Ten Best New Space Ideas
My list of ten of the best ideas I’ve come across, some of them are a little older than others.
DIRECT is NASA’s last chance to retain its own crew launch system in the wake of Space Shuttle retirement. It’s a derivative of the Space Shuttle External Tank and Solid Rocket Boosters, combined with the Orion space capsule. Given how many pieces of this rocket are flying today, it seems possible to get this operational relatively quickly. Unfortunately, the DIRECT team made some strategic blunders while trying to get their idea accepted, and then came off as paranoid when they presented their plan to the Augustine Committee. Then NASA came up with their sidemount HLV, which is conceptually similar but totally inadequate for launching astronauts. The committee was forced, for lack of time and resources, to bin them together, losing the crew capability in the process. Nice job, everyone.
9. Polywell fusion
Wishful thinking, or our best shot at getting off this planet? We can pursue cheap rockets, reusable rockets, and extraterrestrial resources all we want, but we’re always restrained by the limited amount of energy contained in our chemical propellants and converted by our solar panels. If we want to start talking about moving thousands of people permanently into space, we need something better. Nuclear fission has proved too difficult and dangerous for the amount of extra energy available. The best candidate on the drawing boards is being pursued by the U.S. Navy as a power source for their ships. It’s small, produces unbelievable amounts of energy from small amounts of fuel, and generates no dangerous radiation. The late inventor, Dr. Robert Bussard, also known for the Bussard ramjet, intended it to power spaceships. The team recently received another $8 million in funding and says we’ll know in a few years if their theories pan out. If they do, expect to visit the Moon in your lifetime.
Nothing gets people excited about space like competition involving lots of fire. It’s what made Apollo work, after all. The first big space prize was the Ansari X-Prize, which was won by Burt Rutan in 2004 when he built his own plane that was flown into space by Mike Melville and Brian Binnie. More recently, Armadillo Aerospace took first prizes in both level 1 and 2 of the Lunar Lander Competition. These, and the teams they are competing against, are making important progress in space technology, in exchange for a rather small amount of public and private money. Next up is the Google Lunar X-Prize, where stuff actually lands on the Moon.
7. Moving asteroids
It seems impossible, but physically it can be done with current technology. Specifically Near Earth Objects (NEOs) in the 500 meter range, the kind that might not kill you if it hit the Earth but would certainly make your life miserable. If there’s one thing the government must do in outer space, it’s this. What makes it possible is that with precise tracking and a lot of warning time, we don’t have to move the rock very far at all to prevent a disaster. Asteroid 99942 Apophis will likely be tagged with a beacon in the near future.
6. Inflatable space stations
It seems silly, but balloons are a useful construction method in outer space, as long as they are made out of a material that can withstand the extreme environment. Dr. Werner von Braun first suggested this for his wheel space station back in the 1950s, but he didn’t have the technology to make it work. More recently NASA investigated building an inflatable module for the ISS, but cancelled it as being too risky. Hotel chain owner Robert Bigelow licensed the technology from NASA to use to build his own space stations, and has launched two prototypes. Now NASA wants to buy space station modules from him.
A new concept in space systems development. Instead of paying someone extra money if they take longer to build something, you just pay them when they deliver the thing you want. The former is called cost-plus contracts, and it’s the reason everything involving outer space in the United States costs so much money. Want to know why NASA struggles to explain exactly what you got out of all the money you sent them last year? This is why. Luckily someone came up with a system that makes sense, and it’s working marvelously in a program called COTS, which purchases cargo transportation to ISS.
Two types of rocket engines power today’s spacecraft. One is the chemical rocket, which produces a lot of thrust but uses a lot of fuel in the process, so much that its tanks are usually empty after firing for 10 minutes. The other is the ion drive, which produces a tiny amount of thrust but uses fuel much more efficiently. It can run for months or years. Both have their uses, but what we really need is an engine that can produce a lot of thrust but use less fuel. VASIMR, under development, is that engine. One may be installed on the ISS in the next decade to help maintain its orbit.
3. Flexible Path
This one came out of the Augustine Committee that I’ve been following the past couple of months. Their Flexible Path architecture for human spaceflight involves bypassing the surfaces of the Moon and Mars, and instead takes off across the Solar System in space capsules. The surfaces of many objects would still be accessible, like the asteroids and the moons of Mars. Landing on Mars isn’t so difficult, it’s the getting off that’s nearly impossible. You’d need a small colony in place just to operate the launch site, and that’s not going to happen any time soon. Taking the Flexible Path is like picking the low-hanging fruit, and staying out of gravity wells will be a primary goal of our spacefaring descendants anyway.
2. Space tourism
We saw a sea change in the last decade in human spaceflight. Private citizens flew into outer space, before a realm occupied solely by government employees. Suddenly seats going into orbit had a price tag on them. This created a market, and healthy markets breed efficiency. This is the market: tens of passengers per year at $10 million per seat, hundreds at $1 million per seat, and so on. We can make it to the thousands per year, and space tourism got the ball rolling.
1. Propellant depots
Something was missing from the Apollo missions, and it was this: when astronauts went the Moon, they found nothing to help them along the way. The thing space explorers need more than anything else is rocket fuel. When we send humans into the Solar System again, we can pre-place caches of rocket fuel at strategic points, called Lagrange points. We might even leave a space capsule at the depot, so we don’t have to carry it all the way to the Moon or Mars. Developing this ability might even mean we can make it back to the Moon without developing a new super-heavy rocket booster like the Saturn V, and that would really move up the schedule for Solar System exploration.
If you enjoyed this article, you’ll like the next one even better: Ten Worst New Space Ideas.
Tags: asteroids, exploration missions, flexible path, human space flight, international space station, lagrange point, launch vehicle, polywell fusion, propellant depots, space capsules, space tourism, vasimr, x-prize