Entrepreneur, Investor, Bestselling Author & founder of Play Labs @ MIT
“Space Exploration is All About Rocket Science Today. Should It be?”
Recently, the idea of humanity becoming a space faring civilization has gotten lots of attention, particularly from billionaires like Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos’ with his Blue Origin, and Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. Along with this increased interest has been the mega-trend of the privatization of space, showing that our space-based future may not rely on governments at all but private companies.
The short term goals that are most talked about in this emerging industry are launching smaller satellites more cheaply, space tourism, ferrying to space stations, missions to and around the moon, and eventually, settling on Mars.
Since the Space Shuttle program shut down in 2011, NASA has weaned itself from the business of launching rockets to put satellites in orbit — it is giving contracts to giant defense contractors like Boeing and Northrup Grumman, and smaller companies like SpaceX with their Falcon rockets, and other startups like Rocket Labs, which just had its first commercial launch in 2018.
Space tourism is a very promising area though only for the ultra-rich at the moment. It started with millionaires paying $20 million for a trip on a Russian rocket and Soyuz capsules to spend some time in the Mir space station. For space tourism, Virgin Galactic won the X Prize for a re-usable vehicle to travel to the edge of space with SpaceShip One, and was on track to having tourists in Space Ship Two by now for $250k a pop. Unfortunately, a crash in 2014 delayed their progress. SpaceX is now touting a manned module that will use their re-usable rocket to send its first passengers around the moon ( a Japanese billionaire, Yusaku Maezawa, has already put down a “significant deposit”), though the date, like with all rocket launches, is less than certain.
Which brings us to the one thing that all of these private (and public) schemes rely on: rockets.
Anyone who has seen a rocket launch knows why this is a dangerous, unreliable, and extremely limited method to get objects and people into space. One look at the Saturn V rocket, for example, the biggest rocket to be built to date, which launched the Apollo missions to the moon, you see that 95% of the space is used up by rocket fuel which is ignited and pushed downward.
Today’s space technology relies on powerful rockets, which means that basically we are sitting on top of a very large explosion, and praying that we don’t get hurt!
Even the space shuttle, which was supposed to make it easier to ferry satellites and people into Earth orbit by being the first re-usable launch vehicle, relied on very large rockets (three of them –the main widebody “External Tank” that the shuttle was attached to, which had liquid oxygen and hydrogen, and two smaller rocket boosters that used solid fuel). In fact, it was the failure of one of these booster rockets (technically a ring on one of the boosters) that led to the 1986 Challenger explosion which grounded the shuttles for two years.
While SpaceX and BlueOrigin and others are making progress on re-usable rockets, this doesn’t change the fact that they are still basically relying on the same tech developed in the 1950s and 1960s by NASA and the Soviet Union. 50 years later, you would think we had built some alternatives.
Rockets in general (whether using liquid or solid fuel), based on the work of pioneers like Robert Goddard and Werner von Braun (who brought over his expertise from Nazi Germany) have on average a few percentage payload to total weight (i.e. the payload being the weight of the capsule and/or what they are carrying, in proportion to the total weight or volume of the rocket). The Saturn V had a 4% ratio, and the space shuttles were 1%. These small numbers are because of the vast amount of fuel needed by that outdated technology, combustible rocket engines.
By far, the most difficult part of becoming an interplanetary species is getting off the Earth and into orbit en masse, what we might call the “first mile” problem. Actually, since the most accepted demarcation of space is the Karman line, which is 100 km up from the surface (or 62 miles), so this would really be the first “100km” problem (though there have been some suggestions recently that space actually starts lower, around 40 miles up).
Once we are in space, the rest of the Solar System and eventually, the Galaxy might be accessible to us through a variety of propulsion technologies and spaceships.
But with our reliance on rockets, with their explosive (literally), unreliable, and limited capacity, it’s going to be very difficult to get large numbers of humans (or large amounts of equipment) off the ground.
The first 100km is the bottleneck in becoming a space-faring species. So how do we get here?
Sometimes (often, in fact) science fiction can be a place to turn to for the future of science, and space travel is no exception. Lest we overlook this, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke is acknowledged as popularizing the idea of the communications satellite in orbit.
In 2001: A Space Odyssey, also written by Clarke, the interplanetary ship, the Discovery, is assembled in orbit, with components that have been sent up from earth in “shuttles” which don’t require rockets. Assembly of large ships for interplanetary and (someday) interstellar missions make sense, for a variety of reasons, as do bases on and around the moon. These are natural stopping points for larger missions into the wildness of space beyond.
Most science fiction glosses over the technology of getting into orbit with a futuristic not-yet-invented technology — like a shuttlecraft that can fly up like an airplane using some as yet un-invented antigravity device and fly to the mothership. In the original Star Trek series from the 1960s, the crew use teleportation to get around the expense (and time required) to fly into and out of orbit. Of course, in Star Trek, the teleportation scheme was done for efficiency — it would be too expensive to shoot scenes of shuttles going up and down.
In fact, this is a pretty good metaphor for our future as a space-faring species. If we don’t figure out a less expensive, more reliable, and less destructive way to get around the “first 100km problem”, our future “Star Treks” will be limited to a very small number of people.
I would argue that the hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars, being put into space research, a much larger number of dollars should to be put into non-rocketry alternatives to launch. This includes (primarily) launching from here on Earth, but also may include launches from the Moon or Mars in the future, which have lower gravity, so anything we can get to work here may work on other heavenly bodies.
So what are the alternatives to straight up rockets for getting into orbit?
Here are some of the most talked about alternatives, from easy to difficult, along with some startup companies or projects that are exploring these alternatives. I list them in the order of well-understood to more esoteric (which means that we don’t know how to build one, yet):
Balloons provide an interesting and proven way to get to suborbital heights and may be able to give us a boost when getting to space.
When I was visiting the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in 2009, a book caught my eye that showed a V-shaped craft floating over the Earth. It wasn’t a UFO, but the work of John Powell, founder of JP Aerospace, who had come up with an interesting, 3-stage method of getting humans (and equipment) up to near orbit, and eventually into orbit, using balloons for the first two stages. The V-shaped craft was a giant balloon (stage 1) that would float up to a floating city in the sky, or the Darkstar station, which was a large 2 mile long balloon city. It would be at 110,000 feet, high enough to see the darkness overhead and the curvature of the earth below.
Moreover, unlike cramped conditions on capsules or rocket based solutions, this would be a comfortable, slow trip and perhaps an ideal way for earth-bound tourists to see Earth from “almost space”. JP Aerospace is still around, and Powell has been building prototypes of each of the three stages. What is the third stage? It is a craft that uses chemical and electrical propulsion to go from the darkstar station into low earth orbit.
Another company formed more recently with balloons is World View, a Tucscon Arizona based company that has developed technology for balloons to use different prevailing winds in the stratosphere to stay in a desired position. They are advertising that for $75,000 tourists will float up to 100,000 feet and be able to spend two hours in what looks like outer space and sip champagne comfortably while seeing the curvature of the earth and an out of this world view.
They are also experimenting with launching satellites using a smaller rocket by hauling it up to a launch altitude. Hybrid approaches have been tried by NASA in addition to the hybrid model of an aircraft launching a rocket (which is essentially what Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship One is). A company called Blooster in Spain is working on a balloon/rocket hybrid to launch small satellites. These hybrid approaches still rely on rockets, making them dangerous, though the higher they get, the less fuel they need.
Now we get away from proven technologies to explore truly new concepts, which require better understanding of nature’s principles and building innovative solutions to harness that power.
In 2007, Derek A. Tidman published: Slingatron — A mechanical Hypervelocity Mass Accelerator and proposed the idea that you could use centripetal motion to “sling” an object into space without requiring rockets. Conceptually it was described as similar to how you might swish wine in a wine glass by rocking the glass back and forth. He has some cool pictures of what this might look like.
The velocity would get up past 1 km/second, and have 20,000 G’s (each G being the equivalent of Earth gravity). While this would work for launching certain types of objects into space, it clearly wouldn’t work for transporting humans.
Could it be done? In 2013, a company called Hyper V Technologies ran a Kickstarter to build a scale model of a slingatron. It didn’t raise the $250,000 that was needed. More recently, just in 2018, a silicon valley startup, Spinlaunch, raised $40 million from top tape VC’s like Kleiner Perkins, Airbus ventures, and others to build a “space catapult”. According to the company, which has been rather secretive about the exact nature of their re-usable launcher, they claim they can get a small satellite launch costs down to $500,000 per launch, which would be a great improvement over today’s cost.
These types of innovate solutions utilizing geometry may solve the “satellite” launching problem, and maybe some innovators will figure out how to do it in such a way that humans can be launched.
The idea of an electromagnetic launcher is to use superconducting magnets to accelerate a launch vehicle over a large track. Aficionados of maglev will recognize this approach, it is similar to a maglev train track except that it goes up. Using reverse polarity on magnets on the “vehicle” and the track, the vehicle is accelerated to the next magnet through alternate forces of repulsion and attraction.
Electromagnetic launchers fall in one of several categories, including mass drivers, railgun, coilguns. The mass driver concept, which is basically as long track with electromagnetic acceleration that is curved upwards at the end was proposed by Arthur C. Clarke in 1950 as a way to achieve liftoff. It was developed further by Gerard K. O’Neil. The concept is more generally thought of for launching objects from the moon or other lower gravity environments.
Could it be done on earth? There are some scientists who think so. The obstacles are that for one thing, to achieve the velocity required the track would have to be very long — one scientist estimated it at over 100 miles. Actually, the irony is that a longer track is needed to launch humans so that the acceleration isn’t too great for your average passenger, so it’s possible to build a smaller track for launching satellites which can be accelerated at many G’s.
In 1994, John C. Mankins, who was manager of Advanced Concept Studies at NASA, developed the MagLifter concept, which was basically a maglev to launch objects into space. Later, in a more ambitious project known as StarTram, leveraging the MagLifter concept, divided the problem into stages, Gen 1 lifter (for satellites and objects), a Gen 2 lifter (for humans) which would include a much longer track that would be levitated up into the sky, like an actual train going way up into the atmosphere. There is also a Gen 1.5 which is a combination of the two which has a medium sized track. The team estimated that they could send 4 million people into space a year with a Gen 2 launcher!
The cost to build each of these was estimated to be in the billions. As of this date, I don’t know of any startups that have been funded to explore this concept. A variation is to use the Hyperloop ( basically a maglev in a vacuum) as the tube to get an electromagnetic launcher. Innovative startups could probably find ways to improve on these earlier estimates and concepts, which were anticipating government funding.
In his 1979 novel, Fountains of Paradise, the ubiquitous Arthur C. Clarke details the building of a space elevator in the 22nd century. Since the ideal place for such an elevator is around the equator, and Clarke lived in Sri Lanka for the second half of his life, a lot of this novel about the building of the largest construction project tin human history takes place there. The chosen location is Adam’s Peak, the highest mountain in Sri Lanka and a religious site. [as an aside, if you are a Clarke fan, you might enjoy “What I found on Arthur C Clarke’s Bookshelf in Sri Lanka”].
The concept was first described in 1895 by Russian author K.E. Tsiolkovsky in his “Speculations about Earth and Sky and on Vesta”, who also came up with the idea of geostationary satellites. This concept became known as the space tower — an actual structure or tower built from the ground up. Over time scientists came to realize that to build an actual tower straight up would require the base of the tower to be too big to be practical, so Clarke and more modern adherents to the concept modified it to be a super-strong tether which would come down from a space station and like an elevator, have a counterweight above the center of gravity, which would be in geostationary orbit?
Could such an elevator be built? Until recently there weren’t any substances with the tensile strength to be the “tether” or wire for the elevator. More recently, Carbon nanotube based fibers are now believed to have the tensile strength for the lengths involved to get into outer space.
According to space.com, Japanese firm Obayashi Corp. announced in 2012 that it has plans to try to build a space elevator by 2050. More recently, a team from Shizuoka University launched small cubesats in September of 2018 that were going to do some experiments on strong tensile tethers to see if they might work for a space elevator. In early 2018, a chinese team from Tsinghua University in Beijing said it had developed a fibre that is so strong it could even be used in a space elevator.
While a space elevator may seem like science fiction is perhaps the most expensive of the “alternate” methods (it would probably require a significant budget, probably on the order of magnitude of the Apollo missions), there is hope that innovators in private companies will get the building blocks and then find funding to explore the idea. Once built, a space elevator could ferry objects and people up to a station in geosynchronous orbit (or to intermediate “bases” along the way). While it would be slow compared to a rocket, requiring several hours or longer to reach its destination, it is 100% re-usable and the idea of daily (or if the tech gets good enough, hourly) trips up and down could eventually become a reality.
This is a far out idea is one that only recently got some attention. We mentioned Star Trek’s method of teleportation. Could this ever be actually achieved? Recently, in 2017, a Chinese research team did the first “quantum teleportation”of a particle (a photon) from the ground into Earth Orbit. The BBC had a headline that said “First teleportation from Earth to orbit”.
While it did happen, what really happened was that the “state” of the photon, or its quantum information was teleported. Was the particle itself teleported? For photons this may be a philosophical question, since one is pretty much the same as another. What would it mean if we were able to teleport other atoms or subatomic particles, electrons initially (at least their quantum state) but what about protons and neutrons? After all, the reason Dr. McCoy in Star Trek didn’t want to use the teleporter was because he was worried about his “atoms being scattered all over the galaxy”!
This raises serious questions about what is matter, is it solid/physical, or is it energy, or is it simply information?
We finally come to an area that some might consider even farther out, but I believe deserves some serious consideration. Unlike the space elevator, where no one has ever seen a working one, thousands of people claim to have seen objects using a silent anti-gravity type of propulsion. They are known as UFO’s and often emit certain colors, are round (the infamous “flying saucer shape”), are silent, usually have some portion of the saucer section spinning, and seem to defy the laws of inertia by stopping and accelerating to and from high speeds instantly.
Before you jump to conclusions, the witnesses include military pilots who have seen physical craft in the sky, hovering, and accelerating to great speeds, attesting to the mysterious crafts abilities to defy the the laws of inertia, thus the moniker of “antigravity”.
Paul Hill, an engineer at NASA, took the sightings and performance characteristics seriously, wrote a book about it(it was published by his daughter posthumously, since both NASA and publishers were hesitant to have it published while he was working for the space agency) called Unconventional Flying Objects: A Scientific Analysis. Hill was no kook — not only did he have a degree in engineering, he was a professor Aeronautics in Oakland before he joined the organization that would become NASA. His conclusion in the book was that the craft somehow used plasma and rotating fields to accelerator and decelerate, and the colors that they gave off were consistent with plasma colors. It’s worth a read for those interested.
Much of the interest in this subject is in the field of electrogravitics, pioneered by T. Townsend Brown, who found that by using high voltages of electricity onto the edge of a saucer shaped object, he could get electro magnetic propulsion and get lift, discovering a relationship between electricity and gravity which became known as the Biefield-Brown effect, or “anti-gravity” more colloquially. Brown was also no garage inventor, he was an engineer who worked for the Navy, worked on many classified projects, and tried, like other investors in this field, to get funded to get an anti-gravity venture off the ground.
In the 1950s there were many references to antigravity in the mainstream aerospace industry, with claims that these devices would be “ready in a few years”. But then, sometime in the 1950s, there are allegations that these claims all “went black”, and suddenly disappeared from all mainstream Aerospace publications. This was not unlike papers about nuclear fission in the early 1940s with the start of the Manhattan project, leading many to believe that this work became classified. We know that electrostatic charges are used on the Stealth fighters, for example.
Even if you don’t believe in Aliens, that’s no reason not to investigate these mysterious anti-gravity devices. If, in fact, they are deep secret government projects, as Ben Rich, the former head of Lockheed’s Skunkworks has claimed, then there is science that is “taboo” and not understood by most scientists today. The most unbelievable theory of all may be that trained military pilots looking at craft were actually seeing “swamp gas”!
In fact, the scientist who came up with that theory initially to debunk UFO sightings as part of Project Blue Book, J. Allen Hynek, a well respected professor Astronomy at Northeastern in Chicago, came to believe that these craft were real and need to be investigated. He and his associate, Jacques Vallee, who developed the first computerized map of Mars for NASA in 1963 and later became a venture capitalist, were supposedly the inspiration for the french scientist in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
The fact that most mainstream scientists, even those who believe they are mis-identified government aircraft, poo-poo any mention of UFOs or anti-gravity. They should be asking the question: “What is making these craft tick?”. We know now that the Pentagon wanted to debunk UFO sightings so they didn’t have to take them seriously; we also know that after 1969, while the DOD claimed to have “stopped investigating UFO’s”, they continued to investigate these anomalous objects in secret. It’s enough to make you wonder: Does someone have an interest from keeping this area out of serious scientific research??
Well there you have it — some short term and some very long term far-out ideas for how to achieve non-rocketry based launch vehicles that could us become a space-faring civilization.
Just like it took many years of moving beyond the “internal combustion engine” for electric cars, it may take a while for us to move beyond combustible rockets as our primary method for getting into orbit. However, in the long term, it would be more than worth it -both in terms of cost (re-usability, for example), as well as dangers, and in terms of total payload we can launch.
Imagine if we needed to mass evacuate people from Earth because of some impending catastrophe. There isn’t enough rocket capability in the world to get anywhere near the amount of people we’d want to get off. It’s not simply a matter of cost, it’s also a matter of the capacity of each of these rockets.
A company like SpaceX took over a hundred million dollars of billionaire Elon Musk’s own money (as did Tesla, incidentally). While we have moved fro government funding everything to private funding, there still aren’t enough venture capital funds or others willing to take a risk on a new launch technology.
There should be an X prize or a moonshot prize to encourage startups to build non rocketry, non combustible launch vehicles. In fact, the Ansari X Prize was a factor in encouraging Virgin One to develop their Spaceship One. A prize was used to encourage aviators to cross the Atlantic.
While it’s admirable that Airbus ventures and Kleiner Perkins are funding Spinlaunch, the amount of money needed for these ventures will be in the hundreds of millions or billions, and there aren’t enough venture capital funds to achieve this, either at the seed level ($1m or $2m to get started) or the series A or B ($30m+) at the moment. There should be!
Today’s rocket based solutions are like stagecoaches traveling to the West — good for very small groups who are willing to risk their lives and be uncomfortable, but the development of the West took the railroads to bring reliable, industrial, regular, and safe transportation to move large amounts of citizens.
The same will be true with outer space, and the winners haven’t yet been chosen.If there are any billionaires reading this who truly want us to become a space-faring species with new technology, we need fearless people who are willing to fund not just incremental improvements over past technology, but truly invent the future!
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