Tuesday, October 18, 2011


The Udvar-Hazy center of the National Air and Space Museum, close to Dulles Airport, is home to the test vehicle Enterprise. During the 1970's Enterprise was drop-tested from a 747 as preparation for the Shuttle program. Last week, in The Latest from NASM, we saw the original Starship Enterprise miniature on display by the Washington Mall. The name Enterprise was the result of a letter-writing campaign by thousands of STAR TREK fans. At the end of the Shuttle journey, we can think about the future.

Presently this room is slated to be taken over by the Shuttle Discovery. Enterprise would then be transferred to the Intrepid Air Space museum in New York City. The Intrepid is just a 4.5 hour drive from Washington, and the choice leaves the middle of the US without a Shuttle. Space Center Houston and the Air Force Museum in Dayton, who were not awarded Shuttles, are quite unhappy with the choice. Sadly, even on Earth there are not enough Shuttles to go around.

Beneath Enterprise's port wing is a small display case with early Shuttle concepts. Originally the system was envisioned as being fully reusable. A winged first stage would glide back to Earth after each launch, to be refueled and used again. The configuration finally built, with solid rocket boosters and an expendable tank, was less expensive to develop but had much higher operating costs. As this system was being built, NASA envisioned 50 flights per year. Such a flight rate proved to be impractical. The dream of a fully reusable Space Transportation System has still not been realized.

As we heard from Elon Musk in Washington, SpaceX is planning a fully Reusable booster. His concept is different, with wingless unmanned boosters automatically returning to land vertically. Elon claims that the fully reusable concept could reduce launch costs a hundredfold. We can wish him the best of luck.

We are able to economically travel to Washington DC because of reusable aircraft. Most of the denizens of the Air and Space Museum, from the Wright Brothers' plane, were designed to be used repeatedly. The Starship Enterprise of the future is, like a Navy ship, fully reusable. The Enterprise design that sits in Udvar-Hazy is the result of many compromises. An economical fully reusable Space Transportation System is still in the future.

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