American Industrial Might Still Second To None

July 31, 2011 by
Filed under: Commercial Space Flight 

When I attended an Ansari X Prize competition flight press conference in 2004, Burt Rutan who had designed and built the SpaceShipOne craft (which now hangs in the Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC) presented a sign that an onlooker had made. Everyone chuckled at the clever quip, “SpaceShipOne, government zero.” For the first time in history, a one-hundred-percent privately funded venture had outdone a massive government agency in spaceflight. Not only had Rutan and his Scaled Composites company managed to build and fly a spacecraft far more cheaply and safely than NASA, but they had also overcome technical malfunctions in a tiny fraction of the time it would have taken the space agency and went on to capture the prize.

And this theme, far from being a flash in the pan, continues.

Now a company called Space Exploration Technologies – more commonly known as SpaceX – is poised to become the champion of space transportation to earth orbit. Having successfully test flown their new Falcon 9 rocket (a variant of Falcon I, capable of lifting much heavier loads) and Dragon spacecraft despite the grumblings of many nay sayers, on November 30th they will become the first private company to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. Their ingenuity and agility are remarkable. The company has managed to combine what was to have been two flights, a final test flight and the first cargo delivery flight, into a single mission and thereby accelerate the time table for regular Station delivery flights to begin. And if that were not enough, in a show of true pioneering spirit and American innovation and industrial prowess, the company designed Dragon from the beginning with the intent that it carry astronauts, as well as cargo. As you read this article, they are designing and building the final components that will make Dragon the transportation system so desperately needed to fill the void in US space lift capability left by the end of the space shuttle program.

But their plans still don’t end there. Also in the works is a “heavy” variant to the Falcon 9 (you guessed it; called the Falcon 9 Heavy) which will carry twice the heaviest load as the space shuttle and at one third the price of their nearest competitor, the highly government-subsidized United Launch Alliance. And if you’re still drying the tears over the end of shuttle, consider this: Falcon 9 Heavy will place payloads into orbit for less than one tenth the cost of the now retired orbiters!

For many years, the holy grail of space launch has been to put payloads into orbit at or below $1,000 per pound, but no one has been able to come close. It loomed like some impenetrable barrier. Like… what was it the narrater in The Right Stuff said?

There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die. Their controls would freeze up, their planes would buffet wildly, and they would disintegrate. The demon lived at Mach 1 on the meter, seven hundred and fifty miles an hour, where the air could no longer move out of the way. He lived behind a barrier through which they said no man could ever pass. They called it the sound barrier.

And like the sound barrier, the cost barrier stood firm for decades. That is, until now. Two weeks ago at Vandenberg Air Force Base, SpaceX broke ground on the launch complex from which the new super rocket – the most powerful in the world – will rumble through the clouds into black skies beyond like a space age Hercules.

This is game changing, boys and girls. And why is that? Because at the prices SpaceX will be offering lift into orbit, flight rates can dramatically increase leading to an economy of scale that will open up space to the common man, once and for all. You and I are going to witness the building of the first space hotels.

And remember little SpaceShipOne? Well, it’s big brother SpaceShipTwo is in testing. The next stage is powered flights, and after that the production models will be delivered to Virgin Galactic to begin service as the first spaceline. The debut flights will be expensive, but again, economy of scale will drastically reduce the costs. Remember the first pocket calculators? They were $400 in the early 1970′s when they first hit the US market. Today that would be over $2000! but thanks to economies of scale, we can buy them for a few dollars. Anyone can afford them.

Only through private industry have we been able to realize such forward leaps in space, and only in America do we see the dreams taking form and taking flight. So what’s next? Go outside any time after about 1:00 in the afternoon next weekend, and look up.

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