Sunday, October 26, 2014

Launch Reimagined

In my opinion, there is a fundamental flaw in our efforts to commercialize launch operations to space.  We had scientists show us how to do it under NASA and then had companies do it for a profit.  OK.  That sounds all nice and good.  Except we end up with an enormous launch cost per payload weight measure.  Now, scientists take into account to most efficient way to do things.  They did a good job of this in getting to space.  They developed a very efficient way, scientifically.  Sometimes scientific efficiency opposes financial realities.  I was shocked when my physics teacher, back in high school, said that to travel from point A to point B in a vehicle and to have that vehicle at point B at the end of the trip was not very efficient.  Of course in my mind, I thought I still needed that vehicle to go other places, and that's where economics came in.  So why do we throw away rockets?  We do it for efficiency, not economy.  Maybe we should alter the way we go to space to make it more economical.  SpaceX has an idea, DARPA has and idea, and I have an idea of how to make change this efficient operation into and economical one.

SpaceX, as most people know, wants to make throw away rockets into reusable rockets.  That's tall order.  So tall, that they are the only ones actively pursuing this avenue.  They have succeeded in reentering their first stage Falcon 9 v1.1 and flown it all the way down to the ocean.  Now there is talk of them wanting to land their first stages on a floating platform.  Kudos to them for getting this far.  They are ahead of everyone else.

DARPA came up with an idea that uses wings.  It's called the XS-1.  The idea is to have an unmanned space plane act as the first stage of a rocket to launch small satellites.  Supposedly, these would fly back to base.  That would be good.  You want your first stage to come back to base to reuse it and not haul it back to base.

Here's my idea, as crazy as it sounds.  Scientists, scream if you must.  In a 2 stage rocket, make the first stage suborbital.  Yes, you heard me.  Let it only go up and down, like an elevator.  Let the second stage be responsible for the lateral velocity.  Mull that over a bit.  Sure, how high should that first stage go?  Pretty high, I can imagine.  Perhaps even beyond the atmosphere (greater than 100 km in altitude).  How mush fuel should that second stage have to get from 0 to 17,000 mph before falling back to Earth or sustaining altitude while accelerating laterally?  How much fuel would the first stage need for all the fuel the second stage would need and to land as well?  A lot.  OK.  What are the benefits?  How about having a first stage that can land on the same landing pad as it launched from.  Conceivably,  it could be prepped with another second stage, payload, and fuel and fly in short order again.  Now we're talking rapid turn around for a first stage rocket.  What is that worth?

 So there they are.  SpaceX has it's plan to alter the launch operations to make it more economical and is working it.  DARPA has a competition with an idea using wings.  I just throw science to the wind and take an idea that leverages most fuel possible to get the most out of the hardware.  What is sure is that launch as we have seen it in the past is not how it's going to be in the future because we just can't afford it anymore.