What If There Was a Better Way to Reach Space?

Heraclitus famously said, "war is the father of all."

This has been very true in the last century: technology stemming from military competition between superpowers has greatly enhanced people's lives, from duct tape to the internet. Our way of life greatly depends on satellites launched into orbit by rockets that are, to put it bluntly, reconditioned Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). Even the famous Soyuz that is used to carry all astronauts to the International Space Station is a version of a Soviet ICBM, the R-7 Semyorka.

Some say that fundamental advances in technology have stalled since the end of the Cold War. In the words of Buzz Aldrin: "You Promised Me Mars Colonies. Instead, I Got facebook." However, progress need not hinge only on power politics. As a species we have to learn how to continue inventing while reducing our reliance on military research. Especially since, given the destructive power we have today, if there is ever a World War III, it would be the last in a sad trilogy.

Nevertheless, recognising the historical role of War, be it hot or cold, is essential to understand why we do things the way we do now, what the necessities were back then and if these still apply. Especially if we take into account the fact that, when we find something that works, we humans tend to stick to it.

One example of such copy-pasting is how we launch stuff into Space. We are still doing it as though it were the end of the world, with ICBM-like rockets being the most expensive single-use machines ever built. For 20th century decision makers, bent on showcasing their technological edge at the game of MAD, the concepts of reusability, economics, environmentally friendliness seemed irrelevant. In the age of the Paris agreement on climate change, they no longer are.

Why were these pricey missiles used in the first place? In order to send something into Space (or to the other side of the world), you need to overcome two enemies: gravity's pull and the atmosphere's aerodynamic drag, which is stronger in its lower, denser layers. And missiles were able to do the trick, in only half an hour. However, to be so fast, they have to deal with gravity and drag simultaneously, and what is good for one is bad for the other. To tackle the problem these extremely complex and expensive pieces of engineering are packed into an elongated pointy shape to minimize drag.

But to launch a satellite you don't have to be in apocalypse-mode, you can drop the requirement to do it in 30 minutes. Then you can split the process of reaching orbit in two parts: exiting the atmosphere (its dense layers) and picking up speed (to reach orbit). That way, you effectively decouple the problem and can be far more efficient.

If this is such a good idea, and apparently simple, why hasn't it been done? Well, in 1957, the US Air Force, around the dates of Sputnik and Explorer, took a conventional rocket and attached it to a balloon. This "rockoon" gently raised from the ground until most of the atmosphere was beneath it, then the rocket was launched, a rocket that needed not only less fuel to reach a certain altitude, but also less parts, less complexity and less cost. The rockoon worked, as seen on the footage below:

But it had two problems, it took an hour to reach the firing altitude (in the MAD game, 1 hour means game over) and it could only carry about 100kg to Space. At a time when spy satellites and nuclear warheads weighed several tons, the rockoon branch of the tree of innovation was discontinued.

Fast forward to the 21st century: electronics and nanotechnology let us pack amazing capabilities into very small devices, like the one you are reading this from. Small satellites like those developed by Planetlabs, Axelspace or OneWeb may hold the key to worldwide internet access, imaging, flawless weather prediction, and so on. Environmentally friendly and efficient rockoons such as bloostar start to make sense again. Furthermore, small satellites have traditionally been forced to wait for a large satellite to be launched, and hitchhike their way into orbit. That is no longer the case because rockoons can be launched on demand, not from expensive spaceports, but from anywhere in the sea, as seen below:

And what's more important, this time around, the driver for innovation is not power politics but the willingness to empower citizens and their businesses, enhancing their daily lives in a sustainable fashion.

I can't wait to see more solutions to so many important problems that will come from this way of thinking.