Forward Thinking: Spaceflight Technology's Next 50 Years

The SpaceAge began 50 years ago this week with the launch of Sputnik 1, a small metallicball carrying only a couple of simple radio transmitters. Since then,spaceflight technologies have grown up. High-performance rocket fuels,miniaturized guidance electronics and ultra-light spacecraft materials, to namea few, make frequent and complex trips to space possible.

During thenext half century, however, leaders in spaceflight planning think cost-cuttingtechnological innovations will carry the torch to the moon, Mars and beyond.

"Gettinginto space is very expensive. If there's a way to really reduce the cost ofgetting into Earth orbit by a factor of 10, that would be something," saidChris Moore, NASA's program executive for exploration technology at the agency'sheadquarters in Washington, D.C. "There's a whole bunch of innovativeideas ranging from scramjet propulsion to space elevators, but some of those ?are very far in the future."

Discountspaceflight

BrettAlexander, executive director for space prizes at the X Prize Foundation in Santa Monica, Calif., said new propulsion systems should help pave the way for moretechnologies.

"Thebiggest challenge is to make a simpler and safer propulsion system that can bemass-produced," Alexander told SPACE.com. "It's a tipping point notonly for spaceflight itself, but also for the technologies that wouldfollow."

Whilescientists across the globe plug away at the problem of developing discountpropulsion systems, Moore explained that NASA is advertising its "wishlist" as the Centennial Challenges.

"Weoffer cash prizes to industry or universities to do low-cost, highly innovativemissions and technology demonstrations," Moore said of the program. Theproof-of-concept tasks include developing more dexterous and durable astronautgloves, extracting breathable oxygen from moon dust and creating incrediblystrong yet lightweight "tethers" that a space elevator might use tohoist itself into space.

Althoughchallenge winners through 2005 have been scarce, Moore is confident upcomingevents, such as Google and the X Prize Foundation's "Moon 2.0" lunar landerchallenge, will generate success.

"Thesetypes of competitions have been successful in the past," Moore said,citing Burt Rutan's privately funded suborbital spacecraft in 2004,which snatched up $10 million in prize money.

Regolith-readytechnology

Asprivately funded teams try getting their cost-effective landers on the moon,NASA is gearing up for humanity's extended stay there around 2020 — but gettingthere will only be half the battle, Moore said.

The lunarsurface is powdered with microscopic shards of glassy dust, known as regolith,which threatens both man and machine. Moore said creating a functional base onthe lunar surface requires developing "regolith-ready" technology.

"Regolithcan degrade spacesuits and pressure seals and other equipment," Moore said. The health danger during long stays is also an issue, he said, mentioning thatastronauts returning from the moon complained aboutbreathing problems from dust that was tracked into their tight livingspace.

Dust-combatingtechnologies could be as complex as special dust-removing chambers or as simpleas spacesuit coveralls, Moore said. He noted that lunar habitats able torecycle air, water and human waste far more efficiently than the InternationalSpace Station's systems will also be key.

"Oncewe're there, we need advanced robotics to deploy the habitat modules andconnect them together to form a lunar outpost," he said. "What we'dlike to do is take the lunar regolith and extract oxygen from minerals in thesoil, so we can use it to breathe or make oxidizer for rocket fuel."

Mars andbeyond

Thetechnologies developed for long-term moon missions will serve as templates forMars expeditions some time after 2030, but Moore said further innovativeadvances will be necessary to get astronauts there — and back — in one piece.

"Thefaster we can get there the better," Moore told SPACE.com. He thinks thatyet-to-be-developed nuclear propulsion systems may prove to be the fastest formof spaceflight in the future, as well as sending a mission in two trips: Aheavier supply-loaded spacecraft ahead of time, followed by a speedylightweight manned spacecraft.

Moore said that faster speeds will cutexposure time to the health threats to crewmembers during their journey, suchas radiation, bone wasting and immunedeficiencies, but advanced medical technologies will also be crucial tosuccess.

"Whenwe go to Mars it's going to be a very long trip," he said. "We needto make sure the crew is healthy and can perform their job when they getthere."

Aprivate matter?

Building astrong, privately involved space economy will be essential to successfullydevelop technologies able to send representatives of the human race to Mars,Alexander said.

"Wecan't sustain programs like Apollo in the future, just like we couldn't 40years ago," Alexander said. "My dream is to have sustainable andaccessible access to space, and I firmly believe that you have to get theprivate sector involved to achieve that."

Moore agreed, noting that NASA intends touse theirlunar outposts to provide infrastructure for private industry. Yet theprowess of a single country's space-based industries may not be enough.

In additionto private involvement, Moore explained that ever-better internationalcollaboration will be essential for putting new technologies to use in the nextera of spaceflight.

"Thefirst few years of the Space Age were characterized by a lot of internationalcompetition, but we're in a much more collaborative environment now," Moore said. "(Spaceflight) is a very expensive and challenging endeavor, and we'llhave to depend on other nations ? in the next 50 years."

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