‘Benefits of reusable space tech not fully assessed’


Says Maj. Gen Charles Bolden Jr., ex-administrator of National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Space agencies should not look at new-age technologies of reusing launchers and their stages as the only way to lower space costs, said former administrator of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration Maj. Gen Charles Bolden Jr.

Asked about US commercial space players successfully running missions with reused rocket stages, he said at a recent media interaction here that its benefits and safety issues were not fully assessed.

“No one knows yet whether the promise of reusability is going to play up. [US company] SpaceX reused the vehicle only last year. So it is too early to jump to a conclusion that reusable spacecraft are the way to go. Just because everyone is in thrall, I would caution every country about jumping to a conclusion about the viability of reusable spacecraft.”

The Indian Space Research Organisation is also working on reusing spent rocket stages, and winged space planes that return to land or sea, among others.

Shuttle lessons

Space agencies are trying to develop technologies and processes that can reduce the cost of taking satellites to space – ideally to a tenth of what it is now. As one such option, rock star disrupters such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX (Space Exploration) and Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin have started reflying rocket stages in later launches.

He headed the NASA when the US retired its reusable crew carrier in 2011 after plying six shuttles over 30 years. Although the economics of running the shuttle was disappointing, Gen. Bolden said the 17 flights that SpaceX did for NASA turned out to be “really cheap compared to owning and operating a shuttle”. The new commercial entry has also helped the NASA to return to its purpose of exploration, he said.

In defence of their shuttles, Gen. Bolden added that they proved to be statistically very safe: out of 135 flights, they faced the disasters of Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003) and lost 14 astronauts. Indian origin Kalpana Chawla was in the latter.

Human flights

Newer missions such as Gaganyaan, the former astronaut said, should not be seen as an ‘America re-do’. “I would challenge the premise that nothing is coming back” from sending humans to space. The International Space Station has churned out many benefits in the last 18 years – from laying the foundation for finding new drugs in zero gravity, such as for salmonella virus, to materials research, and now on to putting 3D printers on the ISS.

NISAR or NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar, the joint radar imaging satellite mission, was conceived about five years back and is slated for a 2021 launch. Gen. Bolden said it would be scientifically significant and its fine instruments would provide unknown or superior information about earth and its climate.

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Printable version | Jan 30, 2020 2:25:24 AM |

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