Per Ingens Flamma Ad Astra
Yeah okay that’s pretty terrible Latin, but it’s meant to be a play on the old air force motto “per ardua ad astra”, or “through adversity to the stars”. In this case, it’s through a huge flame. Meh, the Romans didn’t have rockets, I did my best. Please send complaints to the email below - but only in Latin.
Anyway, the point here is that the age of the big lifters may be dawning anew. Space-X tested its Falcon Heavy this year, a test that ended with a truly spectacular synchronised dual-booster landing, and that’s the little one in the new generation. Our feature starting on page 24 details the lineup, but of particular interest is NASA’s Space Launch System (below, left).
Following the cancellation of the Constellation program and the Ares I and Ares V Mars-shot rockets, NASA had to come up with something cheaper. The SLS is derived from Space Shuttle tech but the important aspect is that it can be upgraded over time. The first mission might not break too many records, but NASA hopes this rocket will still eventually take someone to Mars.
The SLS will definitely work, no doubt about that, but it’s not exactly a mouldbreaking design. Combining the power of the Saturn V moon rocket with the detachable side-boosters of the Space Transport System (better known to us as the Space Shuttle), it still carries a coneshaped crew module that only holds one more person than Apollo. That’s four instead of three, for those keeping count.
Elsewhere, Space-X’s ambitious Big Falcon Rocket is still in the design stage, and it’s truly a quantum leap ahead of anything we’ve done before. Can a single company build a rocket bigger than anything NASA - or Russia, or any government - has even done?
Well, why not exactly? That’s what space travel is all about; doing things that have never been done. When NASA built the Saturn V, nobody had ever constructed a rocket powerful enough to lift humans out of low Earth orbit and send them on to the Moon.
And yet all it took was thousands of people working on hundreds of different problems simultaneously and spending about 2% of the USA’s GDP of the time. Easy!
Okay, I’m being sarcastic. Still, one thing about the Apollo program is how little, shall we say, supporting technology existed for the engineers of the 1960s. No personal computers, no supercomputers to run simulations, not even mobile phones to quickly call someone to check a detail or setting.
Today, our knowledge of materials and our ability to quickly prototype new parts - without even having to resort to 3D printing which is a whole other thing - means building something like the Saturn V is... not exactly easier, but certainly more manageable. The bottom line is: we need big rockets, at least for the forseeable future, because there seems to be no other realistic alternative to getting out of Earth’s gravity well.
Even if we launch small spacecraft from under aeroplanes, or build reusable single-stage-to-orbit launchers, that still only gets us a few hundred kilometres from the surface.
To go on to the Moon, let alone Mars, needs a big shove. And until we find the time, money and willingness to build and test more exotic tech like ion drives, a big rocket remains the best tool for the job. Plus they look awesome when they take off. Which is a plus.