Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The future (of the past) is now!

Space dorks like me often have a childhood filled with science fiction books. I pawed through a lot of pulp as a kid, including the stuff kids are supposed to read, like Tom Swift; the stuff kids of a different generation were supposed to read, like The Secret of the Marauder Satellite (dunno why that one stuck in my head, but hey, it did); and stuff that blew my mind, like Fahrenheit 451.

Almost everything I read was written before 1980. A lot of the "classic" stuff was from the '50s and '60s. And space travel, in that era, had a common mechanical element: rockets took off and landed tail first (check out what happens about 1:38 or so).

Of course, all that changed in the late '70s, when the Space Shuttle did its now-famous "take off like a rocket, land like an airplane" trick:

And basically from then on, you had spaceships that were either never meant to land at all, and thus could look more or less like a flying radiator…

In space, no one can hear you complain about aerodynamics.

… or like an aircraft of various permutations. Taking off vertically seemed optional, and landing vertically seemed, well, anachronistic.

Well, here we are in the 21st Century. The Space Shuttle is retired, we're hitting "interplanetary holes in one" with Mars rovers and private launch companies are perfecting new vehicles for getting stuff, and people, into Earth orbit and beyond. And what do we see as the latest round of innovation?

Why, a rocket landing tail-first, of course.

And so it was that the tales (and tails, ha, little space dork humor there) of my childhood have become reality. Not just because it looks neat, either: when landing on a planet with a thin atmosphere--like Mars--parachutes and wings become dramatically less effective ways of slowing an object down to non-splat impact speeds. And as computers, robotics and other technology have matured, we have gotten to the point where this can be routinely pulled off.

That's exciting. I just hope the arrival of science fiction past doesn't also include tentacled monsters and mind-control rays.

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