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Friday, September 19, 2014

America's Second Space Station

Part of the new NASA SLS/Orion program is a new space station at the Earth/Moon L-2 Langrangian orbit, literally beyond the far side of the moon. It is called Skylab II. Like the original Skylab concept, it is built out of the liquid hydrogen tanks of a single SLS launch, as opposed to the ten years and 115 flights required to build the ISS. With this same technology NASA will be able to quickly (and relatively cheaply) deploy space stations with more living area than the ISS, basically anywhere in the solar system. Charlie Bolden's master plan is starting to emerge here. It's actually kind of brilliant. And it's starting to look a helluva lot like Wernher von Braun's.

By naming this "Skylab II" I think NASA is implicitly acknowledging that the International Space Station is and always was mostly a Russian endeavor, more "Mir II" than "Freedom," more "Beta" than "Alpha." This isn't a bad thing; were it not for the Russians and Roscosmos right now, we would not have any human presence in space at all, and the ISS would be just an empty and decaying shell of space junk, if it had ever existed at all. But I am very happy to see the US back in the game.

NASA administrator Charlie Bolden, pilot of the space shuttles Columbia and Discovery, and commander of the space shuttles Atlantis and Discovery, seems to be shifting NASA's narrative away from the space shuttle and ISS, and toward SLS/Orion as a continuation of the Saturn V/Apollo program. It isn't a bad narrative. When the SLS program was first announced, it looked a lot like a Saturn V + spare space shuttle solid boosters + a rebuilt Apollo space capsule + a lot of duct tape. It looked like we were planning to go to Mars on a rocket built out of spare parts. But SLS/Orion has evolved a great deal since then, both as an actual spacecraft and as a concept, and as the cornerstone of a new, rather bold space exploration program. I wasn't a huge fan of the Ares/Constellation program, not for any technical reason, but because I wanted to see NASA's budget spent more on unmanned probes deeper into space. The Mars landers and rovers have changed my opinion on this. From Viking to Curiosity they have performed amazing science. But realistically, all of the science performed on Mars combined since 1976 could have been accomplished by one reasonably bright human in one reasonably productive afternoon. It's time to get boots on the ground. SLS/Orion is going to make that possible, soon. Charlie Bolden's "rocket to everywhere" is rapidly becoming a very fine piece of hardware, indeed.

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