Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Commercial Flight to Mars: Maybe, in 15 Years or So

"Will a Commercial Flight be First To Mars?"
Ray Villard, Analysis, Space News, Discovery News (August 18, 2010)

"Both President Obama and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden have expressed optimism about seeing a manned Mars landing happen within their lifetime.

"The way to finally get to Mars may be to fly the friendly skies aboard a commercial spaceliner (luggage and food costs extra) and, for the first time, a private aerospace contractor is setting their sights on the Red Planet. Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) recently unveiled a long-range plan that would evolve their rocket booster fleet up to Saturn V class heavy lifters.

"SpaceX's biggest rocket so far is the Falcon 9 that can put a 12-ton payload into low Earth orbit. But SpaceX is envisioning a booster development program culminating in the Falcon XX, a 300 foot-high behemoth that could hoist a whopping 155 tons into low Earth orbit...."

"...What I find the most exciting about SpaceX's plans is that they are going back to the future. Back in the 1960s the U.S. tested nuclear rockets under the highly successful NERVA (Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application) program between NASA and the Atomic Energy Commission. If the Nixon administration hadn't killed the R&D effort in 1970, we could be walking on Mars today...."

I'm inclined to agree with Ray Villard: SpaceX's approach to space transportation, from low Earth orbit to interplanetary expeditions, is very promising. What I don't know is how the usual crowd of (technophobes?) will react when word gets around that someone's thinking of using nuclear power in spaceships.

Maybe lessons learned in the 1954 movie "Godzilla" are fading: "The Atomic Space Bug" (1999) doesn't exactly take mysterious dangers of atomic stuff seriously.

There's a quick look at SpaceX's existing fleet and the company's plans: and a short description of how a NERVA rocket works.

The Lemming's take on the safety of rocket engines powered by nuclear reactors? Crash - or even a hard landing - of a nuclear-powered vehicle that's used for passenger and freight runs between Earth's surface and orbit could make a very serious mess.

Atomic shuttles don't seem like a good idea to me.

Risking one flight from Earth's surface to orbit - and then using the nuclear rocket engine in an interplanetary vehicle: A failure of the engine might be very bad news for the crew and passengers - but wouldn't spread dangerous debris here on Earth.

I'm glad to see that some folks are dusting off some of those old, promising, ideas and giving them a second look.
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