has, since long before Gene Roddenberry coined the phrase for Star Trek,
been thought of as the final frontier. It represents the
ultimate practical limits to which mankind can aspire and expand. It
is a breach into the unknown, and more importantly, it is a place that
has remained beyond the reach of the vast majority. However, standing
at the dawn of a new millennium in the year 2001 no less
all of that has slowly begun to change.
The most prolific of these changes is now not even a thing of the future,
but rather something of a milestone in the history of space flight.
On the 28th April this year, Dennis Tito became the first man to leave
the earth aboard a spacecraft in a non-operational capacity. Having
reportedly paid a sum of $20 million (approximately £14 million)
to the Russian Space Agency for the privilege, the Californian millionaire
became the first ever space tourist. At least from this
Although prohibitively expensive for most of us at the moment, Titos
mission has set the rather controversial precedent for more
extra-terrestrial excursions. Another mission is set for as early as
October, should all the nations involved with the international space
station consent to having another paying guest stop by. There are also
rumours that another wealthy would-be astronaut has signed up with Space
Adventures, the American company that arranged for Titos flight,
but whoever it is will have to wait. Not only is it imperative that
the tourists spend a minimum of six months of intensive astronaut/cosmonaut
training after completing a thorough medical examination, and learn
Russian, but there is only one available seat in each cramped Soyuz
capsule used in these supply missions. Even if you have the money, getting
into space is still not easy, but that need not always be the case.
As scientists and engineers the world over are designing new ways to
get us up there.
One such revolutionary design is the Alchemist system being developed
by a team from Andrews Space and Technology in California. Instead of
burning petro-chemical rocket fuels in an extended, explosive blast-off,
Alchemist would involve a two-stage take-off utilising at least three
forms of engine. Although it sounds a lot more complicated than the
existing shuttle it is actually lighter, safer (potentially cheaper)
and more efficient design that is even capable of departing from a regular
The secret is in using liquid oxygen as a propellant. Theres lots
of it (albeit in gas rather than liquid form) and its free, but
the biggest advantage is that it does not have to be loaded aboard on
the ground. Instead, Alchemist harvests oxygen by flying around in the
atmosphere for a few hours, storing and condensing it into liquid form
aboard a carrier plane the size of a regular Boeing 777. When the tanks
are full the liquid oxygen is mixed with liquid hydrogen already on-board
and used to blast off for the upper reaches of the atmosphere. There
the orbiter, a smaller vehicle sat atop the carrier, detaches and safely
escapes into, well, orbit.
Because the liquid oxygen is added in-flight, the planes total
weight at take off would be reduced by roughly a half allowing it to
fly in the fashion of a regular plane. Also, with the fuel isolated
in two parts, the risk of explosion is greatly reduced, making it possible
to take-off from conventional airports, and by moving the bulk of the
engines and fuel to a carrier there would be more space in the orbiter
for cargo, or passengers. While not actually developed with space
tourism in mind, this proposed replacement for the shuttle could
yet become the astronautical equivalent of the chartered flight. Chris
Hoeft, a spokesman for Andrews, claims that should Alchemist or a similar
system be picked up, the cost for space flight could drop low enough
to make space tourism a common occurrence in around 15 to 20 years.
Taking a longer-term view of near-space travel, there are some even
more outlandish ideas, the theories and models for many of which have
already been proven. Most notable among these is the space elevator
concept that was the centrepiece for Arthur C. Clarkes novel The
Fountains of Paradise; a form of cable-car that would ride a tapered
vertical wire between Earth and a space station in geo-synchronous orbit.
Most the science and technology for this strange but apparently feasible
mode of transport is already in place or in development, all that really
stands in the way of practical tests is producing a form of carbon (nanotubes,
or perhaps their successors) that could function as the wire itself.
This being the case, dont expect to take the express lift into
orbit for another hundred years or so. We should not, however, have
to wait that long for new missions (both manned and robotic) that will
go a lot further afield.
such project involves another favourite of science fiction, the solar
sail; a device developed to catch photons emanating from the sun and
therefore ride the solar wind. In the past this form of space travel
has always been considered a lost cause because, despite being able
to accelerate to incredible speeds, it takes time. Too long for what
most space faring agencies want or need, even if given a starting push
with microwaves or laser beams. But that was the past. Although we arent
yet at a stage where technology has advanced to allow for smaller sails
fast enough to get a manned mission to Mars in an acceptable time, advances
in parachute and airship materials are putting the solar sail back in
the (space) race. In fact, a team being lead by Nersi Razavi of the
Airship Industries Group is already putting the finishing touches on
their first test sail and plan to launch it before the end of 2002.
Measuring only 400 metres the sail is likely to take a whole month to
travel from its cargo rocket to a pre-designated spot in safe orbit,
but it will allow Razavis team (backed by both the combined European
Space Agency and the German Space Agency) to test the deployment system,
and see how bright it will be from Earth.
If all goes well a larger sail (the dimensions of which will be determined
by next years test) will be launched by 2005. This could potentially
pave the way for more missions involving the technology where size or
weight is an issue but where time might not be, such as, investigating
asteroids, unmanned missions to Mars and even quick trips to Pluto.
We could even rig a sail to accelerate out beyond the edges of our solar
system. Razavi also hopes that the Star of Tolerance, as
he is calling the project, will become a symbol of peace and co-operation
that we will all be able to see from Earth, as well as inspire races
and regattas between the Earth and the moon.
So, more people are going into space and exploding the elitist myth
surrounding the so-called final frontier. We are now able
to explore space more fully, push back that frontier to the very limits
of our solar system and make faster trips around it. But what are we
going to do with all this space? The same thing that we have done with
space here on Earth; move in.
Colonising isnt as far-fetched as it sounds; after all, we have
already got a foothold in space in the form of the international space
station. Going to other planets, however, has always been a problem.
Its expensive and wasteful and our only success, the Moon, isnt
even another planet, but Mars could finally be within our reach. According
to astronaut/physicist Franklin Ramon Chang-Diaz, a manned team to the
red planet could leave as early as 2018 and might only take 115 days
in-flight (approximately half the time of conventional estimates). The
secret to this early launch and the short flight time is Vasimir, a
Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket.
Instead of using standard rocket fuels, Vasimir will be propelled by
a controlled burst of ionised gas (plasma) that will burn for the whole
journey at about 1 million degrees centigrade. Allowing the engine to
fire continuously means that the ship can continue to accelerate, thereby
making the journey a lot quicker. The problem is burning plasma, the
stuff that the sun is made of, at that temperature is that it would
vaporise all of the engine components. To get around this, Vasimir will
use a series of magnetic fields to contain it and manipulate it through
the various converters and out of the exhaust. Chang-Diazs team
already has a working prototype here on Earth, and is hoping to launch
a test flight of a more powerful version within the next five years.
After that it may just be a case of increasing the power supply and
building a version big enough to contain it. With the next optimum launch
window in less than 20 years time, Mars could be just around the corner.
And after Mars, who knows? Once the technologies are in place the possibilities
are almost endless, at least in theory. Faster, tougher, smarter ships
are only half the battle. Mankind still has to deal with the rigours
of space, and its constraints. You cant change your room because
its not to your liking in orbit, and there are serious implications
for ones health if you spend too long in zero or micro-gravity. But
these things will undoubtedly be solved in time, we will just have to
be patient. After all, what's the rush? Space may no longer be the final
frontier, but its a big one with plenty of, well, space, to go around,
and no one has tried to jump our claims. Yet.