So, there’s a part of me that’s disappointed by the progress of space travel. Sure, the Apollo program cost (at peak) nearly 1% of US GDP, but it still remains that we went to the moon. What have we done recently that’s even half as cool?
This from xkcd sums it up for me:
The space shuttle was new and exciting. The new capsule based rockets from NASA are, frankly, disappointing – basically returning to Apollo technology. We’re going backwards.
All the hope in space exploration is in the private sector. The one thing that NASA has got right is to go out to contract for the ISS resupply contracts. This has suddenly created a business out of going to space – the SpaceX prize was a great kickstart to that.
Right at the moment, the exciting bits of private sector space flight are, to me:
- Bigelow space, who are planning inflatable space habitats. Not planning in the sense of “it’d be a cool idea”, but planning in the sense of “we’ve flown a test one, inflated it, things looked good, we’ve got two more in a warehouse and are just waiting for our launch rocket”. Robert Bigelow owns a major hotel chain, he’s serious about building a hotel in space. They now have a contract with NASA to build an extension to the ISS.
- To have a hotel in space you need a way to get there. We need human rated rockets – there aren’t many of those out there. But with the new NASA contracts for commercial crew development, both SpaceX (with the Falcon9/Dragon) and Sierra Nevada with their Dream Chaser spaceplane.
- A range of commercial rocket technologies that are introducing a lot of competition into the space launch industry
- Some interesting and reusable technologies, which hold out the same hope as the original space shuttle – a greatly reduced cost to get into orbit.
The key for me long term is that we not be using rockets to launch from the ground. The problem with a rocket is that it has to lift all its fuel, so you get a logarithmic cost the higher/faster you want to lift. http://what-if.xkcd.com/24/
What we need is a launch vehicle that doesn’t carry all it’s fuel like this. Like, say, an aeroplane. That is the scheme the Virgin space scheme uses – a large carrier plane that lifts a rocket most of the way to space, with the rocket just doing the last bit. Much more efficient. Surely someone is going to nail down this approach soon – perhaps the Sierra Nevada guys.
In short, whilst the aspirations of the government bits of space travel get lower and lower, the aspirations of the private sector are taking over. As long as there are fabulously wealthy people who are prepared to pay outlandish amounts of money to go into space, there’s hope for the rest of us.