Apollo mission. The underfunded space shuttle completely failed to provide the cheap lift and multi-mission capability that was never really possible to achieve. The showpiece International Space Station is little more than a 100 billion dollar collection of tin cans flying in endless circles.
Over a quarter century wasted and the human race seems in large part to have accepted the end of the space age. Despite a collection of old and new inferior lift vehicles incapable of accelerating a spacecraft to escape velocity, there is endless hype concerning the privatization of space and the bright future these for profit enterprises will bring about. The single point of failure in these schemes is the false miracle of fuel depots in space. These orbital gas stations will supposedly enable all the missions that previously could only be accomplished by a Heavy Lift Vehicles like the Saturn V. Cryo fuel storage and transfer is at this time a myth and has never even been attempted due to the extreme difficulties involved. It is simply a smoke screen to disguise defeat. We are not going anywhere if we stay on this path. The only hope for human space flight is the realization that deep space travel may at any time mean the difference between humankind surviving or disappearing forever. If this truth cannot unlock the vast resources required then we are sealing our collective fate. The Spaceship is the only insurance against extinction. Safeguarding the entire human race is the ultimate military mission, yet is completely ignored by our leaders and the defense industry. The inevitable asteroid or comet impact and the threat of a 100 percent lethal plague are with us right now. We as a species are playing a game of Russian roulette. We truly do not know when, but we know what is coming.
Everyone breathes a sigh of relief when it is explained that disastrous impacts only occur an average of once every several million years. The key fact never discussed is impacts are random. An impact could occur tomorrow, and again the next day, and it would just be a blip on a curved line representing the immensity of geologic time. No one would be left to exclaim, “WOW! What were the odds of that happening?” In the same way the threat of engineered pathogens is ignored, overlooked, or scoffed at in the hopes it will just go away. Just as there is little than can be done to stop seasonal flu, there is very little that could be done to stop such an airborne plague once it begins. Naturally evolved pathogens always leave a certain percentage of survivors but an engineered virus does not follow that rule. We are led to believe there is no defense, but we are being decieved and there is nothing further from the truth.
Spaceships can intercept impact threats and deflect them with nuclear devices. Spaceships can carry the people and equipment to construct permanent self-sustaining colonies in the outer solar system that will survive any plague on earth. The vital importance of building such craft is obvious. But Beyond Earth Orbit Human Space Flight (BEO-HSF) cannot be accomplished with a few expendable rockets. While complex weapons systems are easy money for industry because they do not have to work, Spaceships are hard money because they must work. Human beings must adjust their worldview concerning what is expensive and what is worth the expense. To understand the difficulty in building one, we must first define what a Spaceship actually is.
The entertainment and documentary film industry has conditioned the public to think of any craft that carries human beings beyond the atmosphere as a spaceship. A better definition would be a vehicle designed to carry human beings outside low earth orbit (LEO) while providing artificial gravity and radiation protection equal to earth. In addition, a ship makes crossings and changes course so a true ship of space would necessarily be able to travel to other bodies in the solar system. Travel to the moon does not qualify as a true crossing to another body due to the short distance compared to other destinations. Such a quick trip can be made without the gravity and shielding required for interplanetary flight. Another feature of lunar travel is the ability of chemical propulsion systems to accomplish these missions. Due to gravity and radiation solutions, a Spaceship traveling deep space has no propulsion option except nuclear energy. While travel in the inner solar system may use solar power for life support and other systems, nuclear propulsion is still required. Due to the lack of inner system destinations, nuclear power, as well as nuclear propulsion, must be included in defining the true Spaceship.
At this point in history the technology exists for only one form of nuclear propulsion; nuclear pulse (bomb propulsion). This fact is generally unknown to the public and is given little serious consideration in the popular press. Nuclear explosions pushing a ship through space does stretch the imagination, but no more than the idea of heavier than air flight did in the 19th century, even into the first years of the 20th. The difficulty in nuclear propulsion is not the engineering. Billions of dollars of classified weapons research would reveal exactly how to build such a system. It is not how, it is how to build and operate the system well away from the earth. Nuclear materials are an environmental hazard without equal. For this reason transporting and assembling the fuel and components of any nuclear power and propulsion system is the first obstacle. It is overcome by virtue of the previously mentioned body that can be reached with just chemical propulsion; the moon.
As with the Apollo missions of the last century, the moon can be reached on a direct trajectory with a Heavy Lift Vehicle. Such a vehicle, using human rated components, an escape tower, and specially packaged fissionables able to survive a launch failure or reentry, is the only practical method. While a worst case nuclear accident in earth orbit is unacceptable, the potential risk of contamination in lunar orbit is acceptable. Thus, the first problem in building a Spaceship is solved. Nuclear power components and the fuel for nuclear propulsion can be transported by HLV to the moon for assembly and preflight testing. The heaviest parts of the Spaceship are the massive pusher plate the nuclear pulse reacts against and the crew’ s massive radiation shield. The Earth Departure Stages (EDS) that boost the moon bound payloads out of earth orbit to their destinations, can be converted into the double hull of the Spaceship crew section that holds the liquid shielding, and also the structural members of the tower assembly used to absorb the shock of the pulse bomb detonations. The moon facilitates one of the two high mass necessities and can eventually supply the other.The first massive component, the radiation shield, can be supplied immediately in the form of water derived from lunar ice deposits to fill a double hull crew section. Until they are locally fabricated, the Spaceship pusher plates, or “pushers”, will have to come from earth by HLV in thin sections one at a time and stacked to form each ship’s heavy pusher.
The HLV at launch with a wide thin disc mounted at the nose and with side mounted SRB’s will be vaguely familiar to many science fiction fans. There is some resemblance to the starship Enterprise. How many such discs will have to be launched and later stacked to build an all up pusher remains to be seen. Eventually monolithic pushers can be manufactured from lunar materials. Until that time the pushers will have to come from earth in slices with multiple HLV missions. Considering the mass and energy involved, the schemes proposing human space flight by way of smaller cheaper rockets and “gas stations is space” are laughable. There is no cheap; space flight is inherently expensive.
A shock absorbing tower structure mounting a massively shielded crew section coupled to a nuclear reactor and bomb storage section, a massive pusher, and a tether system to generate artificial gravity complete the Spaceship. Using the hundreds of tons of water making up the radiation shield for growing bio-engineered organisms can sustain a closed loop life support system with an endurance of several years. A bomb propelled ship can attain velocities far above those possible with chemical propulsion and enable expeditions to the moons of the outer planets. The slug of matter that is superheated by the bomb and converted into the plasma that actually pushes the Spaceship can be obtained in situ from those distant moons in the outer system. By carrying a percentage of bombs without the mass of plasma slugs, speed and range is extended. This method of extending range was proposed in the original Project Orion. Spaceships can also transport thorium reactors, with fuel derived from lunar thorium ore, to these distant moons enabling permanent colonies to be established. Over 100 bodies in the outer system are large enough to anchor colonies.
During powered flight, when the reactor is shut down and both sections of the ship are joined, a tower structure would be used to decellerate the composite section during bomb pulses. Projecting far ahead of the pusher at the end of the tower, the composit ship section at the front would stroke backward like a descending elevator toward the plate. This system would lower the acceleration forces on the crew and equipment to the level of an aircraft carrier jet catapult launch. When coasting, the Spaceship would spit in half and reel out the engineering section and crew section opposite each other on long tethers to generate artificial gravity by spinning both sections around the pusher as the axis. The spaceship’s nulcear reactor can then be run without the need for very heavy shielding due to the several thousand feet of separation from the crew section. When the tethers are deployed for cruising, one half of the tower would fold against the pusher and reel out the tether with the crew section, and the other half of the tower would do the same in the opposite direction with the nuclear section of the ship. seperater lengths of tether payed out from the split tower can be adjusted to balance the two spinning masses. During coast the crew would look out through viewports separated by14 feet of water and view a slowly rotating star field.
Science fiction has instilled the idea that Spaceships and large scale space exploration is centuries away. In fact, we are perfectly capable of colonizing the solar system with present technology. With a single advance in medical technology– the ability to freeze human beings and then successfully revive them– we would also be immediately capable of travel to the stars. Such a cryopreservation procedure violates no laws of physics and is already used on a smaller scale with sperm and ovum. With this in mind another existential threat to humanity must be appreciated at –the risk of the writer being considered paranoid or delusional. Physicist Stephen Hawking has warned of a possible threat from alien civilizations. Indeed, if we lack only a single technological advance to be capable of star flight, alien civilizations could have already made this advance and embarked on missions of colonization to other stars. The danger is that our world was selected for alien colonization many centuries ago. Unlike the dramatic combat found in science fiction novels and movies, the most likely invasion would take the form of comets steered toward earth as a method of sterilization. Just as we are capable of diverting impact threats away from earth, this capability also entails arranged impacts. An advance alien force would probably sanitize the earth of most indigenious life and plant invasive micro organisms from their native ecosystem. When the alien colonists arrive centuries in the future and are revived, they would find a world already adapted to their biology and ready for introduction of flora, fauna, and settlers. This conversion process may be common in our galaxy. The millions of planets now confirmed to exist only increase the likelihood.
From discussing building the first Spaceships and off-world base on the moon, to the subject of preparing for alien invasion seems a fantastical and inappropriate leap. It is no more incredible than the other unbelievable features of the universe– from super massive black holes to past ages on our own world that saw the end of the dinosaurs.