There is a new space race. It’s hard to tell who the leaders are as this new race is in its early stages. The entrants are still jockeying for position and getting used to the track. But the rest of this decade could be the beginning of an exciting time off Earth.
Some politicians and news reports look warily at China and think its emergence as a space-faring nation and intention to go to the Moon will renew the space race model of the ’60s, with the U.S. trying to catch up after waking to the threat of a China Moon.
What is happening is companies such as SpaceX, Orbital Science Corp., the mysterious Blue Origin, the more mundane sounding Sierra Nevada Corp., and veteran player Boeing are advancing new ways to reach orbit and beyond.
Virgin Galactic is the sexy ride into space. VG’s Spaceship Two has the latest in design and carbon composite construction, but it also has a wonderfully retro look that is much cooler than the Mercury capsule ever was. It looks like what we’ve come to think a spaceship should look like.
The thing is, Virgin Galactic’s spaceship accomplishes no more than the Mercury capsule did back in the 1960s. Both craft were designed to reach the edge of space then drop back to Earth in a suborbital flight. So it took us 50 years to go back to square one and start again?
Not quite. Certainly Virgin Galactic’s space cruiser is a more elegant ride with its horizontal take-off and landing, and elegance counts for something. You don’t build elegance into a disposable spacecraft. And where Mercury represented the first lap in the space race to reach the Moon, Spaceship Two is a seed that leads to an ever-growing human presence in space – a commercial presence.
While Virgin Galactic’s Sir Richard Branson gets plenty of press for creating one small step for a tourist, one giant leap for luxury tourism bookings, you have to look at what the builder of Spaceship Two, Burt Rutan and his company Scaled Composites, is planning next to begin to see what can grow from that seed. Scaled Composites is building a twin-hulled behemoth of a carrier aircraft for a new airborne launch system. The Stratolaunch will carry a multi-stage booster built by SpaceX to carry medium-sized payloads and eventually humans into low Earth orbit. For now, SpaceX is preparing to launch its Dragon cargo space in the traditional vertical launch mode atop its Falcon 9 rocket. The launch will send its Dragon cargo space capsule on its first trip to the International Space Station, with final checks delaying the launch until a least May 19.
Mystery and Dreams
Most of the manned spacecraft vying for orbital business and beyond are roughly based on the Apollo spacecraft that went to the Moon. Blue Origin (and you gotta love the name) isn’t sharing too many details of is plans, according to Space.com, but its key innovation is a first stage vertical launch booster that also lands vertically, its rockets blazing rather than floating down on its parachutes. Blue Origin’s Bionic Space Vehicle for orbital flight, however, descends under parachutes
Sierra Nevada Corp. flunked the company name test but came back big time when it named its spacecraft Dream Chaser. And the design is a dream, a small, lifting body design that resurrects a NASA concept vehicle called HL-20 of the early 1980s. This is a hot rod of a spacecraft – small, sleek, launching atop a rocket booster so there’s no risk of ice or foam debris damaging it on the trip up, and it glides back down from orbit for a runway landing.
All the backers of these private enterprise space programs are dreamers, admittedly well-heeled dreamers. But they’re risking a bundle of their own money to realize the dream of making us truly a space-faring race. It’s a risk government really can’t handle unless there’s some urgent issue behind it to protect a national interest, even if sometimes that national interest is only imagined.
– Tom Chmielewski