Man Rated Launchers

In the absence of transporter beam technology, we are back to rocket systems as a means to reach orbit. One way to approach the problem is to divide it into two strands—one dealing with the launch of people, and the other with lifting large amounts of cargo into orbit. If we look first at the issue of launching crew into orbit, there are new initiatives underway (as we have seen) that are at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of complexity. On the one hand, with the retirement of the Space Shuttle, there is the development of the new manned Orion spacecraft, accompanied by the man-rated Ares 1 launch vehicle. The philosophy here is one of trying to decrease cost, and increase reliability by going back to a simple launch system with a viable escape system for the crew. Fundamentally, the Space Shuttle is a complex machine, and NASA has found it hard work and very costly maintaining an acceptable reliability of 99%, if indeed this can be considered acceptable for a man-rated launcher. On the other hand, there is the approach of developing the complex single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) launch system that we discussed in Chapter 5. There is no doubt that the cost of access to orbit for crew (and indeed small unmanned payloads) would be considerably reduced, as the goal of such a program is to develop a system that is totally reusable with the operating characteristics of an airplane. Despite the severe technical challenges this poses, it does not seem unreasonable that such a vehicle will be developed through civil and military research programs within, say, the next 30 years. As such, it could be easily integrated into the manned exploration programs around 2040 and beyond.

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