Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon were the presidents who took us into space. Whatever you think of any of them, they will always have that marked down on the positive side of their ledger.
Other presidents aspired to join them. How much of their thinking was patriotic for America, patriotic for all of mankind, or pure political calculation, is way outside the realm of my knowledge. I’m going to give them all benefit of the doubt and just talk about the programs themselves. You can spin motives any way that suits you.
Regan proposed NASP, the National AeroSpace Plane, also called the X-30. In his 1986 State of the Union, he said that we should produce a vehicle which would be “a new Orient Express that could, by the end of the next decade, take off from Dulles Airport and accelerate up to twenty-five times the speed of sound, attaining low earth orbit or flying to Tokyo within two hours.” It was an exciting idea, coming out of DARPA where it had begun as a black project.
NASP was supposed to produce two prototype planes, but neither was ever built. That doesn’t mean that it was a political scam. The technological difficulties of the project were staggering.
In detail, NASP was cutting edge. As an idea, the horizontal launch of a spacecraft was old in science fiction. There it was usually accomplished by electromagnetic technology, with ground based and powered launchers and only maneuvering fuel on the vehicle itself. See many early Heinleins, especially Starman Jones and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.
One reason rockets take off vertically is to get mostly out of the atmosphere before achieving speed. That way, massive friction is only a reentry issue, when it can be used to advantage.
NASP was a jet, not a rocket. It had to operate primarily inside the atmosphere. This has the advantage of avoiding carrying oxidizer, but has a series of disadvantages. Friction heating is an obvious one. In addition, its engine would have to operate in three modes — as a relatively conventional jet at takeoff, as a ramjet once sufficient speed had been achieved, then as a scramjet (supersonic ramjet) once it passed the speed of sound.
At that time, no one had successfully built a scramjet, and NASP didn’t make it happen. The first scramjet, the X-43, made a brief flight in 2001, eight years after NASP was cancelled.
No one has successfully built a skin that can withstand reentry level heating on a continuous basis, either. NASP was too far ahead of its time. I spent a few years explaining to my kids how it was supposed to work — before it didn’t work, and silently crept away.
Then came Venturestar, which, if it had been successfully completed, would have done what the Space Shuttle was originally designed to do. It was to be a vertically launched, completely reusable, single stage to orbit vehicle with a wider and more efficient lifting body that would have allowed it to land, in emergencies, on shorter runways than the Space Shuttle.
To do all this, it would require new and untested technologies, including composite material LH tanks, a new tile-free heat resistant skin, and an aerospike engine. The project was divided into two parts. To demonstrate the feasibility of the new technologies, a one-third size, unmanned model of the VentureStar, called the X-33 was to be built and tested, and only then was a full sized VentureStar to be constructed.
Things did not go well. When the X-33 was partially completed a version of its composite LH tank was tested and failed to hold pressure. Alternatives existed, but the decision was made to cancel the project. The funding for the X-33 was a complex mixture of commercial and governmental funds, and continuation depended on all parties agreeing. That didn’t happen. The Air Force was still part of the mix, as with MISS and the Dyna-Soar, as with the black missions by the Space Shuttle, but their request for continued funding was denied. The Air Force eventually got the X-37b instead. The X-33, and with it the VentureStar, disappeared. For a view that the cancellation should not have happened, click this link.
From the perspective of a science teacher, VentureStar had been a godsend, full of all the excitement the Shuttle and NASP had lacked. Once it failed, my kids had no future in space that they could personally dream about.
Then came Project Constellation. By that time, my days as a teacher were coming to a close, so I did not have to face the daunting task of generating enthusiasm for a cobbled up rerun. Ares I, the small booster, was built out of Space Shuttle leftovers and Ares V, the large booster looked suspiciously like a Saturn V reboot. The Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle was an oversized Apollo capsule and the Altair moon lander was a LEM on steroids. Not only was Project Constellation going to do again what had been done forty years earlier, it was going to use essentially the same hardware.
I didn’t buy it. I didn’t try to sell it to my kids. It died four years after it was floated.
The future isn’t dead. The Space Launch System continues where Constellation failed and private enterprise has more strongly entered the mix. Today’s science teachers should be able to say, “You might be the first person on Mars,” with a straight face. I continue to hope.