SpaceX: To reusability…and beyond?

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Liftoff for Falcon 9 [IMG: SpaceX]

SpaceX’s next Falcon 9 launch, possibly as early as March 29th, will mark a major milestone for the company. Carrying the Luxembourg owned SES-10 communications satellite, it will be the first to reuse – and hopefully recover for a second time – a previously flown Falcon 9 core.

Since the first successful Falcon 9 landing on December 21st 2015, SpaceX have repeatedly demonstrated the ability to recover their first stages to both downrange droneship and Return To Launch Site pad landings. But while there can be no doubting how technically impressive this capability is, it will ultimately count for nothing unless they can refurbish and re-fly the recovered cores repeatedly, amortising their development costs and sustaining reduced launch costs for their customers.

SpaceX had originally hoped that this flight would take place in 2016, but that was before the launch pad explosion of a Falcon 9 carrying the AMOS-6 satellite during a static-fire test on September 1st, 2016. Since Falcon’s return to flight in January this year, the company are pushing hard to regain lost ground across a number of fronts.
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The Sunnyvale Shuttle: Lockheed’s STAR Clipper

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The Lockheed/Boeing Phase B proposal [IMG: NASA/LMSC]
With hindsight, it is now popular to view the Space Shuttle as a flawed concept, born out of political compromise and budget constraints. Never able to maintain anything like the original projected flight rates, hugely expensive and time consuming to maintain, the shuttle can seem like something of a developmental dead end or, as some have claimed, proof that reusability can never be economically viable. 

As we enter an era where both SpaceX and Blue Origin aim to prove that Vertical Takeoff/Vertical Landing rockets can offer a sustainable route to Earth orbit and beyond, it’s interesting to look back at a reusable spaceplane concept that predated NASA’s shuttle studies and could, had things been different, have ended up being America’s national launch system from the 1970s onwards. But this is also the story of the man behind the concept, Max Hunter, a visionary who – along with contemporaries such as Philip Bono (see more on Bono’s SSTO designs) – helped define the desirability of reusable launch vehicles at a time when the world was still focused on the short-term spectaculars of Apollo’s race to the Moon.
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Thoughtful Courage or Fearful Safety? Thoughts inspired by ‘Safe Is Not An Option’ by Rand Simberg

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The international crew of Columbia’s final flight STS-107 [IMG: NASA]
Having recently read Safe Is Not An Option, I started out intending to write a review of the book but decided to expand that out to capture some thoughts on the subject at greater length.

Firstly I think its worth noting the book’s full title  –  Safe Is Not An Option: Overcoming The Futile Obsession With Getting Everyone Back Alive That Is Killing Our Expansion Into Space. So a pretty uncompromising introduction right there on the cover, but any serious discussion on this subject needs to confront the subject head on and challenge our preconceptions and Simberg certainly doesn’t dodge that challenge. So why the need for this seemingly iconoclastic viewpoint?
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The SLS: A layman’s view

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The changing face of the SLS – will the rocket be as flexible as the 3D rendering? [IMG: NASA]
The Space Launch System. The World’s most powerful rocket, getting ready to blast humanity into deep space and on our long awaited journey to Mars (or should I say #JourneyToMarsTM). Star of so many CGI animations and NASA presentations that I’ve lost count. 

You’ve changed a bit since we first met – you used to look a lot more like the Saturn V, now you’ve shed the paint job and you look a lot more like a bunch of stuff from the Shuttle, but more of that later. See, the thing is I really, really want to see humanity go further into space and take a journey to Mars. I want to see a lander burrow under the ice and swim in the oceans of Europa, I want an incredibly advanced laboratory swooping through the plumes of Enceladus, I want a sub cruising the methane oceans of Titan – I guess I just want us to go places and do things. But SLS? I have my doubts.
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Launch. Land. Repeat: A history of the VTVL Rocket – Part 3

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“I know how to get the U.S. permanently into space. Write me a check for a billion dollars, give me a letter of credit for a second billion I probably won’t have to spend, and get out of the way. I’ll take the money and vanish into the Mojave desert, China Lake for preference, Edwards Air Force Base if I must; and in about four years I’ll have a Single Stage to Orbit savable as well as recoverable and reusable spacecraft capable of putting about ten thousand pounds into orbit at costs of about five times the cost of the fuel the flight takes.”

This quote from and sci-fi author and aerospace industry veteran Jerry Pournelle dates to the early days of what would later become the DC-X. Pournelle was one of many space enthusiasts actively lobbying for a small SSTO project with minimal organisational oversight. As seen in Part 2, the DC-X project found it’s ‘Skunk Works’ home in the Strategic Defence Initiative Organisation (SDIO), but Pournelle’s words turned out to be prophetic – they would just take a while to happen and the innovators behind these projects would be able to write their own billion dollar cheques…
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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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