Today could be the first day of a spectacular new ‘space age’ … or not

Today could be the first day of a spectacular new ‘space age’ … or not

It’s easy to miss, what with a few things like massive deaths and an attempted coup back here planetside, but things are happening in space that could have a direct impact back here on Earth. And no, by “direct impact” I don’t mean that an asteroid is preparing to do for us what the Chicxulub strike did for the dinosaurs. No matter how 2020 that might be. For once, this is a positive impact, as despite the complications imposed by the pandemic, there have been a whole series of successes overhead that point to a technological boom … rather than the other kind of boom.

On Tuesday morning, a case carrying samples of stone and dust sampled from asteroid Ryugu reached Japan after it was retrieved by the Hayabusa 2 probe and parachuted into the Australian outback at the end of a 3.2 billion mile journey.

Also on Tuesday, a Chinese probe is on its way back from the Moon, carrying the first lunar material to be retrieved since shortly after the days of Apollo. It’s taking a somewhat slow, low energy route back to Earth, but is expected to land on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia in the next two weeks.

And finally on Tuesday, there’s something happening in Texas that really could rock the world.

In the 1970s, even as the Apollo missions were winding down, a new era in space seemed to be approaching, one centered around the Space Shuttle. Only it never happened. That’s not to say that America didn’t eventually develop a Space Shuttle, and it was undoubtedly both a technological marvel and a beautiful thing to view. But it was nothing, nothing, like the Space Shuttle that was originally proposed.

That original shuttle proposal was superficially similar, in that it put into orbit a space plane that could glide back to Earth. However, the shuttle was originally supposed to be mounted on top of a first stage that was also recovered. And by having the full system be recoverable, the shuttle was intended to be cheap, able to deliver objects to orbit for little more than the cost of fuel. Instead, the limitations of technology at the time — and a high risk mission profile forced onto the program by the military — caused a redesign of the system that required that big disposable external fuel tank, as well as the shuttle’s iconic delta wing shape.

Rather than being a cheap ride that opened up space and acted as a platform for moving beyond Earth orbit, the per flight cost of the shuttle ended up being over $1.5 billion. Even when the cost of development was removed, the cost remained over $400 million thanks to the way that the external tank was discarded on each flight, the engines needed to be serviced,  and the delicate series of heat shielding tiles—cut into thousands of shapes and precariously attached—needed to be inspected and replaced on every mission. 

The result of all that was not only that the shuttle remained a very high price ticket for putting either people or cargo into orbit, but it never reached the other goal NASA set out when introducing the shuttle: rapid reuse. There was supposed to be a fleet of shuttles constantly ferrying goods and people back and forth to space, with each of them capable of turning around for another launch within a day. As it turned out, the fastest turnaround NASA ever achieved was 54 days between flights.

But this week in Texas, the shuttle could return. The original shuttle. The two stage craft that would go to orbit with every part returning to the ground, driving the cost of space flight down to little more than a long range airline ticket. 

The machine that may do this doesn’t look a lot like NASA’s shuttle. It looks more like something that came off the cover of a 1950s sci fi magazine — except with a lot more seams, creases, and unsightly wrinkles. SpaceX’s starship is made of cheap material, stainless steel, rather than high tech carbon fiber. It’s designed to be used over and over. And it’s designed by the people who just successfully launched their 100th Falcon 9. 

Landing all those Falcon 9s has given SpaceX terrific experience in how modern engines, modern computers, and modern software can help deliver the kind of low-cost, high reliability space flight the shuttle promised in the 70s. The Falcon 9 already drastically undercuts other systems when it comes to delivering material to space.

But that the company calls Starship … is something else. It also operates in a very different way. The upper stage of the system will “belly flop” into the atmosphere sideways, plummet toward Earth under the control of a series of electrically powered fins, and then flip up vertically for a rocket-powered landing at the last second. It’s like nothing else that’s ever been attempted.

if the first thing that happens when anyone mentions SpaceX is a rising tide of distaste for Elon Musk then … right back at you. Just remember that Musk didn’t design the rocket. He didn’t design the engines. And he didn’t put it together (that was actually done by a team who learned their steel welding skills building water tanks!). There are a lot of genuinely brilliant engineers behind this attempt to finally put space travel onto a path that was described, but not followed, more than 40 years ago.

And if that doesn’t get you to watch the flight that could come as soon as Tuesday afternoon, then how about this: It’s almost sure to fail. Spectacularly. This is a genuinely high risk flight. One that’s made possible only because this system is so damn cheap. In fact, as the current rocket (called just “serial number 8”) is sitting there preparing to launch, SN 9 is already waiting its turn. SN9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15 are all in some stage of being welded together. This is a huge rethink in how these systems are designed and built. In many ways, it’s a massive simplification.

What happens if they can pull this off? No one knows. Maybe Elon executes on his scheme to send people to Mars. But that would be the least of the changes that would be made possible.

The first flight of SN8 may happen as early as around 2PM CT on Tuesday. 

From Daily Kos at Read More. This article is republished from DailyKos under an open content license. Read the original article at DailyKos.

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