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Space Launch in Science Fiction and the Real World

August 28, 2011

My design for the Cosmos Mariner spaceplane

Space launch, the ability to get people and cargo from the Earth’s surface to orbit and beyond, is taken for granted by most science fiction stories and novels, including my novel, Nanomagica. It seems that every story has a hypersonic spaceplane¬† to get people off-planet. These systems, in the stories, are reliable, routine, and cheap enough that they are prevalent.

So what is the reality of real space launch today?

Space launchers are expensive. It takes an enormous amount of fuel and oxidizer to get a significant amount of cargo mass to orbit. In addition, much of the structural weight is lost in staging and tank jettison. The space shuttle, the closest man has come to these fantasy spaceplanes, costs hundreds of millions of dollars per launch, and never reached its goal of routine launch processing and execution.

So what technologies are necessary to reach the goal of routine and inexpensive space launch?

1. Advanced propulsion and propellantsRocket engines have high thrust at the cost of enormous fuel and oxidizer consumption. This propellant has enormous weight that must be carried by the launcher. An advanced propulsion system must get beyond this. What are the options?

  • Air breathing rockets that don’t have to carry near as much oxidizer.
  • Silane propellant that allows Nitrogen to be a secondary oxidizer (safe and noncryogenic).
  • Pulse detonation engines that are more efficient than combustion processes.
  • Maglev launch that uses a rail to accelerate a launch vehicle (powered by a ground source).
  • Higher energy propellants and additives.
  • Laser and particle energy feed to the launch vehicle.
  • Magnetohydrodynamic aerothermodynamics and propulsion to increase launch efficiency.

2. Lighter and more reliable fuselage structures – Making the fuselage lighter means that less of the propellant is spent carrying structure.

  • Advanced aerothermodynamic shapes.
  • Advanced materials like composites, ceramics, and superalloys. Nanotech materials are also a possibility.
  • Advanced thermal protection systems that are lighter, simpler, and require less maintenance. Titanium panels for instance.
  • Manufacturing processes that allow for less fasteners and structural parts.

3. Smart systems that learn and allow for ongoing monitoring and maintenance of all launcher systems during launch prep and flight, with massive redundancy. This would include advanced sensors and actuators that can diagnose and fix problems dynamically. Nanotechnology would go along way in this task.

How close are we? Not too far from the goal. Right now, the big obstacle is money and will, not technology. Why should we care? Because advances in these technologies will drive all kinds of technologies for the future. This nation used to have a sizable technology advantage because we pushed the envelope. We need to do that again and regain that advantage.

Imagine a hypersonic space launcher with no staging…air breathing rocket engines with Silane propellant…structure built from advanced composites in one piece by massive part printing technology with integrated nanotech sensors and maintenance actuators…thermal protected by interlocking titanium plates…smart systems monitoring and fixing systems on the fly.

This could happen…if we want it to. And we should.

Note: We will discuss an alternative to these launchers in the future.

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