Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Space Oddities and Austerities

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Space Oddities and Austerities

Article excerpt

It's going to be a difficult Christmas for some of Nasa's scientists and engineers. While the space shuttle Discovery sits wretched and unlaunchable in its hangar, other aviation innovations are streaking ahead.

In December, researchers in the US said they had lifted semi-cylindrical plastic rods using a beam of light. As the laser beam hits the plastic, it exerts a force that, if you get the angles right, is exactly like aerodynamic lift.

As if flying through space on a laser beam weren't exciting enough, the US military's robot plane has taken itself into orbit and landed safely back on earth, paving the way for advanced deployment of such space hardware as spy satellites.

Then there was the success of the first privately funded rocket capable of carrying human beings on a return trip into space. The flawless round trip by Falcon 9 was brought to you by the wonders of scientific research--adequately funded and properly equipped scientific research, that is.

If you want to know what UK science--motto: "Doing more with less"--might look like from 2011, Discovery provides a useful illustration. This was supposed to be the last year of operation of the space shuttle fleet, but a hydrogen leak just before Discovery's scheduled November launch led to a further round of inspections. This uncovered damage to the foam insulation on the external fuel tank. Yet more inspections led engineers to discover potentially catastrophic cracks in the fuel tank itself. …

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