wait, doesn’t an invention have to be new?
Pardon me for being a buzz kill here, but generally, when looking at a list of inventions, I expect the inventions to be something new and never seen before. Actually, I think that’s a requirement for a genuine invention. It’s a device or idea that does something new, or helps us do something in new or unusual ways. But it seems that the editors at Time Magazine didn’t get that memo when they named NASA’s Ares rockets the invention of the year in their list of top 50 innovations for 2009. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy anytime NASA and what it does gets some more time in the media and its achievements are appreciated by the press which generally wants to dedicate all its time to politics and scandals. However, this time, we can’t in all honesty call the Ares rockets an invention of the 21st century since it’s a fusion of rocket designs from the 1960s and 1980s circuitry.
Readers who’ve been with this blog for a while may remember previous posts in which I called Constellation and its rockets a huge step back from the concept of reusable, flexible spacecraft which were supposed to be the precursors to cheap, highly reliable single stage to orbit (SSTO) vehicles. We’re backtracking from making spaceflight more accessible and streamlining the technology it requires. Instead, NASA is resurrecting an old capsule concept which once got it to the Moon and stuffing it with shuttle innards to minimize risk and relive its glory days on a budget. The budget may still be large, but if we factor in the costs of developing a new system from the ground up, it’s cheaper just to snap old designs together as was done with Ares. Will there be a few major innovations and improvements in the Constellation fleet? Of course. Will they be the ones we could use to build brand new generations of cheap, reusable spacecraft? Probably not.
But wait a second, you might say. NASA is home to brilliant engineers and designers. Give them a toaster and they’ll give it wings, rockets and make it go hypersonic on their lunch break. Why would they resort to recycling designs from the Saturn era? Simple. They’re woefully, shamefully underfunded by politicians who don’t know that space travel yields all sorts of new technologies applicable in everything from computers to infrastructure and energy generation, don’t care, and couldn’t communicate this concept if their lives depended on it. I mean we’re talking about the people who’d rather shout about communism and socialism not to reform healthcare in the U.S., or pat themselves on the back from making a slight, hypothetical tweak or two which will do little to deal with the real problems in a complex and vital system. Tackling real issues doesn’t seem to be their forte. And so, NASA has to produce a rocket and do it cheaply and quickly. Hence, they need to reuse technology we had laying around for decades.
The result, if the program is even allowed to run its course after the findings of the Augustine commission that the funding problem is far worse than even the most pessimistic estimates, will be a functional rocket. Bit will it be a groundbreaking new machine that will really “launch human beings to cosmic destinations we’d never considered before” as Time puts it? Sorry, but no. That will only happen with brand new craft like revived SSTO concepts and partnerships with space tourism companies and aerospace giants able to see the opportunity to commercialize space travel and make money off its derivates.