Published in The Patriot Ledger July 22, 2014
In July 1969, 45 years ago this month, Neil Armstrong made the famous “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” onto the Moon. He and the two others on the Apollo 11 crew, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, were launched from Cape Canaveral by a huge Saturn V rocket. Saturn V rockets continued to launch astronauts to the moon for several years, and there were serious predictions that humans would land on Mars before the end of the century. Those were the days.
Today the only Saturn V’s are static displays for tourists visiting NASA space centers. There are no current operating rockets nearly as powerful as the Saturn V, and since 1972, no humans have been launched beyond low earth orbit. Unmanned spacecraft have toured most of the solar system, but humans have been limited to a few hundred miles above the earth in space shuttles or space stations. Will humans ever again reach the Moon or beyond? Probably, but when and how remain very questionable and controversial.
Earlier this month, NASA completed review of Boeing’s design of its ambitious Space Launch System (SLS) and finalized a $2.8 billion contract for the heavy-lift rocket that in its later stages is projected to be actually more powerful than the Saturn V. Based on engines used earlier for the space shuttle, the first stage of the SLS is scheduled for a test launch in December 2017. Being developed independently is Orion, the “multi-purpose crew vehicle” that the SLS will use to launch astronauts to deep space – to the Moon, asteroids, Mars and beyond. An unmanned orbital test flight of Orion is scheduled for this December. NASA projects a manned trip of Orion, launched by the SLS, to a near-earth asteroid in the 2020s and to Mars in the 2030s.
But the Planetary Society and several other space organizations have called for cancellation of the SLS project on the grounds that it will draw funds from other NASA projects and will not reduce launch costs to a reasonable level. Some critics call it the “Senate launch system,” designed by Congress to assure contracts to existing shuttle suppliers rather than opening the challenge to other designs by other manufacturers.
Some have suggested that the planned “Falcon Heavy,” based on the Falcon 9 rocket of Elon Musk’s California company, SpaceX, would be a less expensive way to launch astronauts into deep space than the SLS. According to the SpaceX website, “Falcon Heavy was designed from the outset to carry humans into space and restores the possibility of flying missions with crew to the Moon or Mars.”
The Falcon 9 is a nine-engine rocket that has been used successfully to launch satellites and to launch SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft to carry supplies to and from the International Space Station. The first stage of the Falcon Heavy will consist of three Falcon 9 cores, with its 27 engines providing nearly 4 million pounds of thrust at takeoff. The date for the first test flight of the Falcon Heavy from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California has not yet been announced, but it is likely to be well in advance of the first test flight of the SLS. And launch costs per pound for the Falcon Heavy are projected to be well below those for the SLS.
Much of technology has advanced remarkably since the 1960s, but in heavy-launch rocketry, progress has been backward. Currently, our best hope is that the next “giant leap for mankind,” whether by SLS, the Falcon Heavy, or another alternative, will at least bring us close to Von Braun’s moon rocket of the 1960s, the amazing Saturn V.