Mars may not be the kind of place to raise your kids, but chances are that one day [Elton John]’s famous lyrics will be wrong about there being no one there to raise them. For now, however, we have probes, orbiters, and landers. Mars missions are going strong this year, with three nations about to launch their rockets towards the Red Planet: the United States sending their Perseverance rover, China’s Tianwen-1 mission, and the United Arab Emirates sending their Hope orbiter.
As all of this is planned to happen still within the month of July, it almost gives the impression of a new era of wild space races where everyone tries to be first. Sure, some egos will certainly be boosted here, but the reason for this increased run within such a short time frame has a simple explanation: Mars will be right around the corner later this year — relatively speaking — providing an ideal opportunity to travel there right now.
In fact, this year is as good as it gets for quite a while. The next time the circumstances will be (almost) as favorable as this year is going to be in 2033, so it’s understandable that space agencies are eager to not miss out on this chance. Not that Mars missions couldn’t be accomplished in the next 13 years — after all, several endeavors are already in the wings for 2022, including the delayed Rosalind Franklin rover launch. It’s just that the circumstances won’t be as ideal.
But what exactly does that mean, and why is that? What makes July 2020 so special? And what’s everyone doing up there anyway? Well, let’s find out!
After the end of the Second World War the United States and the Soviet Union started working feverishly to perfect the rocket technology that the Germans developed for the V-2 program. This launched the Space Race, which thankfully for everyone involved, ended with boot prints on the Moon instead of craters in Moscow and DC. Since then, global tensions have eased considerably. Today people wait for rocket launches with excitement rather than fear.
That being said, it would be naive to think that the military isn’t still interested in pushing the state-of-the-art forward. Even in times of relative peace, there’s a need for defensive weapons and reconnaissance. Which is exactly why the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been soliciting companies to develop a small and inexpensive launch vehicle that can put lightweight payloads into Earth orbit on very short notice. After all, you never know when a precisely placed spy satellite can make the difference between a simple misunderstanding and all-out nuclear war.
More than 50 companies originally took up DARPA’s “Launch Challenge”, but only a handful made it through to the final selection. Virgin Orbit entered their air-launched booster into the competition, but ended up dropping out of contention to focus on getting ready for commercial operations. Vector Launch entered their sleek 12 meter long rocket into the competition, but despite a successful sub-orbital test flight of the booster, the company ended up going bankrupt at the end of 2019. In the end, the field was whittled down to just a single competitor: a relatively unknown Silicon Valley company named Astra.
Should the company accomplish all of the goals outlined by DARPA, including launching two rockets in quick succession from different launch pads, Astra stands to win a total of $12 million; money which will no doubt help the company get their booster ready to enter commercial service. Rumored to be one of the cheapest orbital rockets ever built and small enough to fit inside of a shipping container, it should prove to be an interesting addition to the highly competitive “smallsat” launcher market.
Ever since humans came up with the bright idea to explore parts of the Earth which were significantly less hospitable to human life than the plains of Africa where humankind evolved, there’s been a constant pressure to better protect ourselves against the elements to keep our bodies comfortable. Those first tests of a new frontier required little more than a warm set of clothes. Over the course of millennia, challenging those frontiers became more and more difficult. In the modern age we set our sights on altitude and space, where a warm set of clothes won’t do much to protect you.
With the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the heating up of the space race between the US and USSR, many firsts had to be accomplished with minimal time for testing and refinement. From developing 1945’s then state-of-the-art V-2 sounding rockets into something capable of launching people to the moon and beyond, to finding out what would be required to keep people alive in Earth orbit and on the Moon. Let’s take a look at what was required to make this technological marvel happen, and develop the Portable Life Support System — an essential component of those space suits that kept astronauts so comfortable they were able to crack jokes while standing on the surface of the Moon.
In the fall of 1957, it seemed as though the United States’ space program would never get off the ground. The USSR had launched Sputnik in October, and this cemented their place in history as the first nation in space. If that weren’t bad enough, they put Sputnik 2 into orbit a month later.
By Christmas, things looked even worse. The US had twice tried to launch Navy-designed Vanguard rockets, and both were spectacular failures. It was time to use their ace in the hole: the Redstone rocket, a direct descendant of the V-2s designed during WWII. The only problem was the propellant. It would never get the payload into orbit as-is.
The US Army awarded a contract to North American Aviation (NAA) to find a propellant that would do the job. But there was a catch: it was too late to make any changes to the engine’s design, so they had to work with big limitations. Oh, and the Army needed it two days before yesterday.
The Army sent a Colonel to NAA to deliver the contract, and to personally insist that they put their very best man on the job. And they did. What the Army didn’t count on was that NAA’s best man was actually a woman with no college degree.
As the prospects for Germany during the Second World War began to look increasingly grim, the Nazi war machine largely pinned their hopes on a number of high-tech “superweapons” they had in development. Ranging from upgraded versions of their already devastatingly effective U-Boats to tanks large enough to rival small ships, the projects ran the gamut from practical to fanciful. After the fall of Berlin there was a mad scramble by the Allied forces to get into what was left of Germany’s secretive development facilities, with each country hoping to recover as much of this revolutionary technology for themselves as possible.
One of the most coveted prizes was the Aggregat 4 (A4) rocket. Better known to the Allies as the V-2, it was the world’s first liquid fueled guided ballistic missile and the first man-made object to reach space. Most of this technology, and a large number of the engineers who designed it, ended up in the hands of the United States as part of Operation Paperclip. This influx of practical rocketry experience helped kick start the US space program, and its influence could be seen all the way up to the Apollo program. The Soviet Union also captured V-2 hardware and production facilities, which subsequently influenced the design of their early rocket designs as well. In many ways, the V-2 rocket was the spark that started the Space Race between the two countries.
With the United States and Soviet Union taking the majority of V-2 hardware and personnel, little was left for the British. Accordingly their program, known as Operation Backfire, ended up being much smaller in scope. Rather than trying to bring V-2 hardware back to Britain, they decided to learn as much as they could about it in Germany from the men who used it in combat. This study of the rocket and the soldiers who operated it remains the most detailed account of how the weapon functioned, and provides a fascinating look at the incredible effort Germany was willing to expend for just one of their “superweapons”.
In addition to a five volume written report on the V-2 rocket, the British Army Kinematograph Service produced “The German A.4 Rocket”, a 40 minute film which shows how a V-2 was assembled, transported, and ultimately launched. Though they are operating under the direction of the British government, the German soldiers appear in the film wearing their own uniforms, which gives the documentary a surreal feeling. It could easily be mistaken for actual wartime footage, but these rockets weren’t aimed at London. They were being fired to serve as a historical record of the birth of modern rocketry.
With a highly publicized test firing and pledge by President Vladimir Putin that it will soon be deployed to frontline units, Russia’s Avangard hypersonic weapon has officially gone from a secretive development program to an inevitability. The first weapon of its type to enter into active service, it’s capable of delivering a payload to any spot on the planet at speeds up to Mach 27 while remaining effectively unstoppable by conventional missile defense systems because of its incredible speed and enhanced maneuverability compared to traditional intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
In a statement made after the successful test of Avangard, which saw it hit a target approximately 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) from the launch site, President Putin made it clear that the evasive nature of the weapon was not to be underestimated: “The Avangard is invulnerable to intercept by any existing and prospective missile defense means of the potential adversary.” The former Soviet KGB agent turned head of state has never been one to shy away from boastful claims, but in this case it’s not just an exaggeration. While the United States and China have been working on their own hypersonic weapons which should be able to meet the capabilities of Avangard when they eventually come online, there’s still no clear deterrent for this type of weapon.
Earlier in the year, commander of U.S. Strategic Command General John Hyten testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the threat of retaliation was the best and perhaps only method of keeping the risk of hypersonic weapons in check: “We don’t have any defense that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us, so our response would be our deterrent force.” Essentially, the threat of hypersonic weapons may usher in a new era of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD), the Cold War era doctrine that kept either side from firing the first shot knowing they would sustain the same or greater damage from their adversary.
With President Putin claiming Avangard has already entered into serial production and will be deployed as soon as early 2019, the race is on for the United States and China to close the hypersonic gap. But exactly how far away is the rest of the world from developing an operational hypersonic weapon? Perhaps more to the point, what does “hypersonic weapon” really mean?
While the jury is still out on 3D printing for the consumer market, there’s little question that it’s becoming a major part of next generation manufacturing. While we often think of 3D printing as a way to create highly customized one-off objects, that’s a conclusion largely based on how we as individuals use the technology. When you’re building something as complex as a rocket engine, the true advantage of 3D printing is the ability to not only rapidly iterate your design, but to produce objects with internal geometries that would be difficult if not impossible to create with traditional tooling.
So it’s no wonder that key “New Space” players like SpaceX and Blue Origin make use of 3D printed components in their vehicles. Even NASA has been dipping their proverbial toe in the additive manufacturing waters, testing printed parts for the Space Launch System’s RS-25 engine. It would be safe to say that from this point forward, most of our exploits off of the planet’s surface will involve additive manufacturing in some capacity.
But one of the latest players to enter the commercial spaceflight industry, Relativity Space, thinks we can take the concept even farther. Not content to just 3D print rocket components, founders Tim Ellis and Jordan Noone believe the entire rocket can be printed. Minus electrical components and a few parts which operate in extremely high stress environments such as inside the pump turbines, Relativity Space claims up to 95% of their rocket could eventually be produced with additive manufacturing.
If you think 3D printing a rocket sounds implausible, you aren’t alone. It’s a bold claim, so far the aerospace industry has only managed to print relatively small rocket engines; so printing an entire vehicle would be an exceptionally large leap in capability. But with talent pulled from major aerospace players, a recently inked deal for a 20 year lease on a test site at NASA’s Stennis Space Center, and access to the world’s largest metal 3D printer, they’re certainly going all in on the idea. Let’s take a look at what they’ve got planned.