Bringing it Back to Earth Part 1

>> Saturday, May 15, 2010

On Wednesday's post, I recycled an opinion I'd had about the space program nearly two years ago. As the sun sets on the Shuttle program, my opinion hasn't changed; however, what I've learned the past two years about proposed alternatives has brought a particular characteristic to mind. And I feel I have to note what the Shuttle has done better than any vehicle that proceeded it and probably any that will follow (with the possible exception of the Buran which only flew once in a test configuration and shouldn't really count the same). It is also, notably, a side effect of human spaceflight, space exploration will never be complete without it.

Return capability.

Big deal, you might think. So what?

Except it is a big deal. As hard as it is to get objects into space and flung to the far corners of the solar system, it's relatively straightforward, almost childlishly simple compared with sending a ship just a little way up and bringing even part of it back intact. It's an easy thing to ignore.

Do you know how many non-human missions have gone up and returned with any samples or results or anything other than bits of space garbage (not counting unmanned test flights for manned spacecraft?). Me either, but I bet you can count them on one hand. [Looks up her beloved Wikipedia] Looks like there have been five to date and one in progress:

  • Luna 16 (101 g) - Soviet 1970
  • Luna 20 (30 g) - Soviet 1974
  • Luna 24 (170.1 g) - Soviet 1976
  • Genesis (which collected solar wind samples of unknown mass but g likely embedded in solids though it weighed 275 kg) - US 2001-2004 - failed during landing.
  • Stardust (again unknown mass of dust but g only most likely embedded in aerogel) - US 1999-2006
Japan is also going to try to collect samples from it's asteroid rendezvous (which didn't manage a planned landing) in June of 2010. Again, we're talking grams.

Compare that to the lunar dust collected per Apollo mission:
  • Apollo 11 (22 kg + film etc + crew)
  • Apollo 12 (34 kg + film etc + crew)
  • Apollo 14 (43.5 kg + film etc + crew)
  • Apollo 15 (77 kg + film etc + crew)
  • Apollo 16 (96.6 kg +film etc +crew)
  • Apollo 17 (115 kg +film etc +crew)
There's more to this story but I think it's bigger than a single post. Consider it to be continued.


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