GOING TO SPACE
I have to enjoy the times we live in. Is there economic uncertainty? Yes, but there was a lot more during the Great Depression. Is there war and violence? Well we went through some of that in the 1940s too. But there was still time for some optimism and hope even in those times. It was enough to carry them through the trials ahead.
For the religious some discovered excitement during the Pentecostal revivals of the Azusa Street Movement. In science Edwin Hubble was revealing the existence of Galaxies and the vastness of the universe. Science fiction was suggesting space travel as aviation was turning into a real commercial force.
Aviation entered a golden age as metal monoplanes broke more speed and endurance records. The investments of private individuals and corporations were creating aviation breakthroughs. The technologies of aerodynamics were influencing style and design of household goods. Radios, furniture, autos, and even homes were becoming streamlined. There was hope being inspired by the potential of science and industry to improve our future. It was all available during the dark days of the war ahead.
There are many assets which contributed to our national survival, and they are still working and available now. The space race produced new adventures, technologies, and commerce. Now that the imperative of the Cold war has faded government is not able to carry the all burden of new possibilities. So we are seeing private industry step up to provide even greater new potential. You can learn about new developments on popular web sites like Hobbyspace http://www.hobbyspace.com/ or Space.com http://www.space.com/ .
Private citizens are stepping up with new innovations and contest prizes have motivated more participation. Those are evolving into private ventures now with serious investor backing. I provided some design aid to small ventures in the early days of new space contests. I got to know a few of the people generating this new excitement. Rocket scientists are real!
What is rocket science anyway? It involves chemistry, physics, engineering, orbital mechanics, and computer systems. Hey, no one is the master of the entire project! Top minds are the desire of NASA and aerospace industries, so rocket scientists are a pretty bright bunch. I have found a few who are not in the ranks of NASA but still find common sense working to make contributions too. Henry Ford was not a PHD or a member of Mensa, but he did make some useful contributions to industry. There are a few who are making contributions that will not solve the problems. We have the space shuttle disasters to remind us that decision makers can miss some important calls.
I want to point out some good contributions being developed in this new space market. We have still got “The Right Stuff” among us today. First we have to acknowledge that U.S. aerospace industries have delivered what was needed for the missions the nation needed to this point. There is no fault in meeting the contract as the Government published it. And a few new ventures have reached out to give a bit more as well. I am inspired to see how small ventures can still germinate in a forest of aerospace giants.
Possibly the great miracle story of business models is Orbital Sciences Corporation. Three business students launched what has now become a big player in space industry today. If you have the plan, someone will apply for employment as the rocket scientist.
If anyone knows business it seems that Elon Musk can’t find a business that he doesn’t know. From founding Pay Pal he now runs businesses in electric autos, solar power, and space launch. He has hired top talent and is getting some good results. In ten years of operation they have spent one billion dollars to deliver multiple successful launches including cargo delivery to the space station. Compare this to only seven years of the new NASA Space Launch System projected to cost eighteen billion dollars.
If Spacex can re use boosters by vertical landing they will reduce costs greatly. There may be accidents along the way though, and we still see wings being used for recovery and launch of reusable vehicles. Let’s look at the winged space planes, or horizontal landing and launch proposals.
Great programs and great managers make decisions, and we will wait to see where these decisions lead. We hope not to see another show stopping disaster, but we have a variety of solutions coming on line now. In one case a solution is already on line and serving the U.S. Air Force. If you want to go to space and return, a winged vehicle has been doing it. The Boeing X-37B is a winged space plane that rides an Atlas booster to space and lands on a runway. The Air Force isn’t revealing what it does, but it went up for a third mission in December of 2012. It doesn’t sound experimental any more!
Another NASA X-plane was abandoned by the government, but revived by a private venture. Actually it was started by the Russian government before NASA got interested in it! The Sierra Nevada Corporation is building the Dream Chaser to supply the space station. Like the X-47 this rides to orbit on an Atlas booster, and returns as a lifting body shuttle. Years ago I e-mailed founder Jim Benson about his engines for my suborbital wing body craft. He pointed out that I had not completed aerodynamic studies on the design. I still need all that done if anyone is looking for work! They went on to acquire the work done by NASA, but it still looks a lot like the design I am looking at now.
We can’t overlook a kit plane builder who got infected with the dream of space flight. Actually Burt Rutan is a top aerospace engineer with a lot of unique designs flown to date. His Scaled Composites company built the wings for an Orbital Sciences space plane called the Pegasus. This was the first space plane to use wings to reach orbit. As you might expect this interest in space may have led to his X-Prize Space Ship One design. Now Microsoft founder Paul Allen has taken the idea to a huge scale with the Stratolauncher system. In a three company combined effort they are building a large version of the Pegasus type launch vehicle. Appropriately Orbital Sciences are reunited with Scaled Composites and Dynetics for the total experience gathered from the Pegasus work and more. An aircraft will be built from two Boeing 747s to carry the Stratolauncher from a runway for its orbital ascent. This will fly from a runway and launch a winged rocket so aerodynamic lift aids the ascent. It does not intend to recover the upper stage, which stays in orbit. Future plans may include a manned vehicle, but recovery methods are unknown now. All of the rocket stages are expendable in this configuration, and only the carrier aircraft is reusable. Development costs were proposed to be about $300 million, which may be conservative. Still that is a lot lower than typical government costs.
A rocket company may only have propulsion initially, but Xcor has built on that base. They provided rocket engines for rocket racing aircraft, and now for their own space plane. The Lynx is a suborbital rocket plane, but the company has plans for orbital ventures to follow. I don’t know if that includes manned orbital operations, and we may not find out soon. Xcor is a little more secretive in recent years. At one time I was able to visit their shop and take a quick tour. Now that they have an airplane under construction it is a bit more busy and secretive! However the Lynx designer Dan Delong has a history of spaceplane concepts including orbital varieties. Xcor has been building capacity in steps that may seem slow in coming, but I see good business projects bearing fruit. Watch for more good things to come.
WE NOW SEE WINGS BEING USED BOTH FOR ASCENT AND FOR RECOVERY, BUT NOT BOTH IN ORBITAL OPERATIONS YET. The margin for function seems rather tight. For manned flight recovery is required, and wings seem to be the choice, even back to the old Air Force studies. Wings on ascent are a bit marginal except for subtle advantages. Some are pursuing those advantages again, and perhaps they will one day include the safety of winged recovery. The advantages grow when the booster too is recovered and reused. The potential for these reusability savings add to proven reentry safety to favor more progress to come.
One thing we probably will not see in our bright future is construction of the Starship Enterprise…on the ground. We can’t assemble big adventures and lift them to orbit now. The cost for small orbiters is still prohibitive. To launch to low orbit costs from $4,000 to $11,000 per pound now. Spacex proposes to get down to $858 per pound if they can (vertically) land and reuse their boosters. The Space Shuttle cost about $23,000 per pound. Do you wonder why the shuttle is gone now? Spacex operated for ten years on one billion dollars, and one shuttle launch was almost that much.
Our elected officials are forcing a multi-billion heavy Space Launch system on NASA. We can do the same thing with smaller boosters and assemble vehicles in orbit. We built the space station this way, and our colonies and star ships will have to be built on orbit too. If congress can’t do the rocket science, the national debt will though. I have faith in our future!
THIS BLOG IS PRODUCED TO POINT THE WAY TO THE FUTURE OF SPACE ACCESS BY HORIZONTAL LAUNCH AND LANDING TECHNOLOGIES
Reusability, flexibility, safety, and economy require up-front investment in clean sheet designs. I have invited proponents of horizontal launch to illustrate their solutions on this blog. We will maintain a professional association of the “Wright Stuff”…Wings to Space. Join us again in the coming weeks for a look at the future of space exploration.