IF we want to be a space faring people, we HAVE to adopt new launch vehicle standards. This has become painfully obvious to me this fall with that failure of the Antares rocket and the political fallout of the RD-180 rocket engine which makes the Atlas V as useless as if it had a catastrophic in-flight failure. You can say this sentiment has been building since SpaceX arrived on the scene and Elon Musk talked about improving the rocket. I see it now. I see how deficient our rockets have been. The rocket is basically in a state that the automobile was in the pre-Model T period. They are costly and unreliable. They are toys for the rich. Small efforts have been attempted to bring the launch price down. The only company that is bringing prices significantly down is SpaceX. Those prices still need to come down MORE. SpaceX can't do it alone either. There needs to be more companies in the effort. Well, I came up with some standards to start with that should get us in the right direction. Of course this is just my own opinion. They cover items from payload to the first stage.
1. The payload needs to be recoverable in all phases of flight. Capsules with crews have had abort systems which were high speed rockets that separated the payload (capsule and crew) form the failing rocket and allowing the parachutes to activate and bring the payload safely to the ground. Why don't we have this on unmanned payloads? Unmanned payloads today just blowup with the rest of the rocket in case of an abort. Thus making vapors out of hopes and investments. Then the insurance companies have to pony up cash. I have no doubt this drives up cost of launch to some degree. If some degree of recovery of the payload could be guaranteed I bet cost would come down.
2. The upper stage needs to be able to orbit the Earth and make a reentry and landing back to it launch site to be able to reuse. This is a plan for SpaceX. They want to make the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket reusable. They want it to land after a launch back to base, preferably. Today, all second stages are discarded after launch. This means all that hardware has to be created from scratch and tested for ever launch. That's a lot of man hours. That's a lot of material. That's a lot of money. It's just a bad way to operate. We've just been operating like that since the beginning of the space age. The one exception would be the Space Transportation System which, arguably, had an orbiter that was held the payload and was also the second stage. It was totally reusable. It's drawback was that there was a lot of maintenance to it to get ready for the next flight. Yet, overall reuseability should bring down the price of each launch. Beneficial reuseability was demonstrated in the suborbital world with SpaceShipOne in 2004.
3. The first stage needs to be able to lift the upper stage and the payload to a certain altitude guaranteed even in the event of an engine failure. One rocket today meets this standard. That rocket is the Falcon 9. It demonstrated it in Oct 2012 where one Merlin engine shut down. The rocket kept on flying and thanks to its design got it main payload to the International Space Station. If that happened to any other rocket, the mission would have been a total failure. The Falcon 9 can do this feat because it has 9 rockets which allows it to loose one or two engines before mission failure. This needs to be a standard in all future rockets. The area from the launchpad to the altitude where the second stage can ignite is a critical one. The Earth is the most dangerous object to a flying rocket. The more distance it can get away from the planet the safer it is. That's why this standard is so important. It give a high degree of guarantee to get to that second stage at a reasonable cost.
4. The fist stage needs to be recoverable in one piece and reusable. No one has ever accomplished this. Oh, now your thinking about the SRBs in the STS. Well, those were not reused in one piece. They were broken down and rebuilt. I'm not talking about breaking down and rebuilding. I'm talking about launch, land, recover, refuel, and launch again. SpaceX is trying to learn how to do this. They are currently trying to land their first stage on a large barge in the ocean. Nobody else is even trying. Well, Blue Origin was proported as wanting to accomplish this but they are not releasing where they are at or how far they got. With them it has been so long that I can only conclude they were unable to finish the project. First stage reuseablility is essential to bring down prices. It represents the biggest hardware in the rocket stack. It is only a suborbital vehicle by itself.
5. Intensive and comprehensive checks on first stage, and upper stage systems need to be done at the launch time where the computer has the ability to abort at the sign of any failed test. Most, if not all, mainstream rockets have implemented this standard to some degree or another. The more successful the rocket, the more comprehensive their computerized checks are. This stands to reason. This is why there are delays at launch time. Though they may be a little frustrating, I take the delays as a sign that the checks and tests are working and working hard. It is a good thing. Could Antares have used more comprehensive checks and tests to avoid its catastrophic failure? Possibly. Time will tell. As far as I can tell, these tests and checks have become more and more computerized over the years. Where many of them were just people staring at numbers on a screen to see if they see any anomalies. This is thanks to miniaturization of the computer circuits on silicon chips and more sophisticated software. Progress in this area should continue. We need to get smarter software and more powerful computers as time goes on. I have no doubt this trend will continue. So this standard is the one standard that is being implemented by all successful launchers. Great! 1 out of 5 ain't bad?!
Elon Musk, in an interview with Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, mentioned that reusable rockets were needed to make space more accessible. So he's working on the reusable rocket. In my estimation, reusable stages just cover 2 of 5 standards that ought to be implemented by all launchers if we are going to be a people that live and work in space. I don't mean low Earth orbit. I mean the Inner Solar System, to include: the Moon, Mars, Venus, Mercury, Asteroid belt, and Near Earth Objects. It's time we look at the big picture and make plans to inhabit this playground. To do it we not only need to be scientifically smart but also economically smart in all things.
These standards are mostly from other people through the decades. Many have realized we needed reusable vehicles to access space to include many science fiction writers. Computerized tests came out of necessity from real life launch companies and government entities. Von Braun and his team implemented the multi-engine first stage to where if one goes out it could still get to orbit. Maxime Faget came up with the idea of a rocket as a launch escape system for crews. I just expanded the possible idea to non-human payloads.
I'd like to see other launch companies make new rockets that take on these standards. I know a couple of start ups that are targeting the small satellite launch market that design their rockets with multiple engines on the first stage. One of them is called Firefly. We need to wait and see what happens. For now, we have to make due with the clunker rockets as we see Falcon 9 develop and incorporate 4 out of the 5 standards I've stated. Watch the other companies tremble in fear.