Rockets vs Rocket Planes

Artists concept of the X-30 aerospace plane fl...

Artists concept of the X-30 aerospace plane flying through Earth's atmosphere on its way to low-Earth orbit. the experimental concept is part of the National Aero-Space Plane Program. The X-30 is planned to demonstrate the technology for airbreathing space launch and hypersonic cruise vehicles. Photograph and caption published in Winds of Change, 75th Anniversary NASA publication (page 117), by James Schultz.
Image via Wikipedia.

In this corner, with wings, a tail and snazzy landing gear, we have a space plane…a hybrid of Heaven and Earth.  It lofts gracefully up through the air and then lights the main engines to continue its climb to space.  On return it slides back through the atmosphere and gently lowers itself onto a runway before slowly costing to a stop.

The launch of the Zvezda service module of the...
The launch of the Zvezda service module of the International Space Station on a Russian Proton-K rocket. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In this corner we have the modern continuation of the ancient Chinese invention, the drag racer of space flight, the Rocket.  Packing enough muscle to light a major city for a year, it shakes the ground with its mighty roar and with one lunge it shoves the surly bonds of Earth aside and leaps into the sky, casting off pieces of itself along the way in it’s mad rush to get to space.   All it has left to return to Earth is a cone-shaped capsule which, after its fiery descent through the atmosphere, crashes into the ocean with a steaming splash.

Let’s compare.

Aircraft are complex.  Jet aircraft are even more complex.  Hybrid Jet/Rocket craft are still more complex and the horizontal takeoff to horizontal landing spacecraft that I described in the opening of this article has yet to fly to Low Earth Orbit.  Yes, there is Virgin Galactic, but so far the vehicles that they fly are all sub-orbital.  As romantic and completely awesome as space planes are they suffer the curse of the complexity born from specializing at two things at once.  This because flying with atmosphere and flying without atmosphere require very different physics.  Also, for all their apparent benefit of breathing air instead of carrying it and of a fully reusable airframe, space planes take longer to design and test and cost a lot of money to build, maintain, and turn around for its next flight.  Still, it is how I would most prefer to fly to space and I think that it is the future of space flight.

Up like a bullet and down like a rock.  The rocket-powered spacecraft is, from touch off to splash down, fully ballistic.  It takes little advantage of air, being essentially a spacecraft from the ground up.  For all it throws away, it carries and brings back only what it needs to make the trip.  It is old school, and it’ll be great when we grow out of it, but in times like these when lower $$$$ per pound to orbit carries the possibility of true commercial space opportunities never before realized, simple is good.  Like it or not, throwing it away is still cheaper than recycling.

I eagerly await SpaceX‘s upcoming rocket launch.  At a $1000 per pound it will launch with it a bold challenge to the rest of the world on how truly routine space flight can be done and will open up a host of new possibilities in space.  I promise that even us science fiction writers haven’t yet predicted it all.  Just wait and see.

But I also eagerly await the various space plane concepts in the works.  With them will come the real step that will eventually bring the average Joe to space.  True flight is something we on Earth have become are good at…and we knew how to fly well before we knew how to rocket well and all of us like the idea of just flying a little higher so we can touch the stars.

So which would you rather do, take-off into space and then land, or get tossed up into space and fall back down?

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~ by Bill Housley on April 14, 2012.

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