Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Rocket of Tomorrow for the Spaceship of Tomorrow

Oddly, it looks a lot like the rocket of yesterday. Specifically the Saturn V, which sent Americans to the moon and remains the most powerful launch vehicle ever built.

The new, inspirationally named Space Launch System is designed to toss 70 to 130 metric tons into Earth orbit and beyond. It has the capacity, NASA says, to not just get men back to the moon, but also asteroids (by 2025) and eventually Mars. Neat! I am onboard with that plan.

Despite its conventional look, it uses a lot of state-of-the-art hardware. A lot of that is off the shelf, including the super-efficient Shuttle Main Engines. That's great in that it cuts down on development time--they expect to launch one of these by 2017--but slightly saddening in that at least at the outset, there are not going to be any big technological breakthroughs.

But let's take a moment to see how nifty it would look on pad.


I guess the U.S. space program began with proven hardware, like the V-2, and over the course of a couple of decades built it into the Saturn V. That could happen in this case, as well, especially for interplanetary travel, for which chemical rockets are not well-suited. And to be fair, it is extremely unlikely that we are going to be shooting ourselves into orbit using anything but chemical rockets anytime soon, just because the only foreseeable alternatives involve messiness like deadly radiation or engineering challenges like space-based elevators.

Overall, my reaction is much the same as it was to the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle announcement. I recognize that it is state-of-the-art, but I am mildly disappointed at that the state of the art of today looks much as it did in the late 1960s. The Space Shuttle was an engineering leap and looked the part. Would it be too much to ask for NASA to get Ron Moore involved at some point?

But in the end, I hope to at some point in my life watch one of these things lift off in much the same way that my parents watched Apollo 11: A vehicle carrying humanity off into uncharted--and exciting--territory.

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