And now for something completely different…
You probably know by now that Elon Musk of Space X has done more to advance the affordability of going into space in the last five years than NASA or ESA or JXA or anyone else has done in the last 25, or 30, or 35, or… like, everrr. Boeing and Lockheed Martin especially are just sucking money and listening to Frankie Avalon records. But Elon Musk is another story. With Elon, doing it, tomorrow is not soon enough. He wants it now. And, he wants it all (yeah, I heard it, too).
Here is the latest thing:
His whole plan is to reuse all parts of his launch system; 1st stage, 2nd stage, 3rd stage and capsule. He says all the parts will return, eventually, to the launch pad from whence they departed spewing smoke and flames, land under power spewing more smoke and flames, be refueled and continue to spew again and again and again. Unfortunately, physics being physics and fuel being heavy, a first-stage rocket cannot carry enough fuel to make it from the separation point somewhere over the ocean say around Atlanta’s parallel back to the Cape.
So, Elon designed this mobile landing pad, with a big spacy “X” on top, on a barge that will be located off shore under where the rocket would normally come splashing down and sink. His rocket, though, will have enough fuel left after separation from the stage above it to make a controlled decent to the barge where it will spew more flames and smoke and land where the spacy “X” marks the spot. It will then get refueled, re-launch itself, fly back to the cape and spew some more to land from where it took off originally. And, here’s the thing, there’s nobody on the barge. It’s an “autonomous spaceport drone ship” with a 300 ft by 100 ft landing pad on top. Using thrusters re-purposed from old oil rig it is capable of locating itself via GPS to within about 20 feet of exactly where it’s needed. The “brain” in the rocket will further compensate for error down to just a couple of feet. Elon will need a few of these platforms scattered around the north Atlantic to service the various stages of his launch system except the human carrying capsule itself. The “Dragon” capsule, on second thought, let’s call this the Dragon Spaceship because it is. The Dragon spaceship part of this system will, of course, after leaving the ISS, land directly back at its launch site because where Dragon lands is completely controllable by when and where it executes its “Super Draco engine” powered de-orbit burn.
To accomplish all of this Elon Musk had to think outside the very locked box that is conventional NASA thinking, i.e., ’60s tech good, big rocket, capsule, splash down, throw everything away, play Fabian record. Can you imagine the cost of an airline ticket if Delta had to junk their plane after each trip? Let’s see, $40-mil divided by 200 passengers, that’s $200,000 a ticket.
So, while Nancy and I will be headed to the Cape to broadcast the launch of the first test flight of the Orion capsule a week from tomorrow on December 4th (at, yawn, 7:05 am – so we leave here at about 2 am), I’ll be thinking to myself, “We’re here to watch them test technology that was perfected in 1969.” This will be a test of Orion’s heat shield. The unmanned capsule will go out to about 3,400 miles or so, do two laps around the planet and come screaming back in at about 20,000 miles an hour. If it burns up they’ll know the heat shield’s got a problem. But the Apollo moon capsules, including the ill-fated Apollo 13 ship, all came screaming back at 25,000+ miles an hour and they all made it safely. So, what’s to test? We still need an entire Navy flotilla to pluck one little spaceship with a couple of people in it out of the water. How is that cool? Or, cost-effective? Or, even cost efficient? Elon’s idea is, like, way seriously betterrr. Come back to where you took off, open the door, climb down the ladder, go home. The second time that reusable rocket is used it will cost half as much to use as the first time they used it. The third time, half as much again. The fourth time…now were saving some serious money. And, the thing is, all of this could have been done years ago. But nobody climbed out of that damned box.