The retirement of the Shuttle, whilst leaving the USA without any means with which to deliver humans or cargo to the International Space Station, was necessary to bring about the next evolution in the space industry. In the lead up to its retirement many entrepreneurs saw this as an opportunity to crack into a market that was once only for government superpowers and the contractors that serviced them. Today the private space industry can count dozens of companies vying for a piece of the final frontier and the coming decade is looking ever more bright for those of us who have aspirations that reach past the comforts of our home world.
It seems to be a common thread amongst many entrepreneurs that whilst they may have made their fortunes here on terra firma their eyes were always gazing heavenward. Just off the top of my head I can name Elon Musk (SpaceX, made his fortunes through PayPal), Robert Bigelow (Bigelow Aerospace, chain hotel giant) and now we can also count Paul Allen (co-founder of Microsoft) amongst their ranks as he’s founded a new space company called Stratolaunch:
Stratolaunch Systems will bring airport-like operations to the launch of commercial and government payloads and, eventually, human
missions. Plans call for a first flight within five years. The air-launch-to-orbit system will mean lower costs, greater safety, and more
flexibility and responsiveness than is possible today with ground-based systems. Stratolaunch’s quick turnaround between launches
will enable new orbital missions as well as break the logjam of missions queued up for launch facilities and a chance at space.
Stratolaunch isn’t like your traditional private space company who’s out to develop their own launch system in order to bring costs down. No, instead they’re more of a systems integrator combining technology from (in my opinion) all the right places. Their booster will be made by SpaceX, their carrier plane will be made by Scaled Composites (of SpaceShipOne fame) and the systems integration will be done Dynetics. It’s a very Microsofty way of doing things and all of the companies they’ve selected have a good history of delivering on the capabilities they set out to achieve, so this is definitely a recipe for success.
Their launch system is intriguing as well and not just because its another iconic Rutan design. Just like SpaceShipOne and WhiteKnightOne the Stratolaunch system is made up of a carrier craft and a rocket with the payload attached. Now long time readers will know that whilst air launched rockets are a good way to get into sub-orbital trajectories the rule of 6 (Mach 6 and 60,000 feet is 6% of the required energy to get to orbit) means that they’re not terribly effective for larger payloads. However the scale of the Stratolaunch system is quite phenomenal and is beyond anything that’s been attempted with this kind of system previously.
For starters the carrier craft will be the largest aircraft that’s ever flown. Now that’s quite a claim to fame as the largest aircraft ever built (barring the Spruce Goose, which is actually smaller despite its larger wingspan) is the Antonov An225. The An225 is a Russian craft designed to carry oversized payloads and there’s a brilliant shot in the link that shows it carrying Russia’s Buran Shuttle to give you an idea just how massive the thing is. The Stratolaunch carrier will dwarf that craft considerably weighing almost twice as much with well over double the thrust from the more modern engines. Combining this all together nets you a plane capable of carrying a staggering 490,000 pounds (~222,260 kgs) of payload. For it’s intended purpose that makes the Stratolaunch system capable of delivering some significant payloads.
Since SpaceX will be designing the booster we can assume it will be a middle of the road rocket between the Falcon 1 and the Falcon 9. My back of the envelope calculations using the Falcon 9 and scaling it back to the maximum payload of the Stratolaunch system puts the payload capability to LEO at 15,333lbs or about 7 tons. Considering the launch system is a reusable craft its conceivable that Stratolaunch could drive costs down considerably through economies of scale thanks to the (I assume) quick turn around times for launching from the carrier craft. I’ll also bet that the USA military will have a keen eye on this entire system as well since it’s capabilities could be quite useful to them.
I think Allen is onto a winner here with this kind of design and it has a lot of potential to change the small to medium payload game. Some of the technical feats they’re out to accomplish are truly inspiring and I’ll be waiting anxiously for them to come to fruition.
This week has been quite busy for those of us with a keen interest in space. NASA is currently putting on quite a show for the 40th anniversary of the Apollo launches (which I will dedicate a post to later) but also we’ve been privy to see not one but to launches. The first is the launch of shuttle mission STS-127:
The main focus of this mission is installing the last part of the Japanese section of the ISS (Kibo). It will allow the astronauts to perform experiments that are directly exposed to space which up until now they have had a limited capacity to do. There’s also a few housekeeping things like spare parts and extra batteries as well as a couple satellites. Whilst this isn’t as exciting as the last couple missions it does signify a big step forward in the capabilities of the station, which makes crazy talk like this a little disturbing:
After more than a decade of construction, it is nearing completion and finally has a full crew of six astronauts. The last components should be installed by the end of next year.
“In the first quarter of 2016, we’ll prep and de-orbit the spacecraft,” says NASA’s space station program manager, Michael T. Suffredini.
With another 5 more missions planned to complete the station somewhere in 2011 this would mean 5 years of a fully functioning space station before it’s plunged back to earth. With so much invested in the station from so many countries I can’t help but feel that this statement is a little short sited. Sure, NASA has footed most of the bill for most of the station but I’m sure most of the other countries would be looking to keep the station up there for a while longer. I’m sure as the time gets closer we’ll see more interest in keeping it up there, maybe even Bigelow wil take an interest.
The second, and probably most exciting, launch we’ve seen this week was SpaceX’s first successful launch of a private payload into space:
The payload launched was RazakSAT a Malaysian remote sensing satellite. It’s a great success for SpaceX and shows that they are capable of launching payloads with much less overhead then current companies. This bodes very well for their scheduled Falcon 9 test later this year and the private space industry as a whole. With Bigelow providing somewhere to go and SpaceX the means to get there we’ll soon be seeing the first fully privately funded space stations flown to by private companies, something back when Apollo was first conceived was still considered science fiction.
It’s been a great week for me personally as I’ve seen news reports of space peppered through the mainstream news. That says a lot coming from someone in Australia, considering that the Australian populace at large doesn’t have much of an active interest in space. With the culmination of the anniversary events for Apollo coming next week I’m hopeful that we’ll inspire many more people to take up a bigger interest in space, as did I a couple years ago.