Unmanned is better

spaceplane.bmpNot many people would try to drive an 24 year old American car coast to coast on Interstate 80 this summer, but thats a fair description of the launch of the Shuttle Discovery, built in 1981 and flown into space many times. Discovery is a well maintained antique that wont be retired until 2010. NASAs Return to Flight Task Group oversaw the implementation of 15 recommendations made after the Columbia breakup and Discovery is a much improved craft that is safer than any of its predecessors.The shuttle is a flying truck with no military applications. NASA likes this, but when the Shuttle concept was first discussed (ancient history: the Nixon Administration) Air Force played a role in its design as people assumed that there would be military activities that the shuttle could perform. This was before it became clear that unmanned craft did better at everything in space.There is still an attraction for a space plane or trans-atmospheric craft, albeit unmanned, that could be based in the United States and perform Afghanistan-like air bombardments without the need for expensive overseas deployments, bases, or multiple refueling. The latest program is called FALCON (Force Application and Launch from the Continental United States), part of a larger concept called Global Strike that guides Air Force thinking about its future role. FALCON phase I would be a hypersonic glider not really a space plane. FALCON phase II would be a reusable, sub-orbital UAV.FALCON is the latest in a long line of hypersonic aircraft or space plane programs that the U.S. has started. Unlike the earlier efforts, which were usually abandoned somewhere in the middle of testing, this one may actually enter into service, in part because of the skills and technologies developed for long range UAVs like Global Hawk. Seeing FALCON as a space weapon excites arms controllers, but in its first phase, despite its long range and high altitude, its not really a space vehicle.Falcon raises the question of whether the US civil space program should abandon reusable spacecraft and return to an Apollo-like single use vehicle like the planned CEV (cheaper, reliable, old fashioned). Note to space-race watchers: the Europeans recently announced they would support a new Russian plan for a space plane named Kliper that could replace the Soyuz capsule. Kliper would have the capabilities of a king-cab pickup truck (6 passengers, 1000 lbs. of cargo).

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