Since before the Shuttle’s retirement back in 2011 NASA has been looking towards building the next generation of craft that will take humans into space. This initially began with the incredibly ambitious Ares program which was set to create a series of rockets that would be capable of delivering humans to any place within our solar system. That program was cancelled in 2010 by President Obama and replaced with a more achievable vision, one that NASA could accommodate within its meagre budget. However not all the work that was done on that program was lost and the Orion capsule, originally intended to ride an Ares-I into space, made its maiden flight last week signalling a new era for NASA.
The profile for this mission is a fairly standard affair, serving as a shakedown of all the onboard systems and the launch stack as a whole. In terms of orbital duration it was a very short mission, lasting only 2 orbits, however that orbit allowed them to gather some key data on how the capsule will cope with deep space conditions. It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the craft as the mission was meant to launch the day before however a few technical issues, mostly to do with the rockets, saw NASA miss the initial launch window. However the second time around they faced no such issues and with the wind playing nice Orion blasted off for its twice around the world voyage.
When I first read about the mission I was curious as to why it was launching into such an unusual orbit. To put it in perspective the apogee (the point of the orbit furthest away from the earth) was some 5,800KM which is an order of magnitude higher than anything else in low Earth orbit. As it turns out this was done deliberately to fling the Orion capsule through the lower Van Allen belt. These belts are areas of potentially damaging radiation, something which all intersolar craft must pass through on their journey to other planets in our solar system. Since Orion is slated to carry humans through here NASA needs to know how it copes with this potential hazard and, if there are any issues, begin working on a solution.
The launch system which propelled the Orion capsule into orbit was a Delta-IV Heavy which currently holds the crown for the amount of payload that can be delivered to low Earth orbit. It will be the first and last time that we’ll be seeing Orion riding this rocket as the next flight, slated for launch towards the end of 2018, will be the Space Launch System. This is the launch system that replaced the Ares series of rockets when Obama cancelled the Constellation program and will be capable of delivering double the payload of the Delta-IV Heavy. It’s going to need that extra power too as the next Orion mission is an uncrewed circumlunar mission, something NASA hasn’t done in almost 5 decades.
It’s great to see progress from NASA, especially when it comes to its human launch capabilities. The Shuttle was an iconic craft but it simply wasn’t the greatest way to get people into space. The Orion however is shaping up to be the craft that might finally pull NASA out of the rut it’s found itself in ever since the Apollo missions ended. We’re still a while off from seeing people make a return to space on the back of a NASA branded rocket but it’s now a matter of when, and not if, it will happen.
I’ve been unfortunately slack with space based posts on my blog recently and whilst that’s mostly due to my attention being diverted away to other exploits I found it hard to find news or topics that I hadn’t already covered that I thought everyone would enjoy hearing about. Sure when it comes to space even the most hum-drum activities are still amazing feats are deserving of our attention but that doesn’t necessarily spark the creative muse inside me that’s responsible for me churning out a blog post every weekday. Thankfully however my favorite private aeronautics company SpaceX was determined to make waves today, and boy did they ever.
It all started with a single tweet last week where SpaceX teased that “Something big is coming” and released an accompanying 32 second video showing some of their previous accomplishments. Since their bread and butter is full launch systems many people speculated that this would be the announcement of a new rocket class, something bigger than that of the Falcon 9. Today saw the full announcement from Space that the “something big” was indeed their new rocket the Falcon Heavy and it’s set to disrupt the private space industry:
Falcon Heavy, the world’s most powerful rocket, represents SpaceX’s entry into the heavy lift launch vehicle category. With the ability to carry satellites or interplanetary spacecraft weighing over 53 metric tons (117,000 lb) to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), Falcon Heavy can lift nearly twice the payload of the next closest vehicle, the US Space Shuttle, and more than twice the payload of the Delta IV Heavy.
Falcon Heavy’s first stage will be made up of three nine-engine cores, which are used as the first stage of the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle. It will be powered by SpaceX’s upgraded Merlin engines currently being tested at the SpaceX rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas. SpaceX has already designed the Falcon 9 first stage to support the additional loads of this configuration, and with common structures and engines for both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, development and operation of the Falcon Heavy will be highly cost-effective.
The numbers that SpaceX are throwing around are quite amazing with the Falcon Heavy being able to lift twice the payload weight of the Space Shuttle whilst costing an order of magnitude less per launch. Their specifications make multiple references to the closest competitor the DELTA IV Heavy which would be its most direct competitor citing that they can deliver twice the payload at a third of the cost. Whilst on paper their claim of double the payload rings true I’m still a bit skeptical on “third of the price” bit since the Falcon Heavy’s price range isn’t too far off the DELTA IV Heavy’s ($80~125 million vs $140~$170 million respectively), but it’s still a significant cost saving none the less.
As with all SpaceX rocket designs they are truly something to marvel at. Whilst I’m always get a bit worried when I see large clusters of engines (the Falcon Heavy has 27 engines total) SpaceX has shown they can get 9 of them to work in synchronization perfectly well in the past so I’m sure they’ll have no trouble scaling it up. What really intrigued me was the cross-feeding fuel system that the Falcon Heavy will employ. In essence it means that during its first stage all of the engines are drawing their fuel from the boosters on the side so that when it comes time for stage separation the core stage booster will still have an almost full tank. Couple this with the extraordinary mass ratio of 30, which is almost double that of the space shuttle, and it’s little wonder that the Falcon Heavy can achieve such extreme payload numbers whilst still boasting a ridiculously cheap price.
What’s truly exciting though is their planned production rate for these new rockets. Once in service SpaceX is planning to launch up to 10 of both the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy per year for a total of 20 flights per year. To put this in perspective the DELTA IV Heavy has only had 16 launches during its entire lifetime so for SpaceX to pursue such an aggressive launch schedule means that they think there’s a real demand for getting a whole lot of kit up into space, just not at the current price level. Indeed SpaceX will be the first company ever to offer payload delivery into space at the coveted $1000/lb mark, long held as the peak of conventional rocket technology. With SpaceX pursuing such aggressive economies of scale though it won’t be long before that price begins to come down, and that’s when things start to get interesting.
Whilst the cost of ticket to space is still well outside the reach of the everyman for many decades to come breakthroughs like the ones SpaceX are making a habit of releasing signal the beginning of the real space age for all mankind. The $1000/lb mark puts the cost of putting your average human into orbit at around $200,000 just on weight (probably triple that for a realistic cost) which is scarily close to Virgin Galactic’s initial ticket price for a 5 minute sub-orbital junket. As many aspects of getting people orbit become routine and the research costs are a long forgotten memory there’s really nothing stopping the price from coming down to be within the reach of those who would desire it. Sure we’re a long way off from seeing the kind of competition we see with the airlines today but the similarities between the early days of flight and the fledgling space industry are just too strong to ignore. The next decade will bring us some truly exceptional revolutions in technology and all of them will help to make the dream of a true space age for humanity come to fruition.
I really can’t express just how excited this makes me.