“Space! The final frontier.” Those words opened Star Trek viewers to a world of imagination. The voyages of the starship Enterprise were wild flights of fancy. Nothing like that could happen in a thousand lifetimes. That’s what we thought.
But, like warp drive, technological advances are accelerating exponentially. tells us is ready to ship products to the moon. Elon Musk’s is filling a reservation page with potential travelers around our nearest satellite. And those trips are planned for as soon as 2018!
The future is here. The final frontier is within the grasp of our tiny little hands. And it is happening much sooner, and moving much faster, than any of us would have imagined. Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 giant leap for mankind seems like a marathon run on bare feet centuries ago.
What is the word scientists, developers, and visionaries like to use when talking about long-term space travel and occupancy? “Reusability.” The ships that fly high into the dark sky must be capable of not one but 10 trips, 20 trips, 100 trips. That’s because it isn’t cost effective to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a one-off vehicle. No one buys a Porsche Boxster for a single trip to the A&P.
The strides mankind has made just in the last few years toward rocket and capsule reusability are astounding! We have gone from traditional rockets that burn up on reentry, (Indeed, they are designed to do so.) to next-generation rockets. The next-gen shipscan withstand reentry and return to the launch pad or ocean landing site. The gentle vertical set-down results in a rocket ship ready to return to space. “
“Wash it, wax it, and detail the interior. I’ll be back to pick it up later today.”
Who do we have to thank for the advances? Well, thousands of nameless workers toiling tirelessly outside the limelight, of course. The movie “Hidden Figures” didn’t reveal all the behind-the-scenes players.
But it was the foresight, efforts, and resources of two tech billionaires that ultimately made it come to pass. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin pulled off a landing in November of last year. Elon Musk’s SpaceX did it just about a month later.
Their combined efforts are painting the picture of the new reality. But, the two companies are quite different in goal.
Blue Origin has a passenger transportation vision. Bezos hopes to propel tourists into space inside capsules. Musk is already launching satellites and space station supply missions. But both men know they need reusable rockets if the economics of it all is to pencil out. Because blasting stuff into space is an expensive proposition when rockets fly just once before burning up in a free-fall through the atmosphere.
So SpaceX and Blue Origin bring theirs down atop fold-out legs. It’s a trick that requires onboard software to fire thrusters and move flaps that nudge the rockets at precise moments.
Which company is likely to win this version of the space race? Probably Blue Origin. But that isn’t because the brainpower at work there is any more dynamic than the brains at work for SpaceX. Blue Origin’s task is easier because their craft goes half as fast, half as high. and they stay primarily vertical throughout. SpaceX’s rockets have to switch out of a horizontal position. In fact, Musk’s team just missed a landing because a rocket leg didn’t latch into place. It was a small performance and/or design error. But it was the difference between mission success and mission failure.
What do we know for sure? The Baby Boomers had the first race to the moon between the United Staes and the Soviet Union to occupy their minds. This race may not be as rapturously watched on television. But the results will be far more dramatic to the future of mankind.
“Space, a frontier reachable before babies born today enter high school.” Say that three times, William Shatner.
Photos: Linda Moon/Shutterstock.com, Helga Esteb/Shutterstock.com