Saturday, December 03, 2005

A Space Ship is Not Ammunition

I found an interesting article by Jerry Pournelle, "How To Get To Space." It makes some good points about past U.S. government X programs (X-1 to X-15 - more recent X programs have had X names but were run differently and less successfully) which were very successful in part because they set limited goals and short time frames, had relatively small budgets, and were relatively invisible (if not secret, especially the early ones), which allowed for programs to continue even when there were failures, as there generally will be when you are "pushing the envelope." Jerry proposes that a similar approach be taken for getting to space, specifically a SSTO development program that starts with suborbital flights.

Whether or not this specific approach will fly, I like the major point that he makes that "a space ship is a vehicle" - it's not ammunition. Vehicles should be easily reusable (not simply "rebuildable" as he describes the Space Shuttle) and this is the key to eventual low-cost operations (e.g., cost per kg to LEO a relatively small multiple of fuel cost, as is the case for modern long-distance airline travel).

This is also very much the theme of The Rocket Company, which I will finish reading this weekend. This book collects and proposes a great many good ideas and puts them in the context of a fictional private launch vehicle development project (two-stage, fully reusable). It makes a lot of sense, and I think it should be read by anyone who wants to get into the space business at any level - not that I know a lot about this personally, but until one of the real private space ventures achieves substantial success and someone writes a case study of how it was done (and probably even after that), this is definitely worth a read.

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