© September 2008 Dennis Kenney
After the Shuttle Space system is retired in 2010 the International Space Station will be dependent on the Russian Soyuz and Progress vehicles to rotate flight crews and ship supplies respectively. The cancelled man-rated Ares I was expected to be operational in 2015 and the cancelled Ares V cargo launch vehicle was scheduled to be operational soon after. NASA will be dependent on the Russians and commercial space vendors such as SpaceX until then. Lunar missions by NASA should begin around 2020.
New Space is like aviation in the time of the Wrights, Quick and Curtis. These men were pioneers that were limited to their personal finances, helped by family and friends. A recent development is the flood of billionaires and multimillionaires that the flow of wealth to the top of the pyramid has produced. There are a few Howard Hughes, Elon Musks and Paul Allens out there.
The first thing that you learn in biotech is to fail as soon as possible; otherwise you just keep burning capital and fail later. A showstopper for the saucer will be that it is unstable even in level flight and will require computer stabilization. Aircraft instability wouldn’t stop a Skunk Works aircraft but is the kiss of death for a start-up project. Even the Lunar Landing vehicles have near-IRS capabilities enhanced by GPS.
I propose building a super-scale remote-controlled airplane to test the feasibility of an aircraft which would duplicate the missions of the Soyuz and Progress spacecraft but which would be jet-powered and capable of landing at any commercial airport. I propose a saucer-shaped vehicle for reentry which would transition to horizontal flight for landing. The biggest problem area is transitioning from the reentry mode to horizontal flight in a controlled, reliable manner. Control of profile drag and angle of attack will be necessary for more nuanced flight profiles. A rocket would allow the vehicle to deorbit and small thrusters or gyros would be required for attitude control in space. A full-sized aircraft would be capable of normal flight for training or ferrying. Large engines, both jet and rocket, will be required for suborbital tourism while smaller engines will do for a reentry vehicle or for a proof-of-concept aircraft. Integration of the rocket engine could be a phase II development. I will use electric duct fans initially for the model aircraft since development not performance is the primary goal.
A model could verify the feasibility of flying and landing a reentry vehicle shaped saucer. A considerable amount of avionics and flight control development could be done with models. Super-size models can be as complicated as space-qualified manned or unmanned vehicles, i.e., triple-redundant control systems. NASA has spent hundreds of millions of dollars researching similar vehicles which are only rocket-powered gliders.
A full size aircraft could have hybrid jets which use supplemental LOX to maintain thrust at higher altitudes. A rocket engine would supplement the thrust at an appropriate time and allow flights into near space. A hybrid jet should be capable of reaching near space for use in the space tourist trade. That would be the end of its use as a single-stage vehicle. I’m assuming that jet fuel and LOX are used in the rocket at the present time but I’m not ruling out hypergolic fuels.
Flight into near-space, space tourism, should be possible with jet engines supplemented with LOX. 4000 mph in the upper stratosphere should be enough speed to get into near space with diminishing thrust as the altitude increases. The use of by-pass fans decreases the instability of the aircraft at low speed near the launch pad.
A spacecraft returning to Earth should be able in the near-future to land at most commercial airports after entering the air traffic system of the destination country. Once a space infrastructure is in place, special taxis will return passengers and cargo to the Earth’s surface after a space-faring liner rendezvous with a space port in low-earth orbit.
Forget the International Space Station and Cape Canaveral – they’re in the wrong locations for transport to the Moon, Mars and geosynchronous orbit.
The SR-71 is arguably the greatest aircraft ever flown. The spy plane was designed to be flown at an unclassified altitude of 85,000 feet with an optimum engine speed of mach 3.2. All but two of the surviving aircraft (two were assigned to NASA) are on display in aviation museums.
Most of the SR-71’s thrust at operational speeds comes from compressed by-pass air being ignited like an after burner, a ramjet mode. The SR-71 wiki suggested that the engine/duct design could theoretically reach mach 6. A zoomed aircraft at 85,000 feet flying at mach 3.2 with rapidly diminishing thrust due to diminishing air density should be able to fly space tourism flights to near space.
Dennis Carlyle Kenney is the author of Star of Fire, an alternate history of the exploration of Mars, which can be freely downloaded at StarOfFire.com. Comments welcomed. The Word version of the paperback has the latest revisions.