April 01, 2013
Ultimately, it still comes down to launching.
Rockets defined the Space Age in the past century, and they will continue to shape the course it follows as commercial spaceflight takes over from governments in the new one.
The first 100 km (62 mi.) is still the hardest. How that hurdle is jumped will determine how soon, how much—and potentially even whether—private industry can make profits in orbit without a massive input of public money. If the cost of launch comes down, the “new space economy” will grow. And if that orbital marketplace grows, economies of scale should drive down the cost of launch.
It is clear that a strong U.S. government push has cracked open the door to a true off-planet economy. NASA's commercial-cargo effort already has delivered, and private companies are making serious progress in following up with, human spaceflight.
In their wake a new startup sector is arising, with innovative ideas for making money in orbit and beyond (see p. 60). Military planners around the world also are conceiving new ways to accomplish their missions by using the “high ground” of space (see p. 59).
But it still takes rockets to get there. Wayne Hale, a former NASA space shuttle program manager, illustrated the problem recently by comparing it to a truly commercial mode of transportation—the Boeing 737.
A shuttle orbiter is about the same size as a 737, Hale says. The airliner's structure is about 40% of its weight, with the remainder divided roughly equally between payload—the crew, passengers and baggage—and fuel. The FAA requires enough fuel to keep the airliner loitering for 45 min., and then to fly to an alternate field if it still can't land because of weather.