Low-Maintenance, Reliable Spacecraft In NASA's Future, Experts Predict
September 3, 2011

Low-Maintenance, Reliable Spacecraft In NASA’s Future


A spacecraft that can be reused and is capable of making more than 1,000 flights each year would drive down NASA's expenses and could radically change the agency's future, one aerospace expert argued during a recent presentation on the future of space travel.

Speaking at the Kennedy Space Center on August 31, Jay Penn of The Aerospace Corporation in Los Angeles admitted that such a proposal would not be possible in the immediate future, but said that it could drastically reduce the cost of transporting individuals or equipment into outer space in the decades ahead, NASA reported in a September 2 press release.

According to the NASA press release, it costs $10,000 to transport one pound on board the space shuttle. However, in his "Beyond Next Generation Access to Space" presentation, Penn asserted that those costs would plummet if developers based next generation launch systems on those used in the commercial airline and air cargo industries.

"Getting the space transportation business down to that cost means building vehicles that are designed for operability--that is much less maintenance between flights with rapid turnaround to support much higher flight rates," the U.S. space agency statement said. "Evolving systems that deliver people and cargo to anywhere on the planet in less than two hours, for example, will need to make multiple trips in the same day and operate out of three or more hubs around the world."

Penn's study, they note, "has shown that some new applications could emerge in the coming years to accelerate the demand for frequent and lower cost access to space. In fact, the development of such reusable and operable systems will require the promise of higher demand to justify their development," such as the growth of the space tourism industry or space-based solar power generation.

NASA asserts that the Kennedy Space Center, which is home to "unique facilities such as the Vehicle Assembly Building and a runway long enough to host space-going vehicles," could play an important role in the research and development of this type of spacecraft.

"Jim Ball, the deputy of Kennedy's Center Planning and Development Office, said his office is leading the effort to craft a future development concept and revised master plan for KSC to position it for future needs," NASA said, adding that, according to Ball, Penn's plan "will provide a guide for the overall development of the center for the next several decades."

A spacecraft built to be this highly re-usable and low maintenance could have a large first-stage booster, wings and landing gears for runway use, and way approximately the same as a modern jumbo jet, officials at the space administration predict. The booster engines would most likely be fueled by kerosene or liquid hydrogen, and a second-stage would likely be small with wings and a tiny cargo bay, though they discuss the possibility of the "two first stage boosters could be combined to launch a particularly large payload."

Penn's organization, The Aerospace Corporation, is a federally funded research and development center for the U.S. Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office. According to their official website, they have provided national security programs with technical and scientific research, development, and advisory services for more than 40 years.


Image Caption: A reliable and reusable booster that encompasses several emerging technologies will be crucial to developing a space launch architecture that drives down the price of delivering passengers and payloads into space or for carrying cargo around the world in two hours or less, according to a study of spaceflight's future. NASA artist concept.


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