Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Spaceships Launched on Rails: Not-So-New Idea Proposed

"Railway to the Sky? NASA Ponders New Launch System" (September 14, 2010)

"Imagine this: A wedge-shaped aircraft attached to a supersonic jet engine is hurtling along an electrified track, carrying a pod or spacecraft destined for orbit.

"Sound farfetched? It may not be.

"A team of engineers from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida and some of the agency's other field centers are looking into this and other novel launch systems based on cutting-edge technologies...."

"Novel" isn't the term the Lemming would use to describe rail-launched spaceships. The idea was off-the-shelf standard equipment for science fiction writers by the time Gerry Anderson's Supermarionation Fireball XL5 was patrolling Sector 25, back in the early sixties.

(If the style of Fireball XL5 looks familiar, it should: Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's better-known Thunderbirds returned to the screen recently. Fireball XL5 isn't forgotten, though. Science fiction fans Pauline & Robin Day created images inspired by the show.)

The difference between Fireball XL5 (1962 and When Worlds Collide (1951) is that they were fictional. Based more-or-less on solid theoretical work done earlier in the 20th century, yes.

But filmmakers and audiences both recognized them as 'science fiction.' The sort of thing that belonged in "The Future."

Fifty years later, "The Future" is here: and has been for a while. We don't have a helicopter in every garage, or atomic trains. (I'm not making that up.)

On the other hand, that unlikely device, the 1920 Newsophone, that delivered on-demand news stories, is in use today. The technology is a little different than Lewis Yeager's proposal, and you're using it right now: the Internet.

Back to those rail-launched spaceships that NASA is looking at. The article points out that the current research isn't aimed at replacing the shuttle fleet. At least, not yet. On the other hand:

"...Scramjet vehicles could be used as a basis for a commercial launch program if a company decided to take advantage of the basic research NASA performed along the way, Starr said.

"Starr and his engineering team propose a 10-year plan that would begin with launching a drone similar to those used in the ongoing Air Force tests. More-advanced models would then follow, with the goal of developing a vehicle that can launch a small satellite into orbit...."

Eventually - maybe what, 15 or 20 years from now? - we'll have regular flights to orbiting stations, the way we've got trans-Pacific flights today. Science fiction? When I was growing up, yes. Today: Bigelow Aerospace doesn't seem to think so.

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