Reuse, Reliability Will Launch Future, Study Says

Driving down the price of taking people and cargo into space or to the other side of the world in two hours will depend on developing a system so reliable and reusable that a thousand flights or more can take place in a year, a space launch expert told a group of engineers and others Aug. 31 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

It's not a launch scenario envisioned for the immediate future, but it could develop in the decades afterward, Jay Penn of Los Angeles-based The Aerospace Corporation said during his "Beyond Next Generation Access to Space" presentation. The company studied potential business cases for pursuing different launch strategies.

The cost of taking a pound of anything into space ran about $10,000 aboard the space shuttle, but that price tag would fall dramatically if space agencies and companies model their research on developing launch systems on the commercial airline and air cargo industries, Penn said.

"Commercial aircraft operate at $2 to $3 per pound of payload around the world, but space is 5,000 times that," Penn said.

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. 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.

His study 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. Among the markets that could provide that spark are orbital space tourism, even limited demand for space-based solar power generation, and high speed transport services to travel from point-to-point on the planet.

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