Earthlings’ survival depends on harnessing abundant energy and resources that are within reach just beyond Earth’s atmosphere, Gary A. Flandro says.
Finding access to these treasures could “readily provide the means to end all current troubles, wars, and international turmoil that are linked to our dependence on fossil fuels,” the rocket scientist said in the 28th Quick-Goethert Lecture at The University of Tennessee Space Institute Oct. 20.
Noting that energy in the form of radiation from the sun can be harvested and converted to electricity outside the atmosphere, he also said, “We spend more on gasoline in ten minutes than we put into a year of solar energy research.”
More than 150 people heard the lecture and almost that many attended the banquet that followed. Professor Ing Wolfgang Alles, Chair of Flight Dynamics at The Technical University of Aachen, was a special guest.
While saying that Americans have become jaded about space exploration, Flandro declared that a “revolution is taking place in the space flight arena” and stressed the need to involve young people in the national effort.
Sticking close to his topic of “Space Flight – New Pathways,” the UTSI professor insisted that “clear-cut solutions” to man’s problems lie 60 to 80 miles above Earth’s atmosphere “if we are smart enough and willing enough” to find them. However, he said it is imperative that “we give up the notion that we are trapped” in the earth’s gravity well and its atmospheric mantle and to chuck the idea of a closed system. Earth, he said, is no more “closed than flat.”
Introducing the speaker, John E. Caruthers noted that this is “only the second time that one of our own professors has been chosen” as the lecturer. Flandro has occupied UTSI’s Boling Chair of Excellence in Space Propulsion since 1991.
A long-time advocate for looking beyond Earth’s atmosphere, Flandro said, “We need more than exploration; we need to go back to the moon.” An “abundant supply of Helium 3, which is the key to the quest for practical clean fusion energy,” is on the moon’s surface, he said. Helium 3, very rare on Earth, also represents the key to truly efficient propulsion for space travel, he added.
Flandro shared his vision of average people taking non-scientific voyages into space as a result of private industry’s involvement. Noting that he is “excited at some of the changes NASA is making with its new manned rocket,” he told his audience to not expect “any NASA bashing from me.” However, he called for less dependence on governmental involvement in the space field. Recent events show that a much more efficient pathway involves private industry, he said.
As examples, he cited the Ansari X-Prize-winning Space Ship One flights by Burt Rutan and early testing of the privately developed Falcon I launch vehicle by the Space X Company.
Linking these ideas to other “pathways” – such as the space elevator concept – can lead to a “revitalized assault on the New Frontier” of space travel not only as a means for exploiting energy and other resources, but as a new recreational activity, Flandro suggested.
As an aside, he pointed to Paul Gloyer, a Ph.D. candidate, saying, “Paul knows how to design a rocket that is more efficient than anything NASA has done.” (Gloyer and Zach Taylor are partners in a high technology business.) Flandro also noted that another of his doctoral students – Steve Stasko – is deeply involved in researching the possibility of tethering “space elevators” to venture beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
Stressing that energy is the key to affordable space flight, Flandro said the challenge is to think in new ways. For instance, he said, “We treat the atmosphere as a nuisance – we just punch through it as quickly as we can. It’s filled with oxygen – one of the fuels we use for our rockets. This is an extravagant waste; the mass of oxygen plus the necessary tankage carried on board could be useful payload instead.” We need to take advantage of the atmosphere.”
Flandro is a prime example of independent thinking. He recalled that when he was a graduate student at Cal Tech, he was told that it would be “impossible” to explore the outer planets — that there was no way to energize such a mission. But Flandro found that four major planets were on the same side of the sun at that time and could be reached all in one flight. Applying a “gravity slingshot” effect, he plotted the course of the Voyager, launched in 1977, and within 12 years it “visited” Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.
Referring to some short-term solutions to Earth’s problems, including proposed hydrogen fuel cells, Flandro said, “But to make hydrogen, we’d have to use fossil fuels.”
In brief closing remarks, John S. Steinhoff, B.H. Goethert Professor of Engineering Science at UTSI, said, “Part of our mission here is to be sort of a window on the technology world. This lecture is a perfect example.” He said the 30-year relationship between UTSI and Aachen University, and the on-going research relationship is “incredible.” Research, he said, is the backbone of UTSI’s mission, and students are our primary asset.”
At the banquet, a portrait of the late B.H. Goethert and A.W. Quick, was given to Winfried Goethert, son of the first director of the Institute, whose widow, Hertha, still resides in Manchester. Remi Engels, an artist and retired UTSI professor, did the portrait. Gifts were given to Flandro and Alles.