December 20, 2014

Review: A New American Space Plan by Travis Taylor.

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We’ve been saddled with an often schizophrenic space initiative.  Programs are launched in one political administration only to get cancelled in another. Comprises build mushrooming projects, as the International Space Station is seen by some as a “camel which is a horse built by consensus.” All of this is occurring in an era of change, with ever-dwindling budgets across the board. This is our ying-yang moment of crisis and opportunity. If the author of this week’s review has his way, we’d finally lay out a true long term vision for manned and unmanned space travel…

A New American Space Plan by Travis S. Taylor out from Baen Books is a space travelers manifesto, a wakeup call for America that harkens back to our glory days when scientists, engineers (and yes, sometimes even politicians) dared to dream big. Taylor is the ringleader of the Rocket City Rednecks, a hit television series that pits engineers based around Huntsville, Alabama against some amazing challenges. We have to admit, living in a non-Cable TV/Internet only media land, we’ve yet to see the show, but A New American Space Plan has made us resolve to track it down. We’re in sore need of more “junkyard innovation!”

A New American Space Plan outlines the history of rocket science and contrasts then-and-now along with how other countries approach space travel. The thorny issue of “manned” versus “unmanned” travel is also breeched, always a hot topic in the space flight community. While Neil DeGrasse Tyson has pointed out that “they don’t name schools after robots,” Mary Roach also noted in Packing for Mars that “To an engineer, YOU are a problem.” Humans are needy water-bags that must be fed, oxygenated, entertained and demand a return ticket home.

But Taylor shows us how we could have and build an instant “shake and bake” Mars colony grass-roots style. This is listed out and inventoried in the book, right down to the duct tape and “extremophile enhanced kudzu” (a true southern idea!). To be certain, there are some non-trivial issues to be surmounted in terms of long-duration space flight. But rather than lamenting that things can’t be done, Taylor shows us how they can be done.

The sad thing is, (on our soap box now) we’ve become a risk-adverse society, while simultaneously willing to accept mediocrity and instead “pay the fine” rather than do things right the first time. Apollo 12 launched in a lightning storm; The Voyager spacecraft are still functioning after over 30 years in space. They were meant to work and were over-engineered for survival, versus the 90’s “faster, cheaper, better mantra.” The ironic thing is, we’re actually getting good at space travel now; computers are more powerful than ever, and most rockets don’t explode or splashdown half a world away shortly after launch. No new interplanetary missions left the Earth in 2012, and manned launches from the Florida Space Coast may not resume until 2015 at the earliest (read: more like 2020).

OK, we’re off our soap box now. Read A New American Space Plan to see what a revitalized space initiative could look like, or just to get excited about space again. And in the meantime, all of those space bucks will be spent, right back here on good ol’ planet Earth. Let’s take back our space program!

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