I don't know if it's the latte or the fact that I'm a very opinionated person, but I can't stand NASA's planned Orion Crew Vehicle.
I grew up watching the space shuttle launch into orbit, complete some great missions and return to earth with it's crew safe and ready to share the knowledge learned in space with the world. The Gemini and Apollo missions using massive multi-stage rockets and a tiny crew capsule with less computing power than a $20 pocket calculator were exciting vehicles from the past generation of space-flight, and was expected to stay in the past as science and technology brought us ever closer to a completely reusable space vehicle.
I understand that it's tragic when a shuttle is lost, but I don't think that going back to fitting humans inside a warhead-like vehicle and ejecting them just to just beyond the Earth's immediate gravity well. That was okay 30 years ago, but this is the 21st century!
I know my opinions carry very little clout at NASA and even less within the American government's ranks, but we humans are smarter than this. The idea is to create a vehicle we can take to another celestial body, land, do some stuff, then return. A noble goal indeed, so why not make use of better technologies that are available for bringing cargo and personnel into low earth orbit, and go from there?
Despite the snickers from skepticle aerospace engineers around the world, space elevator technology has really taken off in the last decade. In 2004, NASA even requested 2.5 million dollars to conduct more detailed feasibility studies of these elevators and the role of new materials such as carbon nano tubes can play in building them. The science is there. The technology is there. We just need to actually do it!
Of course there are a bunch of challenges that still exist. Space debris, natural corrosion, the effects of terrestrial and solar weather patterns … the list is quite extensive. But despite all these hurtles, we humans are intelligent enough to find the solutions required to make this work.
What I really like about the space elevator idea is that the risks involved with sending payloads and people beyond the relative safety of our planet will be greatly reduced. No longer would we be using barely controlled explosions, but instead a relatively benign technology. There would still be perils, sure. But the same can be said every time we cross the street.
In order for a space elevator to be truly effective for us, the cable would have to be about 100,000 km long. Using carbon nanotubes, that's one heck of an engineering feat. Then on the end of this cable there would have to be one heck of a counter-balance. I would think that a space station would be a great solution. While I doubt we would be immediately visited by extra-terrestrial visitors in search of trade or vacation, a station would be a great launching point for interplanetary vessels too large to launch from the Earth.
Countries are gearing up to go not only to the moon, but to Mars and perhaps beyond before the end of this century. So why not have the infrastructure in place to allow massive (by today's standard) vessels to be built? A space dock, if you will. Then, instead of building the Orion Crew Vehicle and strapping it to a rocket, NASA (or a commercial organization) can construct a vehicle that only needs to escape the gravity of the moon, Mars, or some other body in the endless expanse of outer space. With the reduced costs involved in sending material up the elevator we could certainly cut the cost of space travel, and this might just be what the space tourism industry needs.
I fear that with the advent of the Constellation Program, NASA is taking a step back and limiting their future potential. I know the costs involved with space travel and the technology behind it is not cheap. NASA has been forced to work with less money every year, and it seems their needs have been set aside even more thanks to the costs involved with America's involvement in the Middle East. But the International Space Station is a great example of what can happen when several countries work together to solve a problem. A space elevator can be just as great, and the long-term savings will make its construction all the more worthwhile.
So to this end, I'd really like to see the aging shuttle fleet be granted a small reprieve with their retirement planned extended to 2015. In the next 8 years elevator technology could be refined even more, and we could have enough of a platform in place to bring people and materials to the ISS, and even send better designed vehicles to the moon and back.