Since the beginning of the space age the rocket has entered the collective imagination as the space transport vehicle par excellence and countless are the examples in science fiction between 1940s and 1970s. If one had asked people from that period how they imagined the year 2017 they would have probably depicted a world where one could hop on a rocket ship and reach the other side of the planet within minutes. Well, unfortunately they were wrong: today we still rely on good old airplanes to do the job and rocket ships are a mummified dream that no one used to dream anymore.. until now, at least.
The dynamic entrepreneur Elon Musk has been working for years on a reusable rocket technology that could drastically reduce the cost of space transport and this year, his SpaceX Falcon rocket has proved to be reliable enough to represent a breakthrough in space transport systems. His achievement is actually a dream come true for every space agency.
On this blog I’ve always agreed with ASPS point of view about rockets, and I still do, however given the actual state of the art of E.M propulsion systems I think that a cheap vector rocket is indispensable to get things into orbit, EM thrusters included. For this reason I’m saluting Musk’s invention with enthusiasm, because with modern technology this is the best we can do and it has the potentiality to revolutionize the whole sector.
My personal doubts however started when I watched this video:
A passenger rocket ship? This is a vision of the future that would fit well in a 1950s newsreel! In this case I believe Musk must take a step back. I explain my reasons: rockets are basically bombs with an exhaust and accidents happen with a certain frequency so it’s not a good idea to put people inside them, no matter how evolved and safe is the rocket design because the flaw here is the concept itself. Furthermore we must remember that if something goes wrong in space the passengers would face certain death, because while a plane can still land after an engine or equipment failure, a rocket inevitably becomes a deadly trap instead: if the engine doesn’t fire they fall back in the atmosphere and they incinerate, if the engine fires too much they might not have enough fuel for a route correction so the alternatives are incineration in the atmosphere (again), to be stranded in orbit and to wait to fall back in the atmosphere and incinerate (and 3) or to abandon orbit and die a slow death. I’m just talking about engine failures: what about life support, avionics etc? The bare minimum would be a safety net of rescue vehicles around Earth orbit but this is even more science fiction than Musk’s rocket ships. There is also another thing to keep into account: a rocket remains in the air just because it has its reaction force, so if it stops in the atmosphere, the ship becomes a very expensive brick full of dead people. This is not the case with airplanes or other aircrafts because the lift is independent from the power source: where a rocket falls, an airplane glides and so do helicopters.
Those are my two cents on the reason why mass space travel shouldn’t be made with rockets. At this point a spaceplane is better because at least it would solve part of the risks connected to a rocket.
A little personal note about rocket ships: this is basically retro-future. When I saw the video I immediately thought to Flash Gordon and to Twilight zone and as far as I know this is the only time that something has been designed on 1950s concepts rather than on more modern ones.. It’s like wanting to build robots taking inspiration from B-9 : it just sounds weird and out of its time.