Taking Star Wars to the Stars: A history of the VTVL Rocket – Part 2

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Part 1: Straight back down to Earth told the story of VTVL Rocket pioneers during the 1960s. In this second part of the story, a new set of circumstances set the stage for the reemergence of VTVL Rocket technology.


A new era of enthusiasm for space took hold under the Reagan Administration during the 1980s. It wasn’t born from a desire to explore new worlds or follow Kennedy’s Apollo era rhetoric, rather the new conservative agenda in America saw space as providing an new frontier for commercial pursuits…
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Straight back down to Earth: A history of the Vertical Takeoff/Vertical Landing Rocket – Part 1

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A vision of our VTVL rocket travel future as seen by Philip Bono during the 1960s [IMG: Philip Bono Collection via SDASM Archives]
The recent rise of commercial rocketry funded by mega-rich technology entrepreneurs holds the promise of finally reducing the cost of placing payloads into orbit, partly through the generation of greater competition in the marketplace and application of more agile business models and project management, but also because we have seen the timely reemergence of the reusable rocket.

Reusability, if it can be mastered, will be fundamental to increasing mankind’s access to space and allowing the construction of larger commercial infrastructures beyond Earth, but such vehicles are not a new idea…
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Sea Dragons & Skycycles: The life and rockets of Bob Truax

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Traux’s colossal Sea Dragon afloat pre-launch beside an Aircraft Carrier [IMG: Aerojet General]
The closing stages of 2015 saw some major advances in the world of commercial spaceflight. Both Blue Origin and Space X demonstrated the ability to fly rockets into space and recover them. In the case of Blue Origin, their New Shepard rocket sent an uncrewed but ballasted capsule above the Kármán line (at 100km this is the internationally recognised as the boundary of space) on a test flight – the same booster has since been re-used and recovered for a second time.

Space X’s achievement was maybe more significant in that they were able to recover the first stage of a Falcon 9 booster to a controlled landing near the Cape Canaveral launch pad as part of an operational flight delivering payload to orbit. While a subsequent attempt to recover a Falcon 9 to a barge following a launch from Vandenberg AFB in California failed, there is good reason to hope recovery may soon become commonplace.

Reusability offers the promise of reduced launch costs meaning a reduction in the price of placing a pound of payload into orbit. The economics are by no means simple – the non-recurring development costs for the launch system must be amortised over a number of successful flights to make such systems economical – but the promise of reduced payload to orbit prices seems certain to drive commercial launch providers in the direction of at least partial reusability.

While we currently recognise the achievements of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, they are by no means the first to look towards providing a reusable rocket for commercial launch services. In the early years of the Reagan Presidency, new legislation sought to open space up to private enterprise. A number of companies sprang up to explore the possibility of providing private launch systems with the aim of competing with NASA’s Shuttle for this predicted commercial payload boom. One such company was Truax Engineering headed by a true unsung visionary of American rocketry – Bob Truax.
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Reagan’s Impossible Dream: The X-30 National Aerospace Plane

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An artist’s impression of an early X-30 NASP design in flight [IMG: NASA]
On February 4th 1986, mere days after the United States had been shocked by the Challenger disaster, President Reagan rose before Congress to give his State of the Union Address. “We’re going forward with our shuttle flights. We’re going forward to build our space station. And we are going forward with research on a new Orient Express that could, by the end of the next decade, take off from Dulles Airport, accelerate up to 25 times the speed of sound, attaining low Earth orbit or flying to Tokyo within 2 hours.” 

Reagan’s ‘Orient Express’ was not a new idea, but his announcement allowed a project from the Black world of classified budgets to step into the light. His words had been carefully chosen to  emphasise the potential for a new era of rapid transit for the general public but in reality the National Aerospace Plane (NASP) as the project was officially christened, was being designed with a very different role in mind and promised the fulfilment of a dream that stretched all the way back to the late 1950’s.
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