Thursday, March 11, 2010

Spaceflight Hopes and Dreams

With Mr. Obama's cancellation of the entire US manned space program, we are left with private companies providing access to space. They will still be funded by NASA, but will have their own designs, and a lot of freedom to do whatever they want.

This would have been a good thing if we had decided to do it in 1990. Twenty years down the road, we would probably have had a good Shuttle replacement in operation, along with a more utilitarian space station designed to support a full space infrastructure (refueling and maintenance of lunar and interplanetary spacecraft for example) instead of just some lame biology experiments. Instead of interminably studying the effects of weightlessness (we've studied it for like 50 years!), the station would probably spin to provide gravity simulation.

But now, with the Shuttle on its last legs, a really rather useless space station, and the cancellation of the Constellation program, I don't see that private space can come up to speed fast enough to provide the kind of future we need.

In the mean time, we plan on paying the Russians to put us into space.

Add the fact that the Chinese are pushing ahead with tens of thousands of engineers on their own space program, and I fear we will be left far behind. The implications of this for the future of the US are dire. If the Chinese are allowed to own orbital and cis-lunar space -- and maybe even the moon itself -- they will be able to deny access and use for both military and economic purposes.

Long-term, I believe that this means an enormous disadvantage for our country.

Tiangong-1 module of the Chinese Space Station
to be launched in 2011

Imagine where we would be if another country could completely prevent us from flying any aircraft. In the near future, space will be as important to us as flight. (It already is, for our military use.)  If China is allowed to dominate space, a third-world role for our country is the best we can hope for.  Actually, if we are not the dominant player in space for the next 50 years, I don't see us existing as an independent country in the 50 years after that.  It is that important.

Let's look at our best hope for private spaceflight and the future of our country: Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, otherwise known as SpaceX.

Elon Musk, Founder of SpaceX

SpaceX was founded in 2002 by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk of South Africa. They have produced one small rocket design, the Falcon-1, that has had two successful orbital flights in five launches, one of which actually delivered a 400-pound Malaysian satellite to orbit.  Here is a photo of the launch.  I think those are semi-truck trailers on the left, which provide a sense of scale.  I think the rocket may have burned a hole in the grass:

The launch history looks like this:

  • 24 March 2006.  Failure. Engine failure at T+25 seconds
  • 21 March 2007.  Failure. Harmonic oscillation, premature second stage engine shutdown, loss of satellite
  • 3 August 2008. Failure. Residual stage 1 thrust led to collision between stage 1 and stage 2, loss of 4 satellites
  • 28 September 2008. Successful.  Delivered RatSat and dummy payload to orbit
  • 14 July 2009. Successful.  Delivered Malaysian RazakSAT to orbit
Joking aside, this is not bad at all for a private launch company.  They have achieved orbit and the last two flights were successful.  Most of the bugs appear to be wrung out.  It took them eight years.  I anticipate that one or two other failures will occur over the next couple of years until reliability is fully achieved.

SpaceX has been developing the much larger Falcon-9 since 2005.  It has not flown yet.  Their manned system concept is a Falcon 9 with a capsule called the "Dragon" on top.  It is in the early stages of development.

But with the Shuttle retirement months away, how long do you think it will take to complete the SpaceX system and make it reliable?  My guess is somewhere around 12 years, with a first flight in the 10-year time frame.  In the meantime, we have no human access to space except via the kindness of the Russians.  By 2025, the Chinese could well be doing asteroid mining, while we will just be getting back to low earth orbit, barely above the atmosphere.

Long term, space is the most important investment we can make as a country.  It will have the largest payoff in terms of military and economic dominance in the 50-year time frame.  Imagine what WWII would have been like had the US decided not to develop aircraft technology from 1910 to 1940 -- but Germany and Japan did.

I saw an interesting question posed recently:  If Mr. Obama were intent on the destruction of our country, what would he be doing differently from what he is doing now?

Oddly, the answer appears to be: "Nothing."


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