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Private Space Firm Developing Most Powerful Rocket Since Apollo April 5, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Beyond Earth.
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And so it begins.  Those who follow the subject no doubt are already aware that as of this year NASA will be retiring its shuttle fleet, that the American space agency has no replacement vehicle waiting in the wings to take over and as such will be requiring outside help if it is do continue exploring the cosmos (or low earth orbit as the case is).  Though the Russians will most likely take over in the short term the plan for awhile has been to contract out to private agencies for most of the grunt work, the idea being that this will allow NASA to get back to doing science.  Hence:  SpaceX.

The Falcon 9-Heavy is a beefed up version of the vehicle the firm will soon use to send a robotic cargo ship to the space station.

The new rocket should be capable of putting more than 53 tonnes (117,000lb) of payload in a low-Earth orbit – more than twice that of the space shuttle…

Mr Musk said the vehicle could put in orbit a few hundred km above the Earth a mass equivalent to “more than a fully loaded Boeing 737 with 136 passengers, luggage and fuel”.

“That’s humongous,” he told reporters during a media conference at the National Press Club in Washington DC.

“It’s more capability than any vehicle in history apart from the Saturn 5 [Moon rocket]. So, it opens up a range of possibilities for government and commercial customers that simply aren’t present with the current lifting capacity.”

If what they are saying pans out then this sounds like exactly what the government is saying its looking for; a stellar “pickup truck” to perform the dirty business of actually getting people up there.

Here’s the thing though.  NASA was created with a very specific goal in mind; namely to beat the Soviets into outer space and beyond.  For many decades it operated amazingly well with that goal and though it wasn’t always successful it pushed human knowledge and technology in ways previous generations could quite literally never have fathomed.  Since the fall of the Soviet Union though, and really since the end of the space race, NASA has been searching for a purpose.  Talks of establishing bases on the moon or on Mars have all fizzled out for the simple fact that politicians won’t finance a project with no real economic (we’ve found gold on the moon!) or political (beat those damn Ruskies!) benefits.

Now with the private space companies beginning to take over the space craft industry NASA has one less purpose to its existence.  Sure we can all go on and on about how the shuttle program never worked as intended and in many ways was a financial boondoggle but while it was active it was one of the few things that drove the agency.  Without that what exactly does NASA have? The Hubble?  Its arguably one of humanities greatest achievements but it doesn’t require a whole agency.  Missions to Mars?  I’ll believe that when I see it.  The Space Station?  Lets not even go there.  Without a grand vision driving the agency many will begin to question, rightly, what the purpose of NASA in this day and age really is and with the government constantly shooting down NASA’s attempts to create a grand vision (again, see missions to Mars) the loss of the shuttle fleet looks less like a new beginning and more like the beginning of the end.

Well, whether I like it or not private industry is coming to outer space.  Whether or not this will shake NASA out of the stupor they’ve been in for the past two decades or signal its end as a relevant player in the exploration of space remains to be seen.

 

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