Sunday, December 14, 2014

Getting to space is hard, Chapter 356

Robert Heinlein once observed that space is only an hour away if you could drive your car straight up.  Well, that might be easier than the way humanity accesses space now.  The news is flying thick and fast, and about half of it is making access to space easier. A recap:

Another Atlas V success for United Launch Alliance.  Good for them: it's a superb record, even if it costs (by some published estimates) about $400M (total program costs divided by launches) to get to orbit.

A daring plan by SpaceX: Elon Musk and company are going to launch their Falcon 9v1.1 next week, bring the first stage back, and land it on a barge. Nothing like this has been done: it hasn't even been tried. Musk thinks the reusability will enable steep cost cuts: we'll have to see if that works out, technically and financially.  Anyway, the grid-like fins on the first stage look really cool.

The NASA Space Launch System is in more trouble: technical challenges have pushed the first launch back to 2018.  The GAO isn't at all sure NASA can make that, even though NASA funding in the just-passed omnibus bill got a plus-up.

RD-180: Congress has ordered DoD to phase out the Russian RD-180 (which the Atlas V depends on - Delta uses the US-made RS68, and SpaceX builds it own engines).  Congress also appropriated funding to start building an American-made replacement.  Earlier this year, a DoD panel said a new engine could be ready in 2022.  I'm at a loss to understand why it would take longer to build a new engine than it took to not only build the F1 engine, but build the Saturn V and fly the whole thing to the Moon.

So... we have two positives (Atlas success and SpaceX test: it may or may not work, but they get major props for being willing to try something radical), and two negatives.  We can get to space: we can't get there quickly or cheaply. There's a lot more work to do. 

NASA SLS. The agency is being disingenuous by showing it with the Saturn V paint scheme: it will not be painted. (NASA)

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