5 – Addressing the “space access barrier” myth

As seen throughout America’s history, Americans respond positively to national challenges that they perceive as being achievable and of value.  President Teddy Roosevelt tapped that spirit with the building of the Panama Canal, Presidents Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt with the Hoover Dam, and President Kennedy with the goal of landing a man on the moon.


Is America now ready for setting a national goal to become a true spacefaring nation?  This is a very important question because, in 2009, the new presidential administration will be eager to chart a new course for the nation using new national goals.  If becoming spacefaring is not one of these goals, then, as the previous Spacefaring America blog entries have highlighted, knowledgeable and thoughtful people believe this could have serious consequences on the U.S. as the 21st century progresses, impacting America’s prosperity and security. Will establishing a national goal to become a true spacefaring nation be among the new president’s goals?  Today, space is not even on the radar screen of any of the announced presidential candidates.  Other issues, besides the war in Iraq, are starting to enter the political debate–taxes, health care, energy independence, trade, etc.  But, neither the public nor any of the presidential candidates yet–I emphasize, yet–see America’s future in space as an important presidential campaign topic of discussion.


Today, in all fairness, space is not on any candidates top ten list because the public perceives that America lacks the technologies and industrial expertise needed to be successful in undertaking a substantial new national challenge in space.  Why?  Because of the public’s belief in a “space access barrier” myth. 


What is this “space access barrier” myth?  In a true spacefaring nation, its citizens must be able to safely and routinely access space if they are to be able to reap knowledge, wealth, and security from space.  It is clear that better space access systems, than currently in use or in development, are needed before passenger space access becomes “aircraft-like” in terms of safety and operability.  Starting with the Apollo 1 fire and then reinforced by the near loss of Apollo 13, the loss of the Challenger, the failure of the National Aerospace Plane program, the failure of the X-33 program, the loss of the Columbia, and the planned return to 1960’s style astronaut space access systems, these circumstances have created and fostered the public’s perception that the nation’s aerospace industry lacks the technologies and expertise necessary to significantly improve space access capabilities.


Are the public’s perceptions of technological barriers common?  The proposal to build the Erie Canal across northern New York State was called folly–a “folly” is attempting to do what “everyone” believes to be impossible–when it was being advocated by New York City Mayor (later New York Governor) DeWitt Clinton in the early 1800’s. President Jefferson thought so.  Yet, it became one of the nation’s most successful 19th century internal improvement programs, as they were referred to at the time, and the envy of nearly all other states in the young United States.


More recently, in the 1930’s and 1940’s, the public believed in another technological barrier–the sound barrier.  It too was a myth, but one so strongly believed that when Captain Chuck Yeager “broke” the sound barrier in 1947 and this accomplishment was announced to the public, the public viewed this as a truly remarkable accomplishment as if some immutable natural law had been overcome.


The myth of the sound barrier had its beginning in 1935, when the British aerodynamicist W. F. Hilton was explaining to a newsman about some of the high-speed experiments he was conducting at the National Physical Laboratory. Pointing to a plot of airfoil drag, Hilton said: “See how the resistance of a wing shoots up like a barrier against higher speed as we approach the speed of sound.” The next morning, the leading British newspapers were misrepresenting Hilton’s comment by referring to “the sound barrier.” The idea of a physical barrier to flight —that airplanes could never fly faster than the speed of sound— became widespread among the public. Furthermore, even though most engineers knew differently, they still had uncertainty in just how much the drag would increase in the transonic regime, and given the low thrust levels of airplane powerplants at that time, the speed of sound certainly loomed as a tremendous mountain to climb.



(Note: Stating that the sound barrier was a myth is not intended to diminish the significant technical accomplishments of designing, building, and successfully flying the XS-1 rocket plane.  Awarding the Collier’s Trophy for this accomplishment was certainly appropriate.  What we know is that scientists and engineers understood that there was no actual barrier to traveling faster than sonic velocity.  Bullets, artillery shells, and the German V-2 ballistic missile all flew faster than the speed of sound.  The question that was addressed, first with the design of the XS-1 and then with jet-powered aircraft, was how to design (and build using mid-1940’s technologies) a reusable, self-propelled flight system capable of controlled flight faster than the speed of sound.  This was the real technical accomplishment of the XS-1, as validated by Yeager’s famous flight.)


How can the American public be persuaded that the space access barrier can be broken?  The only way to address any factually-incorrect misperception is to correct the mistaken facts.  Beliefs, once established, are always hard to change.  Yet, in this case, the fundamental American public support for space that has existed since the 1950’s can provide the basis for the public discussions needed to correct this space access barrier misperception. 


While addressing this misperception is one purpose of this Spacefaring America blog, it is also a responsibility that I believe falls on the American aerospace industry.  The American public and the new American president will make critical decisions, starting in 2009, that will impact America’s future in space.  It is imperative that these decisions be made on solid information and correct understanding.

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