Per In­gens Flamma Ad As­tra

Science Illustrated - - EDITORIAL - An­thony Ford­ham aford­ham@next­

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.

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