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Mars Transportation Space Science Technology

SpaceX Unveils Heavy-Lift Rocket Designs 248

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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  • Shiny! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by CrimsonAvenger ( 580665 ) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @06:16PM (#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.

  • Nuclear Thermal? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by jpmorgan ( 517966 ) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @06:18PM (#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:Vision (Score:5, Interesting)

    by timeOday ( 582209 ) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @06:30PM (#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.
  • Re:Vision (Score:5, Interesting)

    by tgd ( 2822 ) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @06:49PM (#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:Hahaha! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jusdisgi ( 617863 ) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @06:55PM (#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:Retiring to Mars? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Caerdwyn ( 829058 ) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @07:17PM (#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 bradbury ( 33372 ) <Robert.Bradbury@noSPAM.gmail.com> on Thursday August 05, 2010 @10:52PM (#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]

  • by BJ_Covert_Action ( 1499847 ) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @11:05PM (#33157780) Homepage Journal
    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 now trying to provide (cheap, accessible space on board a launch vehicle). Unfortunately, those two vehicles have, since, failed to be cheap. Similarly, Sealaunch offered a unique GEO access platform for commercial use. They also failed financially in an epic manner (they are currently recovering from bankruptcy). All three of those companies had various contracts signed that they waved around declaring it was proof that their launch platforms would be great business opportunities to invest in at one time. All three of those companies have, since, failed to provide cheap access to space. Now, I do realize all four vehicles being discussed fill various niches that the others don't. However, my point is that SpaceX has a contract that will earn it a lot of money if all goes according to plan. If that doesn't happen, potential customers may start investing in other platforms. With other customers earning business, SpaceX's profit-margin would 'sink' from it's theoretical maximum and it may not be able to turn over a decent profit to achieve it's engineering goals.

    Now, I don't say any of this to be pessimistic. I am rooting for SpaceX every step of the way, and I think they have the engineering and business know-how to get their goals accomplished. However, until I see those Iridium sats sitting on orbit, and money being transferred to SpaceX's accounts that exceed it's development loans, I will remain fearful that Musk and his team's high ambitions could get muddled by outside influences (ahem, Congress, ahem).

    The point is, the sooner SpaceX can point and laugh at Congress when they decrease the available funds to NASA for helping to develop commercial platforms, the better....IMHO.
  • Re:Hahaha! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Ironhandx ( 1762146 ) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @11:13PM (#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.

  • by khallow ( 566160 ) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @11:13PM (#33157836)

    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.

  • by TheTurtlesMoves ( 1442727 ) on Friday August 06, 2010 @04:59AM (#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.
  • by rufty_tufty ( 888596 ) on Friday August 06, 2010 @07:15AM (#33159544) Homepage

    You could argue that founding America didn't really work out that well for the founding country. They invest all that money and people in getting it started and then the ungrateful sods go and fight a war of independence against you just as soon as they start to generate meaningful tax revenue to recoop your investment.
    Bloody ungrateful sods.
    You think space won't be any different? Why should a government invest money in getting people into space when they won't be able to tax them, or if they do (outland revenue) then the buggers just declare a war of independence on you and they have the high ground.
    Nope governments are not the way to space, corporations however...

  • Re:Ownership? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by trout007 ( 975317 ) on Friday August 06, 2010 @07:39AM (#33159658)
    Depends on your politics but I subscribe to the homesteading principle which basically states how some unowned resource becomes property. It isn't a settled matter mind you but offers a good start. So say you land on Mars with a rover capable of traveling a 10 mile radius from your base. The land you traveled to would now be your property for you to do with what you wish. Sell chunks of to people on earth, ect. So using this theory the US wouldn't own the moon because we did not travel everywhere. We would own just the outline of where the astronauts walked/drove. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homestead_principle [wikipedia.org]
  • Re:Hahaha! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Teancum ( 67324 ) <robert_horning AT netzero DOT net> on Friday August 06, 2010 @10:41AM (#33161920) Homepage Journal

    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 developing spaceflight equipment, I'm quite certain that Wall Street would take notice and there would likely be far more money put into spaceflight (both robotic and manned) than NASA could ever dream. Furthermore, the tax receipts that the federal government would lose would be relatively minor in comparison, and I would argue would be less than the current outlays to NASA. Since it would still be private individuals putting their own money on the line instead of lining up to the government pork trench, the most cost effective and profitable approaches would also be used for nearly every design that would actually make it into orbit. Silly things like paper studies to nowhere would become a thing of the past.

    If, after some time it becomes apparent that certain areas of industry may need a little bit of a boost due to capital requirements... perhaps a little bit of federal involvement could happen. But seriously, I am not convinced that would even be necessary under such a tax-free space investment environment. The capital necessary to do spaceflight is around, the question is mainly how is it going to be allocated and if it should go through the hands of a bunch of senators and congressmen first.

    Given NASA's track record over the past 30 years in singularly failing to develop even a single useful manned spaceflight vehicle in spite of nearly a hundred billion dollars spent along those lines, almost anything would be better than the current approach. I'm not convinced that NASA could possibly be reformed in any meaningful way to do better. Still, wouldn't it be an amazing experiment to even maintain or slightly cut but not eliminate NASA's budget at current levels and do a tax holiday to see just what would come from this kind of activity? Eliminate ITAR restrictions on civilian commercial spaceflight, and it would be an almost ideal environment. The government is the problem, not the solution.

  • Re:Shiny! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Teancum ( 67324 ) <robert_horning AT netzero DOT net> on Friday August 06, 2010 @07:32PM (#33170038) Homepage Journal

    I think they would stop being called "spacecraft" and move into the realm of a "spaceship". With a little bit of work and some engineering, you might even see some space-based drydocks and spaceships that could never be launched from nor land on the surface of the Earth, but instead are strictly designed and built for point to point locations entirely in orbit or at least off of planetary bodies. "Landing", what there would be, would be more "docking" than anything else.... like "docking" to a facility on Phobos.

    There will still be a need for "landing craft" to get to and from planetary bodies, but in my opinion those vehicles ought to be relatively small and dedicated to the environment and engineering requirements for that body. I also see no reason to cart all of the mass of an Earth landing vehicle to Mars only to bring it back. Keep the Earth landing craft near the Earth, and Mars landing craft near Mars (if you can make them reusable).

    Still, it is fun to speculate about what you could do with mass on the order of 150 tons, and consider that a whole bunch of heavy machinery is hauled around here point to point on the Earth in vehicles capable of transporting loads of that nature. The faring diameter for the Falcon XX launcher would also be on the order of the hull diameter for a 747 as well.

    If anybody was serious about getting extra-terrestrial mining efforts going, I would think that such mass requirements would be routine for launches, and something that would be comparable in terms of logistics to mining in very remote areas that use air freight for moving in parts and supplies. At the moment, even if somebody had the money to pay for such launches there isn't a vehicle that could make the trip right now.

    I'm sure if we develop that kind of lift capacity, or even get close enough that there's some confidence it *will* get developed, people will come up with all kinds of uses. For example, how many flights would it have taken to put the current mass of the ISS into orbit? How about it's complete design mass?

    The total mass of the ISS is right now about 400 metric tons. @150 tons per trip, that would put the mass of the whole ISS up in three trips with room to spare. One module for habitation (& life support/logistics), one module for science, and a third module for power. If you used a Bigelow-style module for the habitation module, it could house about 30 astronauts (for the same mass) and the launch costs.... assuming about $5 billion as a high-ball estimate for this vehicle, would be about $15 billion. In other words, for less than 1/10th of the cost of the ISS they could put up a larger facility that does more in fewer launches and holds more astronauts doing far and away much more science. Heck, that is the operations cost alone for the ISS over the next decade.

    And I'm really high-balling the costs here. Each Merlin-2 engine is quoted as costing about $50 million each, and the Falcon XX has somewhere between a dozen and 20 of these Merlin-2 engines (I don't see the specific figures right now on the design, but I know the 150 tons of lift is accurate). Tankage and configuration costs put it in the realm of between $1 billion and $5 billion to launch, or about the cost of a single Space Shuttle flight, give or take some fudge room and interpretation of how much it costs to launch a Shuttle.

    It should be noted there were privately financed shuttle launches (not many, but they did happen and arguably subsidized).

The moon is a planet just like the Earth, only it is even deader.