Of Starships and spaceplanes, and roads less traveled

The first Martian to visit Earth is a young boy, a twist on visiting the old country of your parents. To him, Earth is a distant place, with an odd blue sky, and sparking some anxiety. This was the premise of a short film at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in the early 1990s, “The Boy from Mars.” The obligatory scenes on a ship from Mars include cheesy dialog matched only by an even more cheesy space cruiser. After, everyone must transfer to a spaceplane to get down to Earth. Creatively, rather than landing like an airplane, or Space Shuttles, the spaceplane’s gentle glide back to Earth ends with a pitch-up maneuver and a vertical landing.

Hollywood loves landing winged spaceplanes vertically, with no runway required. After all, why would any director want to limit just where the action might go? So, of course, we get wings and things, a landing pad instead of a runway, and plenty of window seats.

Spaceplanes getting loaded with cargo, as envisioned in the Kennedy Space Center Vision Spaceport Partnership, 1998-2001

A memorable scene follows the family’s arrival at the spaceport. Reporters wait to receive the first Martian in what seems uncannily like a gate at Orlando International. That is, before 911 when waiting for your friends and family right outside the gate was the norm. After the long ride, everyone’s a bit cranky, and the boy has acted up a bit. Millions of miles on the road will get you in a mood. Finally, the family exits the gate, both parents scolding the boy non-stop while he tries to get out an apology. The reporters never get a word in edgewise, left only to say pretty much how some things never change. The most exciting interplanetary voyage we might dream of today is just another long flight to Florida in the 2060s.

Who needs to have heavy liquid oxygen tanks to get to orbit when there is air all around us?

Spaceplanes got a lot of attention from NASA, not just Hollywood, in the following years. These concepts were air-breathers, true hypersonic spaceplanes that fly much like airliners. Taking in air along the way, they would not have to carry all that oxygen like rockets. At face value, this seems beyond obvious. Who needs to have heavy liquid oxygen tanks to get to orbit when there is air all around us? A spaceplane would meander a bit, going sideways in the atmosphere for longer rather than shooting straighter up like a rocket. All the better to grab all that free air and accelerate.

These are not idle concepts, more PowerPoint than real, or just studies. NASA and the US Department of Defense first poured serious money into these technologies with the National Aero-Space Plane in the early 80s. (By the time I joined these tasks, we would work NASP-Derived Vehicles, or NDVs, in NASA’s penchant for acronyms that contain acronyms.) When it should have been front and center, unsaid in all this was a vision of space travel as rather pedestrian. At least as pedestrian as flying in a tube in the air can ever be, with all the wonder that should still amaze us if we paused for a moment. If Grandma is ever coming back from visiting her daughter and the grandkids on the Moon, the “flow-down” is spaceplanes.

Start with the vision, and where does it take you, in reverse? If we envision a family leaving the gate at the spaceport making a show for everyone to see, you have something like an airliner. Except being a spaceport, this airliner is a spaceliner, and it came from orbit.

NASP card – front. An 8X10 inch NASA handout that too often marked a project must be low on funding.
NASP card – back.

…the vision remains much closer than anyone might think.

Unfortunately, funding the necessary technology for spaceplanes came to a standstill by the late 1990s. Some insiders even questioned the whole idea. The definitive (public) compendium on air-breathing spaceplanes, “The Synerjet Engine,” by Bill Escher of NASA, nonetheless shows none of this as ill-conceived, remote or impossible. Spaceplanes are not something for another generation. Instead, the vision remains much closer than anyone might think. The matter is about steps along the way, a very long but doable to-do list.

Rather, today we have SpaceX Starships, at the same time we have hypersonic missiles across the sky in Ukraine, and NASA going back to the Moon. This curious mix of news would seem unconvincing if it were the short description on the back cover of a sci-fi novel – set in the future. Yet here we are.

There remains a long list of items for NASA astronauts to step foot again on the Moon. Besides completing a crewed shakedown flight of the new SLS rocket and the Orion spacecraft, NASA must finish:

–         a Gateway, a new lunar space station where crew will stay a while after arriving on Orion, but before leaving on a lunar lander,

–         a new SpaceX Dragon XL spacecraft to ship supplies to the Gateway,

–         new Spacesuits, with Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace,

–         a SpaceX Starship, in its lunar lander form with legs,

–         a SpaceX Starship, in the refueling tanker form, returning to Earth to be captured by the arms of “mechazilla” as it slows just above the landing site (which is also the launch pad),

Credit: SpaceX. Tanker (left) and lunar lander or other crewed (space-cruiser?) version (right)

Not on this to-do list – spaceplanes. Yet a vision of routine travel to and from space would seem to require returning to Earth comfortably. While a necessary step is reusability, as Starships will do, there remains a distance to go to coming back home as if stepping off an airplane and out the gate. After a lack of further interest by the late 90s, a resurrected interest and funding in hypersonic propulsion has come not from NASA but from the US DOD – and the secret world of weapons. Oddly, the last breath of interest in a reusable rocket with wings also came from the DOD, with the DARPA XSP. Yet these would never meet, the one-off to a world of closed doors and classified data, the other finding Boeing bowing out of the partnership.

Drawing up a list for true hypersonic propulsion (which those merely ballistic Russian missiles are not) would have different items on the to-do list:

–         assorted new materials for propulsion and for thermal protection, (We often joked in our DOD projects how all we needed was “unobtanium”)

–         a new engine where combustion occurs at supersonic speeds (if only it were as easy as the cliché of lighting a match in a hurricane, as that would be low speed)

…these are not your parent’s Space Shuttle tiles.

Seemingly an impossible list, NASA now has partners that can make the seemingly impossible happen. SpaceX, with the reusable Falcon 9, and the Dragon spacecraft, show NASA and the private sector can make lightning strike. No one would have predicted a reusable Starship as a NASA lunar lander as recently as a few years ago. Unobtanium jokes aside, thermal protection materials today may appear on the surface a lot like yesteryears, but these are not your parent’s Space Shuttle tiles. Producing composites today is a very different matter too, no longer the craftwork of patient technicians and engineers mired in goo, but one of robots and better quality. (Boeing and the DARPA XSP showed the way here.)

Neither are the software and simulations today even remotely like their ancestors from the 90s. That would be an insult, like comparing an AI model today to my first spreadsheet from 1986. Instead, what we often found to be a barrier in our DOD projects was not physics so much as a lack of funding and incentives. And it was never a world of funding or asking for a blank check.

Connecting all these to-do lists could be seen as the missing piece, more of that cliché of productivity improvements lagging behind technological advances. It takes a while to figure out how all the new gizmos and gadgets work together. We already had wi-fi, the chips, touch-screens, and apps. All we needed was someone (actually a thousand someone’s) putting it all together the right way, in that first iPhone.

It’s easy to say join the to-do lists the right way. Lightning must strike twice in the same place, and close in time, for transport to and from space. So one day, sooner rather than later, the easy flight from orbit is memorable only for the scene that family made at the gate.

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