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Science Fiction, er, Fact: Using '2001' to Solve Problems in Space

June 21, 1998|Gene Meyers | Gene Meyers is an industrial engineer and consultant. He has written about space topics for the Seattle Times and the San Jose Mercury News, among others

WEST COVINA — The mega-death space threats in "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon" may be remote, but the recent satellite failure that shut down millions of pagers is a preview of real space disasters that could begin this November.

Hollywood predicted this in the 1950s sci-fi classic "The Day the Earth Stood Still," in which aliens shut down the Earth's electrical and communications systems, and Hollywood detailed the disaster's solution in the 1968 movie "2001: A Space Odyssey." Ironically, that solution could return L.A. County's high-wage employment crown to the aerospace industry, and a Hollywood studio may be able to orchestrate this return.

Today, hundreds of commercial satellites transfer millions of phone calls, personal and business pages, TV broadcasts and bank and credit-card transactions around our planet. By 2003, these satellites will number in the thousands. This fall, Motorola's 66-satellite system will allow calls to any subscribing cell phone on the planet. Microsoft's 288-satellite system will be up in five years, creating an ultra-high-speed "Internet in the sky." Tibetan villagers miles from the nearest telephone line will use solar-charged computer terminals to instantly reach New Delhi surgeons, San Francisco teachers or New York bankers.

The main cause of the four-dozen commercial, military and weather satellite failures in the last decade was mechanical problems, not meteors. But that will change this November, when astronomers say the Earth will pass through a region of dense space debris left by a passing comet centuries ago.

Ranging in size from sand grains to houses, and moving 40 times faster than a rifle bullet, it will resemble the debris encountered by the "Deep Impact" spaceship as it approached an incoming comet. For millions of years, the Earth has passed though similar fields every decade or so, and our atmosphere has protected us from all but the largest chunks. But the thousands of satellites we'll rely on so heavily by century's end will be sitting ducks. Even the tiniest punctures could cost thousands of lives in hospitals alone as a result of communications disruptions, because in space, the damage can't be repaired.

The Hollywood solution, detailed in "2001," was to build large, wheel-shaped space stations whose crews could act as Maytag repairmen in orbit. Twenty years ago, aerospace engineers at Rockwell's Downey facility, who designed and built the space shuttles, explained how these stations could be built. Their idea, greatly refined since, centered on the shuttle's huge, orange, external fuel tank, known as an "ET."

While the two rocket boosters under the shuttle's wings are released soon after launch, the ET stays attached, feeding its liquid fuel to the shuttle's engines the rest of the way to orbit. It's then released and destroyed to prevent collisions with later flights. A new one is built for each launch. The young Rockwell engineers, who had probably seen "2001" as students, not only figured out how to safely leave empty ETs in space, but calculated how a dozen of these 747-sized, airtight cylinders could be joined together to form a slowly rotating wheel with two more, joined end-to-end, passing through its center like an axle. The final structure could hold some 400 people under cruiseship-like conditions.

In 1978, Rockwell took the idea to their only customer, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which shelved it. At that time, the shuttle, then projected to ferry 100 passengers, was still three years from its first flight. NASA also had no intention of becoming a space hotel operator and preferred designing things from scratch rather than using recycled components, like ETs. Rockwell, for its part, had never sold products to anyone but the government. Building commercial space stations for tourism or satellite-repair markets was beyond its ken.

Things are different today. The shuttles have flown nearly 100 flights, and NASA is keenly interested in privatizing them. Two years ago, Boeing bought Rockwell, and is desperately trying to find new business for the shuttered shuttle plants in Downey and Palmdale. But the Boeing space people have no idea how to interest the public in this dramatic option.

Now a network of engineers, writers and educators think Hollywood has the solution. A critical scene in "Armageddon" shows two space shuttles hanging on to their empty ETs, refueling them at the Mir space station, then refiring their engines and heading off toward the incoming meteor. The group of engineers, part of a national organization, Space Islands, based in West Covina, points out that this scene will be the first time the general public learns the standard fate of ETs, and sees their incredible size.

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