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Foundations of a Spacefaring Civilization, Part I: Rocket Technology

The Deadalus Interstellar Spacecraft. Image Credit: Adrian Mann &  Icarus intersellar.org  If you do know what this website is...please, please check it out. 

The Deadalus Interstellar Spacecraft. Image Credit: Adrian Mann & Icarus intersellar.org If you do know what this website is...please, please check it out. 

Humanity's journey to become a spacefaring civilization is not a sprint. It is not one giant leap. It is the greatest marathon in history. It requires perseverance and grit. A slow crawl against all odds to fight our way out of Earth's gravity well and gain a foothold in space...and eventually on another world. The cosmos is a truly inhospitable place, and we will need all of our technology and willpower to survive as a species. You will not wake up one day and realize that humans colonized the solar system. This is aspiration unlike any other...one that can only be achieved by stacking experience and technological advancement on top risk-taking, huge investments, and cutting edge engineering. To get there we need to see profitable growth and big returns as private companies forge partnerships with governments to open new markets. State Space agencies must begin rethinking their strategic goals as a the commercial space economy begins to emerge. 2014 was a hallmark year for the space industry -- one filled with both triumphs and tragedy in pursuit of the stars. There were more space launches in 2014 than in any year in the previous two decades. It was a year greater than the sum of its parts, and one that will go down in history as one of the foundation years for our spacefaring civilization. Humanity is finally developing the framework and infrastructure necessary to become make the impossible...possible. Big things are starting to happen and the public and the investment community is becoming engaged in a way we have not seen since the space race of the 20th century. Over the next three weeks, we will show you why you should be so excited. We will start with rockets:

Rocket Technology is Advancing to New Territory

The rocket technology we use today is surprisingly similar to the rockets that were used 40 years ago. This is particularly odd when you consider how much humans love to improve upon useful technology.  Most transportation modes we use today are vastly superior, more reliable, and more cost effective than they were 40 years ago. This was far too long to go without a major breakthrough if we hope to expand into space. Luckily, things are beginning to change. The first area of innovation is in rocket fuel itself. We are beginning to see a shift away from Kerosene based rocket fuel (known as RP-1) and over to liquid methane (also known as liquefied natural gas). We already know that SpaceX's next generation Raptor engine will be fueled by methane and liquid oxygen. This was an obvious choice given SpaceX's focus on Mars. Methane rocket fuel can be sourced from the Martian atmosphere and other areas of our solar system, making it an ideal fuel for a spacefaring civilization. In 2014 we saw the announcement of a surprising partnership between Blue Origin, the space firm run by Jeff Bezos (the founder of Amazon) and the United Launch Alliance (ULA).  The ULA is the largest and most successful space launch provider in history and an established giant of US defense department and NASA launches. The two companies announced they would jointly develop a new liquid methane rocket engine known as the BE-4, which will power the ULA's Next Generation Launch System (NGLS). This marks the first major fuel shift we have seen in the space industry, hopefully with more innovations just around the corner. 

On the engineering side of the equation, SpaceX is getting very close to one of the greatest achievements in space launch capability. A true game changer. The traditional problem with rockets is they are incredibly expensive and they can only be used once. Therefore the best way to reduce the cost of space launch systems is to re-use the rocket core. This is a simple idea that is incredibly hard to achieve. It is known as the "holy grail of rocketry". If we can create re-usable rocket boosters, we can exponentially lower the cost of launching material to space. This is one of the most basic concepts required to if we are going to expand our reach into the solar system. On January 10, 2014, SpaceX successfully launched an unmanned dragon cargo ship to the International Space Station (ISS).  After the deployment of the spacecraft, the rocket booster successfully navigated back to an autonomous drone platform in the Atlantic Ocean where it attempted to land. The rocket did make it to the platform but landed "hard" and was destroyed. This marks one of the first times anyone has successfully controlled a rocket's reentry and navigation back to a platform in the ocean. SpaceX continues their relentless technological forward progress and hopes to successfully land a booster in 2015. Here is how they are going to do it:  

Image Credit: SpaceX and  Karl Tate for Space.com

Image Credit: SpaceX and Karl Tate for Space.com

The SpaceX autonomous ocean drone platform Image Credit: SpaceX

The SpaceX autonomous ocean drone platform Image Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX testing the reusable rocket stage in Texas. Image Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX testing the reusable rocket stage in Texas. Image Credit: SpaceX

Coming Next week, Part II: Space Mining & Orbital Manufacturing.  Subscribe below to have part II and III delivered to your inbox. 

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