Review: Chasing the Dream
by Jeff Foust
|“Stopping a successful development program before useful hardware can be delivered has become a very common trait of the U.S. space program,” says Andrews.|
The first part of the book looks at what could have been, notably in the development of reusable vehicles. Throughout the early decades of the Space Age there were many projects in the US looking at spaceplanes in particular. Some were well known, like Dyna-Soar, but many others less so, like the Have Region and Copper Canyon efforts in the 1980s. They are overshadowed by the failure of projects like the National Aerospace Plane and X-33, and the inability of the shuttle to match expectations. However, Andrews believes many of these programs could have advanced the state of the art of reusable launch systems had then been continued, hence the lament quoted above. For example, he believes that had Dyna-Soar flown, it could have demonstrated thermal protection and structure technologies that could have later been incorporated into the shuttle, changing its design into one that “would have led to low cost access to LEO in the early 1980s and significantly changed our space program.”
He is more optimistic about more recent efforts in the private sector, including SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Heavy and its Starship/Super Heavy under development, as well as Blue Origin’s New Glenn. After watching the first Falcon Heavy launch, he said, “I knew it marked a sea change in the US Space Program, wherein from now on, businesses will be leading the space program, and the focus will shift to space entrepreneurs.” That is arguably necessary since neither NASA nor the Defense Department are now investing in reusable launch technologies to any significant degree.
The second half of the book shifts from what could have been to what could be. Andrews offers a vision for lunar and asteroid mining (based on studies performed by his students) as well as deep space propulsion and even, at the end, interstellar travel. Essential technologies for enabling that, he says, are nuclear power and propulsion; without them, “there will be no spacefaring civilization.” (NASA would seem to agree, based on renewed investments in projects like the Kilopower surface reactor and nuclear thermal propulsion.) Andrews, though, is even more optimistic about fusion; while acknowledging it is a “long shot,” he believes it would alter human spaceflight and space settlement if fusion reactors became a reality.
Those latter chapters offer an optimistic future for spaceflight. But a reader can’t help but think back to the earlier chapters, and all the promising projects that never got going. What’s different this time? Perhaps it’s the greater role of entrepreneurs, yet companies can make decisions as bad as government agencies. With books like this, though, here’s always hope that the next generation will learn from the mistakes of the previous one.
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