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Bringing home the future of space travel

Craig Kluever, a Mizzou Engineering professor and veteran of Rockwell International's space shuttle program, listens to a question on the future of American space travel during a presentation he recently gave for the MU Saturday Morning Science program. Photo by Vicki Hodder

The next generation of NASA spacecraft aiming to return Americans to the moon is safer and less complicated to operate than today’s space shuttle system, Mizzou Engineering Professor Craig Kluever told space travel enthusiasts during a weekly public lecture series.

“I think the driving force is that it’s so much safer,” said Kluever, who worked in Rockwell International’s space shuttle program for three years.

Kluever, who joined the University of Missouri’s mechanical and aerospace engineering department in 1993, fielded several questions about the future of America’s space exploration program from the audience during a Saturday Morning Science (SMS) series lecture held Feb. 28 at the MU Bond Life Sciences Center. Speakers in the popular program present MU science and research in an accessible way, assuming no prior science knowledge.

Lecture participants touched on a variety of widely publicized NASA space flights, including current and future missions to Mars and Mercury. But audience members asked repeatedly about the space agency’s Constellation program, which calls for returning astronauts to the moon no later than 2020.

The Constellation program, which will replace the space shuttle launching system with the Ares I and Ares V booster rockets, does indeed mimic the disposable rocket approach developed for the Apollo moon landings decades ago, Kluever said. But the technology will not require the “standing army” necessary to operate the space shuttle, due for retirement in 2010, Kluever said.

Moreover, Constellation program costs probably will be lower than the shuttle program’s cost, he said.

Kluever also discussed possible solutions to interplanetary space travel dilemmas. Asked about Mars settlement, Kluever suggested sending equipment to the planet before launching a flight to carry the people who would use it.

Another audience member wanted to know how NASA’s Messenger spacecraft, on its way to Mercury, would survive the Sun’s rays.

Heat shields, rather than the protective coatings that dissipated the heat as they burned away on older spacecraft, will keep the Messenger from burning up, Kluever said. The craft’s orientation is designed to continually keep the shield between it and the Sun’s intensity, he said.

“It’s an actual heat shield,” Kluever said. “It’s an actual piece of metal that can absorb the heat.”

Kluever has been working during the past several years to make space flight more efficient. Working with former MU graduate student Aaron D. Olds and Michael L. Cupples of Science Applications International Corp. in Alabama, Kluever helped develop a software program about a year ago that determines the best route for interplanetary travel using random combinations of possible routes in a method similar to a survival-of-the-fittest process. He currently is researching alternative propulsion systems, such as electric propulsion based on solar power.

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