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April 7, 2013

Space Boost

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Space entrepreneurs who want to fly you into orbit will get their chance to take cargo and crews to the space station when the space shuttles retire. NASA's award of contracts totaling $500 million to private rocketeers is a boost for a new approach to spaceflight. This ScienCentral News video has more.

Launching Space X

"Today it costs over a billion dollars for a space shuttle flight," says Elon Musk, president of one such company, Space Technologies International, or Space X. "The cost ... is fundamentally what's holding us back from becoming a space traveling civilization and ultimately a multi-planet species."

NASA is funding Musk's private launch company to develop low-cost transportation systems to replace the retiring space shuttles. NASA officials say this makes good on the agency's promise to partner with entrepreneurs to expand the next frontier.

"You are getting the first traders along the Mississippi now. That's happening in space," says, Edward J. Stanton, Jr., director of NASA's Constellation Systems Division, which is overseeing development of the transportation and exploration systems to return to the moon.

image: Space X
So does the future of space travel belong to entrepreneurs with stars in their sights? Musk, who's amassed a resource most of us will never see, a nest egg valued at about $384 million, thanks in part to the sale of the company he founded then sold in 2002, PayPal, says he's putting his fortune where his future hopes lie — colonizing Mars.

Unlike those of us who might use our millions to finance early retirement, Musk's less interested in watching the zeros grow than he is in getting us to Mars. But he's willing to start off by refining rocketry. "We have significant innovations in the propulsion system, in the avionics, guidance control and in the launch operation itself," he explains. The strength of rocket's design rests in part on its first-stage engine, called Merlin (it has one high pressure fuel injector unlike other engines that use hundreds of injector holes) and its upper-stage engine, Kestrel.

But what could really propel rocket lovers into a state of awe is the fact that the rocket is 80 percent recyclable, while the future Falcon V is fully recyclable — hopes are that it could be used as much as a hundred times.
Musk adds, "the Falcon I will be the only semi-reusable rocket in the world apart from the space shuttle." The recycling strategy alone, Musk says, will put the nosedive on costs.

The rocket has other cost-saving innovations. It requires no assembly on the launch pad, unlike the way other rockets are put together, which Musk says, "is analogous to building part of an airplane in a factory and part of the airplane on the runway. You can imagine that's a pretty expensive way to split the construction so the fact that we can just do the entire integrated rocket, transport it as a single unit, that definitely reduces costs."

So far, Musk has invested $100 million of his own money and says he can afford three failures, or up to $300 million. What he says motivates him is the potential to keep moving mankind forward — and upward. At that thought, he harkens a quote from one of rocket theory's originators, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, "Earth is humanity's cradle but we cannot remain in the cradle forever."

The first launch attempt by Space-X in March 2006 was a failure, but that's no concern for taxpayers. Under the new NASA contracts, if these companies don't succeed, they won't get paid.

The other small company chosen for a NASA contract is Rocketplane Kistler, which is also developing reusable launch vehicles.

       email to a friend by Victor Limjoco

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