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SpaceX Unveils Heavy-Lift Rocket Designs 248

Posted by timothy
from the now-comes-the-wedding-night dept.
FleaPlus writes "At the recent Joint Propulsion Conference, SpaceX's rocket development facility director Tom Markusic unveiled conceptual plans for how its current Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 commercial rockets can be evolved into heavy-lift rockets, ranging from a Falcon X capable of lifting 38,000kg to orbit, up to a 140,000kg Falcon XX (more than either the Saturn V or the 75,000kg shuttle-derived rocket Congress currently plans on having NASA spend >$13B building). SpaceX presentations also discuss a new Merlin 2 heavy-lift engine, solar-electric cargo tugs, adapting their current engines for descent/ascent vehicles fueled by Mars-derived methane, and a desire for the government to take the lead on in-space nuclear thermal propulsion while commercial focuses on launchers. In a recent interview, SpaceX CEO/CTO Elon Musk expressed his goal of lowering the price of Mars transportation enough to enable early colonization in 20 years, and his own plans for retiring to Mars."
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SpaceX Unveils Heavy-Lift Rocket Designs

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  • People told me I was crazy when I told them a few years ago I expected to see colonization of Mars within my lifetime.

    I'm just so glad to see that someone is still working on it.

    Now if the US could get their congress-critters to stop wasting cash on it... NASA should be technology development only. Implementation should be left to others(at least in my humble opinion). I think a lot more would actually happen that way.

    • Re:Hahaha! (Score:5, Interesting)

      by jusdisgi (617863) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @05:55PM (#33155752)
      I'm not sure the distinction is as clear as you're making it. It's not like NASA ever really built rockets. Rockwell International built the shuttle for them. They just set the spec and take bids, like any other government agency. The question is a somewhat less dramatic one: should the government specify the rockets it wants and get aerospace companies to build them, or should it let the aerospace companies build whatever they want, buy the products that fit best and make it work? For what it's worth (not much) my own view of the situation is that launch vehicle tech has progressed to the point where the latter approach is likely to save some cash. But let's not act like it's a difference between some free-market fantasy and a soviet design bureau.
      • Re:Hahaha! (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Ironhandx (1762146) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @10:13PM (#33157832)

        No, I'm not espousing a free-market fantasy. If I had I would have advocated getting rid of NASA altogether.

        What nasa should do is develop new technologies that will be required for space exploration. The end specs/components/implementation should be left to someone else however(in my opinion, of course). Preferably smaller, leaner, space startups. Companies that are willing to and capable of taking more risks. There comes a point when decreasing the chance of failure another .0001% isn't worth the next 10 million dollars. You do a run, if it fails, you do another one. The money spent on R&D is still there plus you now have practical data.

        Making a material that absorbs heat better, or a combination thereof, or an entirely new system for dispersing the heat. Those sorts of things. They should be the realm of NASA. That should be the realm of NASA. Government funding is very good. Very very good. Its great at getting things invented. What government generally isn't good at doing until its forced on them is innovating. Thats what business is good at.

        On the other hand, particularly lately with all these insanely rich but incredibly risk-averse asses out there, a lot of businesses are either slowing down massively on new tech or giving up developing new things entirely, letting someone else do it and then either stealing it or licensing it from them, and innovating with it.

        Theres a good chance I can utilize technology X after its finished development... but if I put money into it now theres a chance it never finishes and those dollars are completely gone. On the other hand if Technology X is finished and working... well theres something I can do with it right now! It removes a layer of risk for new endeavors to not develop most of the technologies involved yourself.

        Thats the main reason I think R&D should become even more the responsibility of government than it is now... for almost everything I feel it would improve everyones lives, and mostly abolish a lot of the industry patent lockouts that happen now, since everyone would have access at the same rate.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Teancum (67324)

          I do wonder which would be more effective at a proper use of tax dollars: A massive increase in NASA's budget to something on the order of about $30 billion per year and a major push to Mars, or simply enacting a law that would remove all federal taxes (including corporate and personal income taxes) for individuals and companies who are directly engaged in the development of hardware and equipment that actually goes into space.

          If for some reason a completely "tax holiday" were to be put onto companies deve

    • Re:Hahaha! (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Rei (128717) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @10:35PM (#33157946) Homepage

      What's being discussed is not a "colony" in any normal sense of the word. It's a base. "Colony" implies a large degree of self sufficiency, which requires the most massive engineering engineering effort in the history of humankind to even get started. What Musk is doing is working on lower-cost spacecraft. Spacecraft that, IMHO, are still 1-2 orders of magnitude too expensive to make true colonization realistic. If all you do is go there and use some regolith for shielding and make some methane fuel using equipment shipped from Earth, perhaps growing some plants in greenhouses shipped from Earth, etc -- you're not colonizing. Namely, because not only could such a "colony" not independently expand itself, but if the shipments from Earth suddenly stopped, the next time something significant broke, the entire colony would die. You're not going to, say, jury-rig a new compressor out of duct tape and rocks. You couldn't even make duct tape itself without an entire petrochemical industry. A sustainable colony requires a mind-boggling amount of sustainable industry and the use of structures and devices engineered to be produceable by said industrial infrastructure.

      But anyway, kudos to Musk for at least doing *something* useful rather than building palm tree islands or city-sized yachts.

      • by FleaPlus (6935)

        What's being discussed is not a "colony" in any normal sense of the word. It's a base. "Colony" implies a large degree of self sufficiency, which requires the most massive engineering engineering effort in the history of humankind to even get started.

        I do wonder about the distinctions between a "colony," "base," and a "settlement."

    • You're still crazy (Score:3, Insightful)

      by sean.peters (568334)

      And so is the rest of the "let's colonize Mars" crowd - because there's simply no reason to colonize Mars. For one thing, even if the wildest dreams of SpaceX become true (and here's a hint: they probably won't, at least not completely), getting a colony to Mars is going to be unbelievably expensive. You need to not only haul the people, but all their life support equipment, capital goods (they're going to have to earn a living, right?), at least some minimal housing, energy generation, startup food, plants

  • Vision (Score:5, Insightful)

    by timeOday (582209) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @05:03PM (#33155410)
    "I'm planning to retire to Mars"

    That, my friends, is vision.

    Not, "one day mankind must blah blah blah..." but: 'I'm planning to retire to Mars.'

    • Re:Vision (Score:5, Insightful)

      by mangu (126918) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @05:13PM (#33155478)

      "I'm planning to retire to Mars"
        That, my friends, is vision.

      I'd say it's marketese.

      But well, anyhow, it's awesome marketese.

      • Re:Vision (Score:5, Interesting)

        by timeOday (582209) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @05:30PM (#33155602)
        Well, I think it is vision. Elon Musk made a fortune with PayPal and could easily have retired to a private island. Instead he re-invested his fortune into Tesla and Space-X -- two companies which, IMHO, are pretty awesome. I applaud the Obama administration for recognizing the awesomeness and redirecting funds from NASA Ares to Space-X. Falcon 9 launched successfully with only $278 million from the govt. There are some other amazing people in the race, like Burt Rutan. These guys couldn't accomplish what they do without some marketing savvy, but they are not cynical con men either, they are hands-on engineers and entrepreneurs and from what I know of them, I admire it.
        • by mangu (126918)

          Elon Musk made a fortune with PayPal and could easily have retired to a private island. Instead he re-invested his fortune into Tesla and Space-X -- two companies which, IMHO, are pretty awesome

          I fully agree with that, and I must wonder at the similarity between Elon Musk and Mark Shuttleworth.

          Two South African guys who made a fortune in a computer related company only to spend a lot of it on space related stuff. Shuttleworth was one of the first people to pay $20 million to be a space tourist.

          • by jusdisgi (617863)
            Not sure that buying a ride in a Soyuz should be compared to starting a company to build next-generation cost-effective launch vehicles, but OK....
            • by mangu (126918)

              Not sure that buying a ride in a Soyuz should be compared to starting a company to build next-generation cost-effective launch vehicles

              Tell me about it the next time when you spend $20 million to do something you believe in, wihtout any immediate return.

              • by yotto (590067)

                Actually, as a percentage of my income or net worth I likely spend similar to his $20 million on video game purchases.

        • Re:Vision (Score:5, Interesting)

          by tgd (2822) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @05:49PM (#33155716)

          Musk and Rutan are two very different people. I've seen them both talking about their passions, and have spent some time chatting with Rutan about it ...

          Musks vision is going to be the guy who gets equipment in space, gets astronauts into space, and maybe gets people on off to Mars, by providing the technology that governments and other companies use to do it.

          Rutan is going to get *me* into space.

          I applaud them both. Their "fuck it, I'm doing this" attitude is what will get us off this rock, and maybe kick us, as a species, finally in the direction of doing that permanently.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Rei (128717)

            The difference between Musk and Rutan is that Rutan will get you to space, while Musk will get you to orbit.

            The two sound similar, but they're nothing close to each other in terms of technical difficulty.

        • "Elon Musk made a fortune with PayPal and could easily have retired to a private island."

          Well, close [seasteading.org]. Paypal cofounder Peter Thiel's a board member, don't know about any involvement by Elon Musk.
        • Re:Vision (Score:5, Informative)

          by FleaPlus (6935) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @07:42PM (#33156834) Journal

          I applaud the Obama administration for recognizing the awesomeness and redirecting funds from NASA Ares to Space-X.

          Quick clarification: The White House hasn't proposed redirecting funds from Ares to SpaceX -- instead, they want to open up the US human spaceflight market to competing commercial vendors, which includes not just SpaceX, but also the United Launch Alliance. Many aren't familiar with the name, but the ULA builds the Atlas and Delta rockets which have launched most national security and NASA science missions for many years now. SpaceX has stated that they actually expect ULA to get more of the commercial crew market than them, at least initially.

          Of course, even this is facing a great deal of friction in Congress. As one of the linked articles in the summary states, the current NASA bill in the House of Representatives has the entire commercial spaceflight program struggling with just $150M over 3 years, while the government-designed/operated heavy-lift and crew capsule program gets $13B over that same timeframe.

      • Re:Vision (Score:5, Insightful)

        by tgd (2822) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @05:44PM (#33155694)

        That marketese has gotten him a company successfully launching rockets into orbit.

        My vision has got me sitting on my couch in my underpants.

        Just to put that in perspective.

      • by goodmanj (234846)

        I'd say it's marketese.

        Not in this case. By all accounts, Elon Musk didn't originally want to get into the rocket business. He wanted to be in the Mars colonization business, but quickly discovered that rockets were too damned expensive, so he decided to make his own.

        For Musk, the marketing is a tool for achieving is vision, not the other way around.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by FleaPlus (6935)

          Not in this case. By all accounts, Elon Musk didn't originally want to get into the rocket business. He wanted to be in the Mars colonization business, but quickly discovered that rockets were too damned expensive, so he decided to make his own.

          For Musk, the marketing is a tool for achieving is vision, not the other way around.

          It's actually quite interesting to read about Elon Musk's efforts to try to launch Mars Oasis and the "Life to Mars" foundation back in 2001, a year before he realized how screwed up

    • by Yvanhoe (564877)
      He doesn't say all about his plans: He really plans on living on the top of the frickin highest building on the whole red planet, to see all the minions whose life depend on his whim, to laugh maniacally and to glare dastardly at the crescent Earth while shouting on a defiant tone : "YOU'RE NEXT, BITCH ! BWAHAHAHAHA !"
      • by jusdisgi (617863)

        The crescent Earth? You know what Mars looks like from here? Basically like a bright star. It's probably going to be a similar effect looking the other way.

        (That was the only part of your comment sane enough to bother replying to)

    • "I'm planning to retire to Mars"

      In this economy, brother, you're not going to retire at all. You'll be lucky to get out of Cleveland, much less Earth's gravity well.

    • Or did he merely predict him?

    • by bradbury (33372)

      Naw... Musk was born in 1971, assuming retirement @ 65 (though he could be retired now) that puts it at year 2036 -- 26 years from now. I would give you very good odds on the realization of full Drexlerian molecular nanotechnology within 26 years. If so, there is a non-zero probability that some post-Internet (i.e. nanotech boom era) entrepreneur will have launched a small rocket of nanobots to Mars with the express purpose of dismantling it for construction of the Mars-orbit layer of the Solar System Mat

      • Your first paragraph broke my English language parser.
      • by Rei (128717)

        Hint: building robots really small doesn't make the engineering challenge easier. It makes it *harder*. So until well after we reach the point where we could have regular size robots "dismantle Mars for construction", it's not going to happen.

        Nanotechnology is quite real. Nanobots are sci-fi code for "magic" and are made of 100% pure Handwavium.

    • by LoRdTAW (99712)

      Me too. I hear the women there have three breasts!

  • If he wants to die in a harsh, hostile environment, why doesn't he spend a few $billion retiring to Compton or Afghanistan?

    • Re:Retiring to Mars? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Caerdwyn (829058) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @06:17PM (#33155974) Journal

      When you're stranded high up on Olympus Mons

      And your suit-gauge shows your O2's all but gone

      Open your faceplate and face vaccuum's dawn

      And go to your god like a spaceman.

      • by arcsimm (1084173)
        Under the wide and starry sky
        Dig the grave and let me lie:
        Glad did I live and gladly die,
        And I laid me down with a will!

        This be the verse you grave for me:
        Here he lies where he longed to be;
        Home is the sailor, home from sea,
        And the hunter home from the hill.
      • by Rei (128717)

        The cage is very small
        A tiny silver ball
        That makes you a hero
        The moment you step inside
        The world is watching you
        What you're about to do
        Will live on forever
        Even though you'll be dead
        And gone
        Buckle up
        We're about to turn the engines on.

      • by powerlord (28156)

        The Green Hills of Earth
        Let the sweet fresh breezes heal me
        As they rove around the girth
        Of our lovely mother planet
        Of the cool, green hills of Earth.

        We rot in the moulds of Venus,
        We retch at her tainted breath.
        Foul are her flooded jungles,
        Crawling with unclean death.

        [ --- the harsh bright soil of Luna ---
        --- Saturn's rainbow rings ---
        --- the frozen night of Titan --- ]

        We've tried each spinning space mote
        And reckoned its true worth:
        Take us back again to the homes of men
        On the cool, green hills of Earth.

        The a

    • by Grishnakh (216268)

      Mars is safer. You don't have to worry much about people shooting at you on Mars.

      • by khallow (566160)
        I think this sort of thing needs to be emphasized. The hazards of Mars are pretty much static. No matter what you do, you'll encounter the same dangers. If you come up with a pressurized habitat, the Mars atmosphere isn't sentient and coming to com up with a way around that to kill you. In other words, the hazards of an uninhabited world are far different and less dangerous from the hazards of an inhabited world where some of the inhabitants are trying to kill you.
  • Shiny! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by CrimsonAvenger (580665) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @05:16PM (#33155510)

    Two different designs (Falcon X Heavy and Falcon XX), either capable of boosting a Mars Direct type mission on its way...

    Which would give us capabilities in space we haven't had since the last Saturn V was launched.

    Hopefully, SpaceX won't have problems coming up with the cash (or contracts) required to finish the designs and get them certified, since I'd really like to see the first manned Mars mission in my lifetime. And from the looks of things today, if SpaceX doesn't do it, no-one will.

    • Re:Shiny! (Score:5, Insightful)

      by jpmorgan (517966) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @05:28PM (#33155584) Homepage

      Well, what I like about SpaceX is they've turned "rocket science" into "rocket engineering." As an interested outsider, they seem to have a strong focus on modular design, which aids in keeping costs down. It's basic bottom-up design, which usually leads to better and cheaper solutions than the top-down design work that government mandated engineering tends to be.

      Design should always be a compromise between what you want and what is practical. The space-shuttle is what you get when you'd rather spend billions than be flexible in your requirements. And the worst part about that is you end up with such a bleeding-edge integrated solution, that you don't get to take anything away from it. You're always starting again from scratch.

      • by cmowire (254489)

        Doubly so. Notice there are two Falcon 9 boosters. One with 9 Merlin 1 engines, one with 1 Merlin 2 engine.

    • I dunno. A billion dollars to certify the Merlin-2 seems like a lot of money, though if they can turn the Falcon X and XX into reusable systems, that could pay back relatively quickly.

      I do have a question, though: aside from the additional 15 ton capacity of the Falcon XX, is there a reason to develop it in addition to the 125-ton payload capacity of the Falcon X? The Falcon X payload exceeds that of the Saturn V, and would allow (mass-wise) a launch of a third of the ISS at one time. Is it the simplicit

      • by khallow (566160)

        I dunno. A billion dollars to certify the Merlin-2 seems like a lot of money, though if they can turn the Falcon X and XX into reusable systems, that could pay back relatively quickly.

        The now moribund 2011 NASA budget proposed by Obama back in the spring had budgeted $3 billion over several years to heavy lift propulsion research. And at the time, many people said that was too little for the task. Musk basically is claiming he can do it for a lot less than NASA could. I think he can do it, given that he's already developed three engine designs (the Kestrel, Merlin, and Draco) on half a billion dollars. That's money which also incidentally developed two rockets, the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9

        • by khallow (566160)

          I do have a question, though: aside from the additional 15 ton capacity of the Falcon XX, is there a reason to develop it in addition to the 125-ton payload capacity of the Falcon X? The Falcon X payload exceeds that of the Saturn V, and would allow (mass-wise) a launch of a third of the ISS at one time. Is it the simplicity of six engines in one container instead of nine in three containers?

          At a glance, I'd say SpaceX is presenting these as different choices. There's probably a little value in having both, but my take is that SpaceX proposes to implement only one of them.

          More reading of the article indicates that I'm probably wrong. It may still be the case that SpaceX doesn't intend to fly the two platforms simultaneously, but these are meant to be examples of a family of vehicles. It's possible, for example, that the Falcon XX is a successor vehicle to the Falcon X, or that they'll use the vehicles for different customer profiles. I don't grok their plans well enough to say what's going on here.

          • by cmowire (254489)

            Well, notice that there are two Falcon 9 cores listed. There's the one with a single Merlin 2.

            Given the systems approach that SpaceX has, I suspect that the Falcon X Heavy is slotted the same as the Falcon 9 Heavy -- there if you need it to attract NASA or some customer before the Falcon XX is ready. I'm assuming that the Falcon X's core diameter is sized around some constraint (factory size, transportation, etc) and the Falcon XX is designed under the assumption that funding to exceed said constraint was

          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by Teancum (67324)

            The Falcon X vehicle is essentially a Saturn V replacement vehicle (rated to lift more tonnage but with less fuel). The Falcon XX.... if you look over the specs it turns out that it has the same cargo capacity as a 747 that would be used for inter-continental transport.

            I don't know what you think could be flown on one of those vehicles, but those are simply huge and would require some customers wanting to put some serious tonnage into orbit. I like this analogy with the Falcon XX:

            If you man-rated the Falc

        • I expect that SpaceX could do it with less money than legacy contractors, but a billion dollars to certify the Merlin 2 is twice what was spent to develop two rockets, three engines, and a capsule. That would have to be R&D that pays off either very fast, or over a very long time. Proven reusability would probably allow for both.

          Another thought crossed my mind after my post about the Falcon X and XX. Perhaps the XX will be a sequel product, especially if the Falcon X is intended to use largely the sa

          • by khallow (566160)

            I expect that SpaceX could do it with less money than legacy contractors, but a billion dollars to certify the Merlin 2 is twice what was spent to develop two rockets, three engines, and a capsule.

            The thing to remember here is that SpaceX isn't just developing the engine, they probably also are certifying it for manned NASA missions. There's the cost right there.

          • but a billion dollars to certify the Merlin 2 is twice what was spent to develop two rockets, three engines, and a capsule.

            Note, by the by, that Merlin 2 will be the most powerful rocket engine ever built at 1.7 million pounds thrust. The F1 in Saturn V was only 1.5 million.

            In other words, it's taking us to places we've never been before, engineering-wise. I'd expect it to be expensive....

            • It would be the most powerful liquid engine.

              The shuttle SRB solids have more thrust.

              But yes, it would be expensive.
        • by hedwards (940851)
          SpaceX doesn't have to convince politicians to give it funding without requiring pork. That's the big difference. Since the politicians insist on including strings you're going to see a significant mark up. And since nobody's opposed to pork that comes their way, it's not going to change.
          • by khallow (566160)
            It appears to me that the only current customer for such a rocket is the US government. That means some degree of squealing probably will occur.
    • by sconeu (64226)

      The Merlin-2 at 1.7M lbs of thrust... More powerful than a F-1. That is fucking awesome.

    • Odd. There's nothing on the SpaceX website about these shiny new rockets.
  • Nuclear Thermal? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by jpmorgan (517966) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @05:18PM (#33155524) Homepage

    I like nuclear thermal as much as the next /.er, but is there really any point in thermal rockets beyond attaining orbit?

    Personally, I'd rather see the money go into a space-borne power reactor and rely on VASIMR or other electric engines for the transit. As SpaceX and Musk should know, a modular system is a lot more flexible, and we know a lot more about how to design and build power reactors than nuclear thermal rockets. More to the point, you'd need a gas-core reactor to match the specific impulse of current VASIMR prototypes, and gas-core reactors are ENTIRELY theoretical.

    (If you don't know, specific impulse is the rough analogue of how 'fast' a engine is in space, although it actually bears more in common with fuel economy than power).

    • Re:Nuclear Thermal? (Score:5, Informative)

      by 0123456 (636235) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @05:36PM (#33155634)

      I like nuclear thermal as much as the next /.er, but is there really any point in thermal rockets beyond attaining orbit?

      For one thing there's the slight problem that you die during the transit through the Van Allen belts if you don't have a high-thrust engine or very large radiation shields.

      And nuclear thermal rockets kind of suck ass for attaining orbit since you have to ensure that they land somewhere safe if they fail during launch; NASA's test plans for the early models involved polar launch where the flight path was designed to dump it in Antarctica or a remote part of the ocean if something went wrong.

    • Re:Nuclear Thermal? (Score:5, Informative)

      by khallow (566160) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @06:01PM (#33155812)
      As 0123456 indicated [slashdot.org], there are both a need for high thrust engines in space and huge risks with the use of nuclear-anything propulsion on Earth. In addition to passage through the Van Allen belts, we also need to consider the Oberth effect [wikipedia.org]. When you're trying to leave a gravity well (such as Earth's), then thrust deep in the well has a higher effective ISP than equivalent thrust higher up the well.

      Second, because of the risks of operating nuclear rockets in Earth's biosphere, it makes sense, that if you're eventually going to have a nuclear powered rocket to orbit, that you try it somewhere else first and generate a reliability record. Space is the "somewhere else".
      • by jpmorgan (517966)

        An interesting point, I wasn't aware of the Oberth effect. However, theoretically a VASIMR engine can operate over a range of specific impulse and thrusts, and can tune its thrust/Isp ratio to take maximal advantage of the Oberth effect over its entire flight path.

        Now I know why the VAriable Specific Impulse is such an important aspect to be part of its name.

        • by khallow (566160)

          However, theoretically a VASIMR engine can operate over a range of specific impulse and thrusts, and can tune its thrust/Isp ratio to take maximal advantage of the Oberth effect over its entire flight path.

          For most applications, that means as much thrust as you can get at the start of the mission (or at the point when you're deepest in the gravity well, if you're doing a flyby) subject to whatever acceleration constraints are imposed by your payload (don't want to jelly the astronauts!). That advantage goes to nuclear thermal. VASIMR simply isn't comparable on the high thrust end.

    • by rickb928 (945187)

      You still have to throw those cute nuclear and electric motors out of Earth atmosphere. Thermal rockets are still the most practical way, and it seems that nuclear has a LONG ways to go to be possible, much less affordable.

      And of course the concept of nuclear on the launch pad will frighten the Luddites. Maybe even me.

    • by FleaPlus (6935)

      I like nuclear thermal as much as the next /.er, but is there really any point in thermal rockets beyond attaining orbit? Personally, I'd rather see the money go into a space-borne power reactor and rely on VASIMR or other electric engines for the transit. As SpaceX and Musk should know, a modular system is a lot more flexible, and we know a lot more about how to design and build power reactors than nuclear thermal rockets. More to the point, you'd need a gas-core reactor to match the specific impulse of current VASIMR prototypes, and gas-core reactors are ENTIRELY theoretical.

      I was pretty surprised at this as well, particularly since Tom Markusic (SpaceX's rocket development facility director and the guy who did the presentation) has a fairly extensive research background in electric propulsion and plasma thrusters:

      http://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=tom+markusic [google.com]

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by tsotha (720379)

      As SpaceX and Musk should know, a modular system is a lot more flexible, and we know a lot more about how to design and build power reactors than nuclear thermal rockets. More to the point, you'd need a gas-core reactor to match the specific impulse of current VASIMR prototypes, and gas-core reactors are ENTIRELY theoretical.

      A nuclear thermal rocket would be quite a bit more efficient in terms of mass than VASIMR. It's the difference between building a reactor that is a rocket engine and building a reactor

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by rufty_tufty (888596)

      As far as I'm aware nuclear thermal is a bad idea for a take off engine, it's comparatively low thrust even if it is high(er) ISP. Apart from Gas Cored rockets (which as you say are still science fiction at the moment) I've not seen a serious suggestion that Nuclear be used for takeof from earth (Nuclear salt rockets though for Mars takeoff could be interesting :-))

      As I understand it where a Nuclear Thermal is good is where you need moderate thrust but for a long time, so they make a good 2nd stage engine o

  • Who are going to be the customers?

    For space exploration to begin in earnest, we need it to be economically profitable, beyond LOE and geostationary. Has there been a study on the economic feasability of mining asteroids or something else (i.e. 4He on the moon)?

    • by khallow (566160) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @06:12PM (#33155930)

      For space exploration to begin in earnest, we need it to be economically profitable, beyond LOE and geostationary. Has there been a study on the economic feasability of mining asteroids or something else (i.e. 4He on the moon)?

      Yes, and as I understand it, the problem is that costs are a few zeroes greater than revenue. Something like SpaceX's new rocket can lop a zero off the costs, but we're going to need more than that before space mining makes economic sense. If they can lop off a second zero, say via high reusability and a launch rate of thousands of rockets a year, that might do.

      • Depends on what you're mining, and where you're planning on using it. Hauling metals down to Earth makes no sense. Sending water ice to an orbital or lunar base might be cheaper than sending the same stuff up from Earth.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by khallow (566160)

          Hauling metals down to Earth makes no sense.

          Precious metals might be viable and were what I was thinking of. They currently have good price for the mass and are used in decent volume on Earth.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Tekfactory (937086)

        He3 costs $40,000 per Troy ounce, its useful in Fusion research and Medical imaging technology.

        http://www.lunarpedia.org/index.php?title=Helium [lunarpedia.org]

        If I can boost some mining equipment to the Moon, and use one of those solar powered tugs to get my ore back to the LEO and drop it in the Ocean somewhere, eventually there would be a payoff.

        And yes when you can throw something the size of the ISS up there in 3 launches, the long awaited microgravity manufacturing and some interesting vapor deposition electronics stu

        • by TheTurtlesMoves (1442727) on Friday August 06, 2010 @03:59AM (#33159034)
          He3 is useful in *imaginary* fusion. Having 100x less power density and being 10000x harder to burn compared to DT fusion which we don't have outside bombs.

          Secondly its at 0.01 ppm in the lunar soil. So for just 1kg of the stuff you going to need to mine 100 thousand tons of rock with perfect efficiency. You going to use more energy than you get.

          He3 if or when it becomes a viable fuel source, mean we also have DD fusion... that will produce tons per year of He3 ash.

          Going to the moon for He3 is stupid.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by tehcyder (746570)

        Yes, and as I understand it, the problem is that costs are a few zeroes greater than revenue. Something like SpaceX's new rocket can lop a zero off the costs, but we're going to need more than that before space mining makes economic sense. If they can lop off a second zero, say via high reusability and a launch rate of thousands of rockets a year, that might do.

        Um, while costs are even *slightly* higher than revenue there isn't really any point in space mining, apart from general awesomeness.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Grishnakh (216268)

      Asteroid mining could be very profitable. According to Wikipedia [wikipedia.org], "At 1997 prices, a relatively small metallic asteroid with a diameter of 1 mile contains more than $20 trillion US dollars worth of industrial and precious metals." Of course, the value of the metal would go down as that one asteroid would add a huge amount to the supply, but still it would be a lot of money. A $1 trillion+ profit on a mission costing $10 billion would be a pretty good profit.

      Also, "all the gold, cobalt, iron, manganese, m

  • Great news! The Merlin powered the famous Spitfire, Hurricane, P-51D fighters amongst many other Allied airplanes! Legendary!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rolls-Royce_Merlin

    Oh wait..You mean a rocket engine?.

  • by RevWaldo (1186281) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @06:31PM (#33156088)
    ...but when I do, I prefer Falcon Dos Equis.

    Stay orbital, my friends.

    .
  • I am going order a space tug for myself and going to name it the Millennium Falcon, as soon as I can borrow some cash fro Jabba the Hut. Should start looking for a co-pilot soon.
  • by BJ_Covert_Action (1499847) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @08:33PM (#33157236) Homepage Journal
    First off, I have to say that SpaceX announcing they have the intention and potential designs for a Saturn-class lifter is some of the most exciting news I've heard about space in my lifetime (yes, I'm a post 70's child).

    However, there is one key thing that SpaceX needs as they develop as a company. First, and foremost, SpaceX needs to get its LEO business to become lucrative and profitable. If that company can develop enough profit to start breaking away from NASA prize money and other political tie-ins, then they will be set. I have not doubt in my mind that the engineers at SpaceX can deliver what they advocate in this article if they are given the money and opportunity to do so. However, I also have little doubt that folks at the various NASA labs could do the same thing. The key advantage that SpaceX has, over NASA, however, is that it has the potential to be independent of Congress fucking about in it's vehicle designs. That, above all else, is what makes SpaceX special.

    If SpaceX can break it's ties from the government through contracts and cheap launches, then we will be to Mars in my lifetime. However, if they get roped into the political games that so many defense contractors and other space companies do, then America is screwed for a mission to Mars. Right now, the single greatest threat to space explorations is the United States Congress. It really is that simple.
    • by FleaPlus (6935) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @08:39PM (#33157270) Journal

      However, there is one key thing that SpaceX needs as they develop as a company. First, and foremost, SpaceX needs to get its LEO business to become lucrative and profitable. If that company can develop enough profit to start breaking away from NASA prize money and other political tie-ins, then they will be set.

      Not sure if you already knew about this, but back in June SpaceX announced a huge launch contract with Iridium, which is the largest commercial launch contract in history (worth up to $492M). Of course, more contracts like that would be better, but change happens a step at a time.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        Yeah, I knew about the Iridium contract. I am excited for it. However, I will be more excited to see the actual launches taking place and SpaceX posting profits.

        See (you may already know all this), SpaceX isn't the first commercial space venture out there. Other companies have tried to do the cheap commercial launch thing and failed (albeit, they did it very differently than SpaceX). For instance, both the Delta IV and Atlas V vehicles by Boeing and Lockheed-Martin were supposed to provide what SpaceX is
      • Yeah Elon said they booked like 30 launches and only a third of them were government, which left some room for more than a few non Government, and non Iridium launches.

  • by bradbury (33372) <Robert@Bradbury.gmail@com> on Thursday August 05, 2010 @09:52PM (#33157716) Homepage

    A far better vision would be much more expansive than Space X's -- which in my opinion consists of nothing more than building well engineered reusable reliable rockets at affordable prices.

    Some guidelines:
    1. Never use a rocket for material you can hurl or lift into space (i.e. non-G sensitive "mass").
    2. Never use humans when robots can do much of the work (i.e. systems assembly, parts replacement, etc.).
    3. Minimize the risks that humans face (keep them out of space as much as possible or well sheltered from the hazards there).
    4. Invest only once. Build the factories to use materials from space in space.

    You would start with (1) by throwing out the idea of rockets that can lift increasingly larger payloads. Instead you would invest one or more times in building ocean-equatorial based rail/mass guns [7] (to launch fuel, H2O, O2, food, "station"/"factory" subunits using solar power. This would lead to the construction of orbiting sky hooks which could augment the mass guns and/or pick up astronauts from SpaceShip Two type "ferries". Then SpaceTugs pick the astronauts up from the hooks and relocate them to ships under construction in "Dry Dock" (@ L1|L2).

    But before one wants to engage in a vision like this one needs to *seriously* have a discussion regarding when molecular nanotechnology, i.e. when can nanofactories build nanorobots, when can nanorobots build nanofactories (allowing exponential expansion either on the Earth or in space). Nanorobots and nanofactories significantly lower the costs of access to space as well as the development of space (because they eliminate the need for biological "human" environments, safety systems, resource supplies, etc.). So one has to face up to the question of whether we want "human" or "nanorobot" development of space (when one path is clearly less expensive and likely to be more efficient), though perhaps less emotionally fulfilling.

    Many engineers 'dis molecular nanotechnology, but for people who understand genome biology, that genomes are "software", that enzymes, esp. DNA polymerase, RNA polymerase and the ribosome are "assemblers", and who may have read Drexler's 1981 PNAS paper in which biological systems were cited as existence proofs for molecular nanotechnology, and perhaps who have read Nanosystems as well, the only questions that remain are how and when we could engineer systems of such complexity.

    Then the question becomes whether we spend billions of $ on 40-50 y.o. visions (rockets to the moon or Mars) or equivalent or even greater amounts on say a 11-29 y.o vision... [1]. It is clear, at least to me, that the 40-50 y.o. vision provides some great stories, improves our technologies and lets us go where we have never gone before. In contrast the 11-29 y.o. vision frees most individuals on the planet from having to ever work again to survive, may indefinitely extend their lifespans and enables the evolution of humanity from a pre-Kardashev Type I level civilization to a Kardashev Type II level civilization [6].

    I know which vision I'd be inclined to vote for.

    1. Drexler's PNAS paper was published in 1981 [2]. Engines of Creation (Vsn. 1 was published in 1986) and (Vsn 2.0 published in 2007) [3]. Nanosystems (Eric's MIT PhD thesis) was published in 1992 [4]. Nanomedicine Vol. 1 by Robert Freitas was published in 1999 [5]. Almost all other nanotechnology "literature" tends to be long on either speculation or technical details and short on "vision" and facts. Those are the references for "science "visifact"ion.

    2. http://www.pnas.org/content/78/9/5275.abstract [pnas.org]
    3. http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Engines-of-Creation/Eric-Drexler/e/9780385199735 [barnesandnoble.com]
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Engines_of_Creation [wikipedia.org]

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