Rockets Suck and Space is Hard.
There’s no better option to get stuff into space… or is there?
After the explosion of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on June 28th, the general consensus on the interwebz was the admission that space was hard, and that rockets are giant bombs that are set off in controlled explosions.
A rocket is made of thousands of complicated and intricate parts. Rockets need entire teams devoted to each subsystem in order to make them fly correctly. And something usually goes wrong. There are preflight checklists that last weeks and the construction of individual rockets used to take years.
A success rate of 95.43% for the US launches is insane when you take into account the amount of complexity inherent in a rocket launch. The brilliant scientists and engineers who build rockets are some of the most vigilant individuals and have to know the most intimate details about these behemoth machines.
The prevailing thought is that rocket fuel has the highest energy density and allows the mass/power ratio necessary for reaching orbit. But what if there was a different way to launch payloads into the atmosphere? What if these complicated systems are overkill? What if we didn’t have to do it this way?
A number of recent technological innovations and ideas may eventually kill the rocket. There are researchers worldwide who are working to figure out novel ways of reaching space and some of the technologies below may soon be put to the test.
The easiest way to get to space might be a slow and steady ascent. A cable reaching from the ground to Earth’s orbit would allow a constant flow of materials into space with little energy. This cable would stretch 70,000 kilometers to reach past low-Earth orbit and include a counterweight at the end to prevent the cable from ripping. The main holdup on this technology is the materials, woven carbon nanotubes would have the tensile strength and still be light enough to work, but there haven’t been any threads built that are longer than a meter. Yet.
In 2010, a paper was published detailing the use of a coil gun as a possible 1st stage launch device. A rocket would be shot out of a tube on a sled and allow smaller material payloads to reach orbit on merely electrical charge. This mass driver would use high-powered capacitors to accelerate the vehicle using EM fields. This would be done in a tube similar in nature to the concept for the Hyperloop. This project became known as StarTram, but was shelved due to the lack of support.
This third option has been explored the most by NASA and private spaceflight companies. Virgin Galactic has seen some success in the use of the plane White Knight to allow the glider/rocket Spaceship Two to reach the edge of space. In addition, further experiments using weather balloons as launch platforms at as high as 20 kilometers have seen limited success. Work is ongoing as to whether this will prove successful as an alternate launch method.
Of course space is hard. Moving something at 7.8 km/s takes a massive amount of energy and engineering knowledge. It’ll be exciting to see how the problem of getting materials to space changes as these emerging technologies develop more and more. ER.