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Space Transportation System (wikipedia.org)
87 points by benbreen on Oct 22, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 60 comments

Always fascinated by this — I suppose during my formative years, this was the kind of stuff in space books I checked out from the library: space tugs, lunar colonies....

As a hobbyist, I am trying to create a model of the "space tug" featured so frequently in the 1970's NASA studies.

Here is more information on the Space Tug than anyone could need including links to NASA documents/studies:


My progress on a model:


That is a thing of beauty. I am in awe of your modelling skills.

Wuh? I'm just a novice — figuring this all out (but enjoying the ride). Thank you though.

The better you get, the worse you think you are.

I love how, despite things like the Cold War and the Vietnam War, projects for the future have been so optimistic and ambitious back then. We really need of these dreamers, people who's goal to land on Mars and build space stations, instead of getting rich by selling adds over social media.

Let's hope Elon cools down, or someone else steps up to it.

> We really need of these dreamers

I don't think that's the way causation flows. We got the dreamers because we did ambitious things. If our country put its mind to establishing a permanent colony on the Moon or on Mars, it would light a fire in us all.

It's a feedback loop. There's a reason why you'd hear Star Trek credited as the reason why many people would go on to become engineers. A reason why people in STEM like to read science fiction books.

Hell, the field of rocketry was itself started by dreamers. Tsiolkovsky and von Braun weren't inspired by ambitious things, they dreamed of ambitious things, and helped made them happen. Goddard reportedly credited Wells[0] as the initial source of inspiration; Tsiolkovsky was apparently moved by the works of Verne[1].


What we need, really, is more dreamers in positions of money and influence. People with enough money and political clout to move the needle. Because at this point, what's stopping us is no longer science, just the bank account, and some engineering work of the kind which gets solved when you throw money at it.


[0] - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_H._Goddard#Cherry_tree_...

[1] - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Konstantin_Tsiolkovsky#Early_l...

100% agree with the feedback loop, but do want to add the following.

Money magically “becomes” available when there is a profit to be made. Part of what we need to do as a community is finding ways to “monetize” the activities we want to see. Part of this is having the visionaries, but part of this is about “closing” business cases. Things are better now, but the old joke of “How do you make a million in space? Start with 10 million” still applies.

We should not have to wait for / rely on billionaires to figure out how to make “activities we want to see” profitable. If “we” is the general public and “want” is strong enough, then taxation and democracy should be suitable tools to make it happen.

While I agree spiritually, I find that it is more effective to follow the “rules” of the universe on these things.

Specific example: law of gravity. If you don’t understand it, you still are impacted by it. So you can either learn it and use it (to make airplanes) or you can just try to jump into the sky and be upset why you can’t fly.

How this applies here: Why is there a lack of political will to “do” space? Well it comes down to kitchen table politics and budgeting. If push comes to shove, “we” as a country think that NASA is something “nice to have” and will budget it at the level of say a “nicer car” then is absolutely necessary to get from a to b safely. But if it will come in the way of safety/food on the table/etc, it will be the first to be cut.

Until there is a true “need”, space exploration will always be a “nice to have” rather than a core necessity.

Would you send me an email (see profile) please?

The project was intended as dual-use from the start, the shuttle was pitched as a way for the USAF to get classified payloads into space and experience for their military personnel.

The shuttle has flown some classified missions for the DoD but not as many as initially intended, because the platform didn't turn out as reliable as they had hoped. [0]

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manned_Spaceflight_Engineer_Pr...

The originally envisioned Space Shuttle was much smaller, but NASA couldn't get funding without USAF. In the process USAF and NRO demanded a much larger shuttle, which required the boosters and the additional orange fuel tank, and generally raised operating costs. You could argue that this significantly contributed to the overall failure of the shuttle program (outside of narrow use cases)

Then came the Challenger Disaster, which grounded the Shuttle fleet for three years and lead NASA to cancel all performance improvements, leading to the NRO giving up on the Shuttle as a launch vehicle. In the end the space shuttle was neither reliable enough nor powerfull enough for NRO missions. [1][2]

1: https://de.scribd.com/document/348134338/Declassifying-the-F...

2: https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB509/

The NRO requirements were a huge part of what sunk the shuttle. One requirement was that the Shuttle should be able to launch into a polar orbit, launch a reconnaissance satellite (to replace one that the Soviets shot down), and then immediately land after coming once around (so the Soviets don't also shoot down the Shuttle). This is why the Shuttle has that massive, heavy delta wing--because you have to do a lot more controlled aerodynamic gliding to land from a polar orbit.

Of course, the Soviets never shot down an American reconnaissance satellite and the Shuttle never launched into a polar orbit. Also the military and NRO figured out that you could just launch a reconnaissance satellite even into a polar orbit on an unmanned rocket anyway.

The Soviets, of course, were a lot more inclined towards unmanned solutions anyway, and concluded that the only thing the Shuttle would actually be useful for was orbital bombing, since it could launch nukes, do a burn to change its orbit, and repeat until empty to confound any kind of ASAT system. And then they panicked, invented their own space shuttle, and then collapsed as a major superpower and abandoned the project. I don't know of any clear evidence that the USAF even considered this, but if you evaluate the Shuttle design from a perspective of already having different and arguably better solutions for all of the stated requirements, it was probably safer for the Soviets to think, "this must be a secret orbital space bomber" than to think, "wow, the Americans made a lot of really weird and nonsensical design decisions". Among other things, they probably didn't account for the fact that the American space program held onto the mythos of the heroic astronaut even when manned missions weren't the best technical solution (e.g. satellite launches).

The compromises arising from NRO and other intel/military requirements may very well have "sunk" the Shuttle (or helped do so); if so, it was only after the same compromises likely helped it garner much of the political support necessary to build it in the first place. DOD caused all sorts of headaches, but the alternative probably would have been no launch system rather than a better one. It certainly helped protect the program when it at risk:

> When in 1979 President Jimmy Carter considered canceling the shuttle program because of its cost overruns, it was the national security uses of the shuttle, particularly in terms of launching the photo-reconnaissance satellites needed to verify arms control agreements, that convinced the presi- dent to continue the program. Once the Reagan administration took office in 1981, an early action was to confirm as national policy that the shuttle would be “the primary space launch system for both United States military and civilian government missions" (Logsdon, 291).

Maybe we'd have been better off had that happened, then or earlier. But there's little indication that NASA would have been able to successfully get approval for a less radical vehicle without the Shuttle's biggest selling point at the beginning: cheap, reusable, with a fast turnaround time. And in terms of mission capability, everything and the kitchen sink to boot.

As for the compromises, among other examples, in 1969 the Shuttle's payload bay was "...in fact sized to launch HEXAGON," or Keyhole-9, then in development, ten feet in diameter by 60 feet long and over 30,000 pounds (Logsdon, 167). Well and good, except for the fact that HEXAGON would be EOL when the Shuttle started flying and thus was never expected to be launched on it. But they figured any future satellites would be the same size and weight, so the Shuttle was likely designed around those parameters as a result. Oops.

For what it's worth, even if the national security community hadn't originally pushed for the cross-range single pass capability that helped lead to the delta wing design, it's likely that NASA would have wound up there anyhow:

> The need for high cross-range was throughout the shuttle debate a point of contention between NASA and the national security community. In reality, requirements for national security missions requiring high cross-range were never formalized and more or less evaporated during the 1970s. Well before that time, however, NASA had decided that a shuttle having significant maneuvering capability as it returned from orbit was needed to survive the heat of entry into the atmosphere. So while the national security cross-range requirement initially drove NASA to a particular shuttle orbiter design, one with delta-shaped wings and the thermal protection needed to resist high temperatures during a maneuvering entry, NASA likely would have adopted a similar design even if that requirement had not been levied in 1969. Whether NASA would have gone forward with a shuttle having a 15 × 60 foot payload bay and powerful enough to launch the most heavy national security payloads is not as clear; in the final days of the shuttle debate in December 1971, NASA put forward a somewhat smaller and less powerful shuttle as its proposed design (169).

I cannot recommend John Logsdon's After Apollo? Richard Nixon and the American Space Program[0] enough. It's a fascinating look into the politics and challenges NASA faced even in the heady days after Apollo 11. And, yes, the mistakes: by DOD, NASA, congress, and the White House starting with Nixon.

0. https://www.amazon.com/After-Apollo-American-Palgrave-Techno...

For those interested, there is a good series of essays on The Space Review detailing the National Reconnaissance Office’s effort to integrate Space Shuttle operations into its spy satellite servicing schedule.

Part 1: http://thespacereview.com/article/3172/1

Part 2: http://thespacereview.com/article/3302/1

Part 3-1: http://thespacereview.com/article/3390/1

Part 3-2: http://thespacereview.com/article/3394/1

> The project was intended as dual-use from the start, the shuttle was pitched as a way for the USAF to get classified payloads into space and experience for their military personnel.

Not surprising, given that back then, a) patriotism seem to have mattered more, and b) that's how you got funding for ambitious - and thus expensive - projects.

SpaceX will be fine without Elon if that ever has to happen. Gwynne Shotwell is very capable of leading it.

Paraphrasing another comment I read sometime ago: Gwynne is very capable of managing the operations, but would SpaceX really be landing rockets on drone ships if it wasn't Elon pushing for it?

Yes? Shotwell was the 11th employee of SpaceX, and isn't CEO of multiple other companies.

Elon has always been one of the main drivers of innovation over there, Gwenn has been the one keeping stuff afloat but Elon has been the one driving the "the hell I'm paying that much for a piece, I'll make it myself" culture as well as the iterative process.

I don't think there is any shortage of dreamers. It's the funders that are in shortage. The U.S. government wasn't willing to spend on STS since its price tag was so high and not much appetite from the general public. Frankly I'm not surprised.

It seems to me that the dreamers are going to come from the private sector a la Musk, Bezos, and gangs. This can allow deep pockets like governments to spend frugally on projects that the general public can get behind.

Say we were to crash potentially earth-destroying asteroids into the moon and then offer free mining rights to companies on a first-to-get-there basis.

I think we would still hear a a cacophony of moral objections. A spirit of pessimism seems to be hanging over us these days:


> Elon cools down

I'm curious to what you are referring, exactly?

A guess - Twitter

I couldn't care less about exhuberant dreams. Most of this is escapism.

I don't think I've ever met or heard of a person who's into space travel who would embrace it as an exercise in escapism. To me, it seems that it's something only said by people who don't like space programs.

You're totally wrong. I have nothing against space in itself. Just anything grandiose and technological feels absurd in our era. We have too much tech and not enough happiness. More tech is just chasing the exhilarating sensations of the early days of the last tech revolution.

> We have too much tech and not enough happiness.

Probably worth reminding about it here:


I think space exploration can create happiness.

Totally at odds of my tiny understanding of the human condition

Then Christopher Columbus was the biggest escape artist ever. Thank goodness for dreamers.

Really ? tell that to mayans and native americans. I'm sure they have a different opinion.

Columbus never set foot on North America so part of that isn't on him.

Come on, the whole new world discovery had bad roots. It was to expand to find wealth and get fat. Colombus isn't responsible but the big picture is that the ~amazing discovery resulted in massive genocides from north to south america.

Colombus wanted to go to the spice island and they would have traded with the people there.

And also what's your alternative? For the different parts of the global never to come into contact?

You could throw shade at pretty much all human exploration because most of it was done to get more resources of some kind.

Oh yeah, I'd have zero problem not knowing about cultures that were already living their own live minding their own business. You know researchers today have a rule to not pollute or disrupt ecosystems they study. Constrating.

Hm. The amount of starvation, disease and hardship in the old days are not to be wished on anyone. The world coming into communication has its upside too.

Granted, the New World suffered grievously by contact - an estimate 100M dead from diseases they were unequipped to handle. So there's that.

Lol. This wasn't dreaming. This was posturing. It was America puffing themselves up to look big when confronted with the threat of the USSR. You have to dig deep to find the dreamers, you can sometimes find thier writing on the subway walls or the tenement halls. Or see them standing by lone sea breakers and desolate streams. Don't worry a new tune will be along soon. No one knows where from, thats part of the charm. Wait for the next dream, the OP posted a dream that is dying.

You always have both dreamers and posturing. We reached the moon both because Wernher von Braun dreamt about reaching moon and mars, and because first Hitler and later the USA saw rocketry as a useful tool for war and propaganda. Same thing happened on the Soviet side.

You tend to have dreamers pushing and implementing ideas, but it is much easier to get funding for more immediate goals

This NASA publication shows the plans in much more detail.

Space Settlements: A Design Study, NASA, SP-413 https://settlement.arc.nasa.gov/75SummerStudy/Table_of_Conte...

The space shuttle was only the first step in a very ambitious program that culminated with a spinning cylindrical space community housing 10,000 people and growing its own food.

There are detailed discussions about construction (using moon rocks), shielding, what plants and animals to use for farming, etc. etc.

Thanks for posting, that's an interesting resource. Table 3.2, laying out projections of community space usage in outer space (including churches!), could be good fodder for future historians writing about the mid-20th century cultural assumptions that structured early space travel.

Also this sentence is fascinating to me: "Whether space colonization is a unilateral effort on the part of the United States or a cross-national enterprise, it will most likely be sponsored by a public or quasipublic organization with a bureaucratic structure which permeates the early settlement." I've always thought the Alien movies strike the most realistic tone in this regard, with the Weyland Corp lurking in the background.

I'm mostly finished with the "Lady Astronaut" duology (The Calculating Stars/The Fated Sky) from Mary Robinette Kowal. Highly recommended. She started with predecessor works to these Shuttle-era dreams (such as Wernher von Braun's original treatise on colonizing Mars, most of which the science still holds up today, and was written prior to NASA's moon work) and posits a timeline to make that happen in the 50s/60s to eventually push humanity to Mars colonies by present day. (Via international cooperation in that case, sparked in large part by a meteorite hit that caused massively sped up global greenhouse effect/climate change on Earth.) The bibliography for the books has some other interesting early space travel reading that's worth revisiting with present day eyes.

Something about that image in Wikipedia makes it very easy to understand. Why are vintage graphics so good? Is it the nostalgia or the limited amount of color usage? Or is it the use of arrows and and telling the user exactly what they need to know from the image? I can’t quite put my finger on it.

If they released it now there would be a glossy video animation and a press kit, and then fifty different websites would add clickbait titles like 'You won't believe what NASA's new Robot Tug can do with its arms' and then make you wade through paragraphs of blurb before letting you get to the bit that actually explains whats going on. And you'd also have to click no to a pop-up subscribe window and turn off the sound of an unrelated autoplay video, by which time you would have forgotten why you even came to look at that page.

Thats why a simple diagram is better.

And somehow I still wouldn't understand it...

Don't mean to start a flame thread, but I hate CG "space renderings". The concept art from the 70's was amazing. When NASA and the industry in general went to CG the illustrations really fell off a cliff.

To be sure, the rendering is top-notch today, less so when they first made the switch, but I dislike even the modern realistic CG renderings. I want palette-knife clouds on the Earth in the background, hues of cerulean blue and rust orange on the aluminum surfaces of the space craft.... You know, art!

Interesting sidenote; Ralph McQuarrie drew for NASA, and then created the iconic images for Star Wars (along with many other artists).

I've been watching a lot of those black and white technical videos produced by the US Army/Air Force/Navy/MIT/etc from the 50s-70s. The videos and diagrams are incredibly descriptive and information dense yet easy to digest. The narrator is authoritative and straight to the point. I really haven't find much modern content of the same caliber.



The final artwork was a bigger time commitment so you would stop and think about the message for much longer before you committed to the final rendering. I think now we go straight to modelling and graphics programs which speed up the process and are much more flexible about allowing you to go back and edit. This gives people a feeling they can change the final output much more easily and so there is not so much pressure to get the information design concept right for how you convey the information before you start creating the final image.

Videos were very instructive back then too.

At some point, we started to prioritize form over function.

E.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yYAw79386WI [Around The Corner - How Differential Steering Works (1937)]

It was actually drawn by hand, a process that took a lot longer than digital work and required an artist to contemplate every part of it during its creation. That’s a lot of time to make tweaks and adjust things to communicate better.

Also these were made by professional specialists. Even just regular consulting companies had people doing graphs for their reports and presentations. Excel and Powerpoint came and analysts started doing them themselves with drastic loss in quality and legibility.

>Excel and Powerpoint came and analysts started doing them themselves with drastic loss in quality and legibility.

Can you recommend any online resources with good examples of professionally handdrawn graphs?

Google "drafting engineer."

A little easter egg as part of the usual Wikipedia crawl:


NERVA had a greater thrust than the weight of the rocket, so could at least theoretically be turned into a ground launch system (probably after a few more iterations).



Nuclear ramjets were viable just before they were cancelled out of environmental and nuclear proliferation concerns. I'm fairly certain that a denser working fluid like nitrogen/oxygen creates a higher thrust than hydrogen, at the cost of having a lower specific impulse (ISP). So it should have been straightforward to build a final rocket that could use either. Maybe someone knows for sure?

Even as a tree hugging hippie in spirit, I'm saddened that we have hundreds of nuclear reactors around the world that may very well begin spilling more and more radiation into the oceans and air as our scientific wisdom declines under pressure from (insert dystopian endgame here: late stage capitalism/communism, austerity, fascism, what have you), but don't use nuclear power for scientific pursuits.

Also I'm a bit saddened that we never had nuclear launch systems, because they might have been a stepping stone to a microwave or laser rocket that used power transmitted from a ground station to run as an electric ramjet and transition to hydrogen in the upper atmosphere. To me, that's probably the only feasible way to reduce launch costs to something comparable to a space elevator.

> I'm saddened that we have hundreds of nuclear reactors around the world that may very well begin spilling more and more radiation into the oceans and air as our scientific wisdom declines under pressure from

To really do harm with nuclear reactors or waste from nuclear reactors you actually need to do a lot of stuff and once you shoot one down, doing nothing is a reasonable policy.

Seems to me its highly unlikely that we will ever see significant radiation impact on humans from current nuclear.

Sadly the destruction of nuclear has essentially slowed our whole civilization, we have never really jumped from becoming a chemical to an atomic society. Had nuclear energy won out we would have lots more research in applications for these technologies.

Nuclear trains, ships and rockets. Nuclear batteries. Medical isotopes. Materials for medical diagnostic.

Keep it quiet, because the nuclear-phobia of many people, but:


I just love the concept of modular spacecraft. Even if we can get better performance out of custom designs for space probes, there is a compelling case for building more probes sharing the cost of a common architecture with mission-optimized sensor and communication packs riding commodity boosters.

And even then, the communications package for Neptune or Pluto or for KBOs probably would share a lot of common parts. As would power and guidance.

Nerva sounds very interesting. Hmm, I wonder if spacex would have use for a Nerva LEO to anywhere tug.... So launch a geosynchronous payload with a minimal upper stage to get to LEO, get a tug to dock with the payload and boost it to wherever.... Every so often an f9 or FH would put up a fuel tanker into orbit to refuel the tug... Are there any other options to nuclear propulsion for the tug? Solar? Lasers?

For longer distances like earth to mars I don't think it really makes sense. The tug will be out orbiting the sun for quite a while before it is useful again. So you might as well leave it attached to the cargo and use it for a return journey. But then isn't really a tug any more.

Maybe could be useful for moving things between LEO and Lagrange. Then the tug could be used again quickly.

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