Chair Force Engineer

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Transform Space

Initially, I was a skeptic when I first read the proposals from t/Space. That was back in Fall 2004, when various contractors were proposing different architectures for the Vision for Space Exploration. t/Space wanted to launch multiple moonships at the same time (an idea I liked,) but needed multiple launches to fuel said moonships (which I didn't like.) I was skeptical of the benefits of their air launch system (and I still am,) and I was skepical they could pull off the flight rate proposed for their moon mission.

As time has gone on, my skepticism has yielded to optimism, at least for t/Space's earth-to-orbit plans. The t/Space system has three distinct components: the Very Large Aircraft (VLA) that will carry the spacecraft to around 40,000' altitude, the rocket itself, and the CXV (Crew/Cargo Transfer Vehicle.)

I have the most faith in t/Space's VLA, because Burt Rutan will probably be designing it. It's been rumored that White Knight 2, being developed to launch SpaceShipTwo, will also serve as t/Space's VLA. If there is one truism in the field of aerospace, it's that Burt Rutan equals awesomeness. If something can be done but the industry doesn't know how, Burt shows them the way.

I started to warm to the CXV after seeing the mockup at the X-Prize Cup. The shape, based on the Discoverer/Corona capsule, is a proven one (and I assume that it can make a semiballistic or ballistic reentry.) Everything on the mockup seemed well thought-out from my perspective, including the attitude & retro rockets, the window shape and placement, the docking system, the reversible hammock-seats (which rotate between launch & reentry positions,) the equipment racks, and even the toilet.

I still have some skepticism about the propane/LOX booster rocket that will be dropped from the VLA to boost the CXV to orbit. t/Space's partner for this element is AirLaunch LLC. While a vertical airlaunch does require slightly less delta-V to reach orbit when compared to a vertical ground launch, it also introduces new challenges. There is some concern about safely venting propellant from the rocket if the launch is aborted. This isn't as hard with the t/Space booster because it's carried externally from the VLA. It's another matter when you have a smaller rocket (like the proposed QuickReach from AirLaunch LLC) that's pushed out the back end of a C-17 cargo plane. Frankly, I prefer the old AFRL "Bladerunner" concept over AirLaunch's proposed configuration.

Still, t/Space has a good shot in NASA's competition to find a commercial means of delivering astronauts and supplies to the space station. Nothing in the t/Space system is unproven; the challenge is integrating the various technologies together in a seamless and safe fashion.