The next ten years promises to be the era of the “super” rocket. Companies in the United States and China are reviving the long lost dream of building rockets large enough to take humans to the Moon and beyond. The question is, which launch system will be the first to space, and can these new mega rockets escape extinction, unlike their ancestors.
The Original Super Rockets
Most rockets are limited in that they can only launch under 30 metric tons into Earth orbit. They also lack the punch required to place human-rated spacecraft to the Moon and beyond.
So called Super Heavy Lift Launch Vehicles, herein after called SHLLVs, solve this problem through sheer size. Large rockets can unlock efficiencies that their smaller counterparts cannot. But at this size, they are difficult to design, expensive to build, and fraught will challenges that have historically limited their appeal.
The enormous Saturn V rocket that took humans to the Moon was the world’s first true SHLLV, it would loft 140 tons to orbit and throw up to 48 tons to the Moon. The Soviet Union developed its own Lunar rocket, the N1. Both launch systems, however, were ultimately cancelled, at least in part due to the high cost of building these enormous machines that were thrown away with each flight.
This time may be different.
The New Generation
In some sense, SpaceX has already won the race back to the super rocket era with its Falcon Heavy, currently the most powerful rocket in the world. That said, with the ability to lift 30 tons to orbit and just 8 tons to the Moon, the Falcon Heavy is a far cry from the Saturn V.
But the Falcon Heavy loses capability because it is partially reusable. If it were to be expended, like its ancestors, it could loft some 60 tons to orbit, and as much as 27 tons to the Moon. It’s no Saturn V, but its no slouch either.
Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin is developing a similarly capable and partially reusable rocket called New Glenn, scheduled for launch in 2022. New Glenn will be able to loft about 45 tons into Earth orbit and 13 tons to the Moon in its reusable configuration.
On the other side of the world, in China, things are heating up as well. First to fly will be China’s “921 Rocket” which appears to be designed to take crewed spacecraft to the Moon, or approximately 25 tons in cargo. It does also appear that this rocket could be partially reusable with later upgrades, and could fly as soon as 2025.
China is also developing an even larger behemoth called the ChangZheng 9 (CZ-9), a super-heavy lift rocket that promises to fly around 2030. The CZ-9 will be capable of lofting up to 140 tons into orbit, and some 50 tons to the Moon. While current diagrams suggest that it will be an expendable rocket, it will likely be upgraded for reuse.
Sooner Than You Think
But you needn't wait years if you want to see massive machines fly. NASA/Boeing’s SLS, or Space Launch System is scheduled to make its maiden flight in November of this year.
The SLS, for all of its flaws, including a much delayed and over budget development program, will be capable of lofting 95 tons into orbit and 27 tons to the Moon in its initial configuration, to be later upgraded to 105 and 40 tons respectively. This will make the SLS the most powerful and capable rocket in the world at launch…or will it?
The Dark Horse
SpaceX, has been developing its own privately-funded super rocket, the gigantic Starship.. SpaceX appears to be pulling out all of the stops in an effort to beat Boeing to the launchpad.
Starship, unlike the SLS, intends to be fully reusable and much, much, much, cheaper per launch. While the SLS could cost as much as $2 Billion a flight, SpaceX is targeting just $2 Million, or 1/1000th the cost. Starship also promises to launch at least 100 tons to orbit in its initial configuration, and with refueling of the upper stage, may allow up to 100 tons to the Moon.
SpaceX has cancelled test hop campaigns for the first stage intended to test the ability of the stage to land back on Earth. They have also cancelled testing of three upper stage flight prototypes, instead, forging ahead on prototype number 20, the first orbit capable version.
While this means that the first Starship flights will be fully expended, it promises to accelerate the launch schedule such that Starship could make its maiden orbital flight as early as fall of 2021. That’s ambition.
An Exciting Decade
Whomever kicks off the super rocket race, whether its Boeing or SpaceX, the next tens years promises to be an exciting one. The return of the SHLLV’s marks an opportunity, if a brief one. Humanity has a chance, a limited window, to find a way to spread our species beyond the pale blue dot. If we fail, this opportunity may not come again.
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