On December 7th, 1972, almost 50 years ago we launched our last flight to the moon. We left and did not return. We’d beat the Ruskies and then some and there was no longer a lot of propaganda value in continuing to rub their noses in it. After 7 manned flights to the moon, the public was bored with the spectacle and there wasn’t a lot of interest in Congress. There was some leftover hardware and we used it to establish the US space station Skylab.
We used old Apollo equipment to launch and service Skylab
We got bored with that too and abandoned it. It burned up in the atmosphere in 1979.
President Nixon wasn’t bored by space, however. He still saw space as being important to the country and the world. He had approved plans for a space transportation system including orbital tugs, refueling depots, large permanently crewed space habitats with an aim to build permanent stations on the moon and beyond. The only part of this vision to survive President Carter was the Space Shuttle and it was being developed so slowly that it didn’t come online until Reagan.
Ironically, The Soviets had developed a competing design that was safer than the US shuttle. It was called the Buran and it would be launched by a reusable super heavy booster, the Energya. It avoided the problems of solid rocket boosters and insulation/ice falling off a parasitic fuel tank and impacting the shuttle wings. They built it and abandoned it because the USSR was bankrupt and collapsing. Eventually the hangar that housed the one Buran collapsed from lack of repair, destroying the craft. What an incredible waste!
Politics and complacency dictated some bad choices that led to disasters with Challenger and Columbia. The US kept the shuttle flying long enough to complete our obligations to the International Space Station and then we ran and hid from the challenge of manned space flight. For the last 9 years, US astronauts have been hitchhiking on Russian launch vehicles for their rides to the station.
Hitchhiking on 40-year-old launchers. No wonder Sarah Brightman canceled her ticket. But at $50 million a pop, it was the beginning of space tourism.
After 9 years of no independent manned launch capability, we’re finally back in the game. Only it isn’t NASA or any part of the government that developed the boosters and spacecraft. Today’s manned spaceflight program is contracted out to for-profit enterprises.
Enter Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, two high tech mega billionaires. Both men have a vision. They would colonize space and spread humanity to the planets. Humankind would then be able to survive whatever cataclysm we brought down upon ourselves here. Richard Branson, another eccentric mega-billionaire, has a different vision: Cheap orbital passenger transport.
Blue Origin – Jeff Bezos. Where all that money Amazon makes is going.
They are also all completely capitalist in philosophy. Most economic futurists believe that the first trillionaires will make their money mining the asteroid belt and generating “green” power in outer space. The first experimental “proofs of concept” of the technologies needed have already been done.
Musk’s Space-X seems to have the lead here with the Falcon 9 rocket system and the
Dragon space capsule. In fact, Space-X has the only reusable commercial heavy launch vehicles, as well as the only current “super-heavy” launcher, the Falcon Heavy.
Launchers are divided by class according to how much they can loft into orbit. The last repeatedly successful “super-heavy” was… the Saturn V. The rest either launched a couple times and were abandoned or only exist on the drawing board.
Space-X has plans for a launcher that will dwarf even the mighty Saturn V. (It was formerly known as the BFR. LOL!) Components of Starship are being built and tested at Bolsa Chica, TX. It will have the ability to send 100 passengers to Mars and then bring them home with in-orbit refueling.
On Wednesday the 27th, the first US launch of an astronaut into orbit since 2001 is about to take place. Two American astronauts will launch from Canaveral aboard a Falcon 9 on a former shuttle launchpad to service the ISS. Most of the Falcon 9 will return to Earth for reuse.
Watching the liquid rocket boosters return precisely to a pad is pretty neat itself.
But wait! They won’t be the first astronauts launched from the US since 2001. That honor belongs to Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson’s space startup. In 2018 and 2019 a total of 4 pilots received their astronauts’ wings for exceeding 50 miles altitude. All part of his dream of promoting space tourism and eventually suborbital and orbital passenger travel. He has the advantage that his system is designed to use existing international airport runways. No launch pad required.
Virgin is also aiming to compete in the small launcher market by a rocket carried to 40K ft. and then launched from the underside of a cargo plane.
The key to space is reusability. Imagine you wanted to fly from LA to New Zealand but every time you did you had to throw away the aircraft and parachute out. Not a trip you’d make very often, but that is how an expendable booster works. You get a satellite into orbit but you’ve just dropped a hundred million dollars worth of rocket into the bottom of the ocean to do it.
The space shuttle was a first attempt to reuse equipment. Imagine that instead of throwing away the aircraft, you got to keep the airframe but all the working parts had to be replaced or completely overhauled as well as losing “only” 20% of the launch vehicle, the big liquid fuel tank. That’s the shuttle.
Musk, Bezos, and Branson all understand that the cost of spaceflight needs to be primarily fuel. Everything needs not just to be recoverable but reliable enough to work many times with minimal attention. No more attention than a 747 making a commercial run across the Pacific. Engines rated for hundreds of launches between scheduled overhauls. No delicate tiles to be damaged every flight. If you can get it down to a small crew in mission control, a few hours of inspection and maintenance, and multiple launches a day, space is ripe for the picking.
And that is why I am so excited by this Wednesday. In fact, I desperately wish I had been born today. People have a greater understanding of the Asperger condition. There is some small chance I might have been a part of humanity’s future and not just a spectator on the sideline.
Just for your edification, here’s a book that formed my early attitudes towards space exploration. Heinlein was one of those visionary science fiction authors who occasionally predicted the future or something close to it. (And then some of it was not so close…)