NASA Marshall's 40th anniversary: Paving a highway to space for ordinary people to 'live the adventure'
Astronauts journeying to the Moon stands as the acme of the first 40 years of excellence at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. As "the adventure continues," the legacy of the next 40 years is likely to be ordinary people venturing into space.
The Marshall Center's first director, Dr. Wernher von Braun, and his team of rocket scientists masterminded the mammoth Saturn V rocket that launched humans to the Moon. Today, as the Marshall Center marks its 40th Anniversary, a new rocket team at Marshall is developing revolutionary technologies that will make space transportation as safe, reliable and affordable as today's airline travel.
"Within the next 40 years, I think traveling around in near-Earth orbit and to nearby planets will be a lot like air travel is now," says Garry Lyles, manager of Marshall's Advanced Space Transportation Program. "It won't be unusual to catch a ride on a spaceliner to your job on Mars or even to a month-long asteroid-mining mission."
Hospitals, business parks and solar electric power stations that beam clean, inexpensive energy back to Earth are likely to dot the "space-scape" 40 years from now. Space adventure tourism and travel, orbiting movie studios, and worldwide, two-hour express package delivery also appear just over the horizon.
By 2040, it's expected to cost only tens of dollars per pound to launch humans or cargo to space; today, it costs as much as $10,000 per pound. Bridging that gap requires intense research and technology development focused on accelerating breakthroughs that will serve as keys to open the space frontier for business and pleasure. Space transportation technology breakthroughs will launch a new age of space exploration, just as the silicon chip revolutionized the computer industry and made desktop computers commonplace.
The Marshall Center is working today to pave a highway to space by developing a wide variety of propulsion and vehicle technologies that could enable a true spaceliner, capable of making daily commutes to space. Rocket engines that breathe oxygen from the air, spaceliners that get a running start on a magnetic levitation track, propulsion tethers that require no fuel, and smart, self-healing spacecraft are among the technologies already being developed by NASA and its industry and academic partners.
Lyles expects a lot of people will be working and playing in space in 40 years. Human journeys to the outer planets and robotic probes to other star systems are also part of his vision for the 2040 time frame. "Propulsion systems for deep space missions of the future probably haven't even been thought of yet," he said, "or if somebody's thought of them, they may be considered science fiction now."
Space sails, high-power electric propulsion, antimatter drives and laser propulsion belonged to science fiction when NASA's Marshall Center was created 40 years ago. Today, Marshall engineers are conducting hands-on experiments to prepare those technologies for use in space flight. And fundamental research is under way to gain credible knowledge that could transfer faster-than-light travel from the pages of science fiction to the journals of new millennium space travelers.
Marshall is NASA's Lead Center for Space Transportation Systems Development. Marshall's Advanced Space Transportation Program is NASA's "Technology Central" for future space transportation systems.