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.
I’ve long held the stance that NASA should be shifting its activities away from the rudimentary tasks of getting things into orbit and focusing more on pushing the envelope of their capabilities. Whilst there are no private agencies yet at the same level as what NASA was capable of with the Shuttle and other previous launch systems there are many that are coming very close, some only a couple of years away from sending people into space. Unfortunately due to the tough times that the United States is currently facing it seems that all agencies over there have had to suffer some set backs and this has put many of NASA’s cutting edge projects in jeopardy.
The James Web Space Telescope for instance has recently been placed under review due to the massive cost overruns that the project has been facing. Pegged as the spiritual successor to the Hubble Space Telescope the JWST was initially priced scoped at costing roughly $1.6 billion but the latest estimates have it costing well over 4 times that, threatening other programs that NASA runs. That’s bad enough in itself but NASA has also had its budget cut by appoximately $1.9 billion, a quarter of which was dedicated to funding the JWST. That means that if the project is to continue either additional funding has to materialize or NASA will have to cut other projects to see it through. Some of the possible projects included the as of yet unannounced replacement for the Shuttle, which would mean a significant delay for the return of NASA’s ability to launch humans into space.
However NASA does appear to be dedicated to the challenge that President Obama laid before them some time ago and have just recently announced their plans for a new ambitious rocket called the Space Launch System:
SLS will have an initial lift capacity of over 70 metric tons – about 154,000 pounds (70,000 kg). That’s three times the lift capability of the space shuttles! In the event of a Mars mission that can be upgraded to 130 metric tons – about the weight of 75 SUVs.
The first developmental flight is targeted for the end of 2017.
SLS will be the first exploration-class vehicle since the giant Saturn V rockets that carried the Apollo astronauts to the Moon. Using rocket technology developed during the shuttle era and modified for the canceled Constellation program, combined with cutting-edge manufacturing processes, SLS will expand the boundaries of human spaceflight and extend our reach into the solar system.
On paper it’s quite an impressive rocket, able to heft a whopping 130 tons into orbit if required to do so. Compared to the Saturn V this is about 11 tons more payload into orbit and whilst the initial designs show Shuttle like solid rocket boosters on the side the ultimate goal is to eliminate those entirely. The rocket’s intended goals are to form the basis of future exploratory missions to the moon and beyond, with the first launches scheduled for 2017 on an unmanned trip around the moon.
Keen observers will notice how similar this design looks to the DIRECT proposal I briefly talked about just over a year ago. Indeed many of the aspects that they advocated should be in a new launch system made their way into the SLS including reuse of many key components and man-rating designs that already have a proven launch record behind them. Their designs however aren’t currently feasible due to the shutting down of several key manufacturing plants but you can definitely see the heavy influence that DIRECT advocates have had on the SLS. Whilst this might reduce the launch gap that the United States will experience I’m not 100% convinced that this launcher has been conceived with the best of intentions.
The shuttle’s design was, in many ways, heavily influenced by politics and pork barrelling. A good portion of the shuttle isn’t built anywhere near the launch site with its various construction facilities strewn all about the USA. The worst of these was by far the external tank which is built in New Orleans and then needed to be shipped by barge across to Cape Canaveral. The reasoning behind this was simple, it spread the shuttle’s economic benefits across different states thereby garnering more support for it to proceed. Unfortunately this also had the terrible side effect of tying NASA to multiple states making it nigh impossible for them to do anything that could negatively impact on one state or another, even if it would be beneficial for the shuttle program overall.
The SLS then (sometimes dubbed the Senate Launch System) looks to be going down a similar path thanks to the reuse of current components which will undoubtedly mean using the same suppliers. Whilst I don’t disagree that this will create “good American jobs” I don’t like the idea that NASA exists solely for the purpose of being a pork barrel endeavour that’s only use is to redistribute government money to the public. This is especially true when you consider just how little government money they get in the first place and way too much of it is spent on keeping the giant force of people on staff rather than doing what they were initially formed to do: to push the envelope of human capabilities in space.
Maybe I’ve just been in the Slashdot/HackerNews echo chamber for too long but I’m becoming increasingly disillusioned with NASA and their endeavours in space. They still do great work from time to time but so often I see them getting caught up in political mine fields that I wonder why the USA keeps them running at all. NASA once served to inspire generations of scientists, aeronautical engineers and mathematicians that all wanted to push humanity into the final frontier. Today however NASA seems to be more of a political punching bag than anything else, and that saddens me deeply.
I still hold out hope that I’m just cynical, however.