Secret Ingredient to a New Era of Space Exploration: Cheaper Launches
After Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon 50 years ago this week, it’s hard not to conclude that he got it backward: It wasn’t “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
In fact, it was one giant leap for man, as Armstrong’s life was forever changed by celebrity; and one small step for mankind, society is largely the same today as it was 50 years ago.
Make no mistake, NASA’s technological achievement was perhaps the single greatest display of human ingenuity since the creation of the wheel. But it didn’t exactly open the floodgates of space exploration that many had hoped or expected. It was almost as if planting the American flag on the moon was an ending rather than a beginning.
Launching Stuff into Space is Expensive
One of the key reasons why we are not yet well on our way to becoming a space-faring civilization is because the act of escaping Earth’s gravity is prohibitively expensive.
Until SpaceX changed the paradigm, the average cost for NASA to get one kilogram into orbit was $10,000. Even the Space Shuttle, which carried far more people into space than any other vehicle, was initially predicted to cost $10 million per flight, but that tab ballooned to $1.6 billion by the end of the program, according to MIT Technology Review.
The SpaceX Falcon Heavy recently broke the mold. According to Money.com, SpaceX says that it costs $62 million every time its Falcon 9 rocket is launched, while the more powerful Falcon Heavy costs an estimated $90 million per launch.
But it’s not enough. We need vehicles that are downright cheap to get into space. Otherwise, there will always be a public outcry that the money could better be spent on social programs like homelessness or food shortages in less-developed countries.
Five New Plans Are in Various Stages of Development
As great as our robot explorers are, we need human eyes up there. Recognizing this challenge as the primary obstacle to further human space exploration, several companies are investing heavily in research and development of cheaper alternatives to get to space. For instance:
Since the early 1970s, engineers have dreamed of a “space plane” that could be used like traditional airplanes to move people back and forth from the Earth to space. Built by Boeing for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the XS-1 is said to be able to make a launch rate of 10 one-day missions in just 10 days. In addition, Boeing claims that it will be able to take 5000 pounds (2268 kilograms) into orbit for under $5 million per flight.
Test flights are scheduled to begin in 2020.
Starhopper is a SpaceX prototype and the first stage of its Big Falcon Rocket or BFR program. The company plans to use Starhopper as the spacecraft that will send humans to Mars and also as a 30-minute shuttle service between cities like New York and Shanghai.
An early version of Starhopper recently completed a tethered test flight at the SpaceX Rocket Development and Test Facility, in McGregor, Texas.
Another reusable rocket is Blue Origin’s New Glenn spacecraft, the details of which are under lock and key. Similar to the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, New Glenn has twice the usable volume. The first stage of New Glenn would fly back for reuse.
Blue Origin is competing for an Air Force contract that would require test launches as early as 2022.
Tethers Unlimited from Seattle, Washington, is taking a unique view of launching payloads further into space for objects already in orbit. By using momentum exchange tethers, the company hopes to swing a composite rope or woven string that would transfer momentum from one end to the other.
In 2007, in collaboration with Stanford University, the company launched the Multi-Application Survivable Tether (MAST) experiment to test the survivability of tethers in space.
Tethers Unlimited may be one of the first companies to make real progress in developing materials that one day could be used in a space elevator, a concept that is still very much in the realm of science fiction.
According to the company website, SpinLaunch intends to develop a kinetic energy space launch system that would reduce dependency on traditional chemical rockets and significantly lower the cost of access to space while increasing the frequency of launches.
Indeed, SpinLaunch wants to “fling” as many as five satellites per day into orbit for disaster monitoring, weather, reconnaissance, communications and a number of other applications. SpinLaunch operates out of a 140,000-square-foot facility in Long Beach, California. The company has also leased 10 acres on Spaceport America and is building a $7 million facility to flight test its unique technology in New Mexico.
Questions Remain about Results of These Entrepreneurial Innovations
It remains to be seen if this new round of entrepreneurial innovation will result in a true breakthrough in cost reduction, or simply be just another plateau.
Of all of these organizations, SpaceX has a significant head start and is perhaps uniquely positioned to make breakthroughs in the near term. However, if there is one constant in the new space race among governments and private companies, it is a reminder that space innovations are often unpredictable.
The success or failure of some of these programs over the next few years will help shape the future of human spaceflight for decades to come.
We are still waiting to fulfill Armstrong’s promise of a giant leap for mankind. But now, it feels closer than ever.
This article appeared originally on In Space News.