By Jeremy Hsu | MNN
Shrinking space budgets don’t stop the U.S. military from dreaming about space planes or rockets capable of flying back and landing on their own.
Reusable launch vehicles capable of soaring into space and returning by flying through Earth’s atmosphere like airplanes could potentially save millions on expensive launches that typically cost thousands of dollars per pound — especially if they fly frequently. But U.S. military officers and researchers acknowledged the challenge of pushing for next-generation space vehicles during a time of budget cuts.
“Money is tight, and we have to make tough decisions on where to invest money,” said Col. Scott Patton from Air Force Space Command. “In the long term, we need full spectrum launch capability at dramatically lower cost.”
The U.S. government spent tens of millions of dollars on space plane programs in past decades — not to mention the $3 billion National Aero-Space Plane project — but most never got off the ground before cancellation. Such half steps need to change if the U.S. hopes to create a launch vehicle that can truly revolutionize launch costs, Air Force researchers said. [Evolution of the Space Plane (Infographic)]
“The reality is that if you’re going to learn, you have to go out there and fly hardware,” said Jess Sponable, a program manager at the Air Force Research Laboratory.
Sponable and Patton represented two of the expert panel discussing reusable launch vehicles at the AIAA Space 2012 conference hosted by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in Pasadena, Calif., on Sept. 13.
Making the dream real
The dream of space planes has often raced ahead of reality — original arguments for NASA’s space shuttles envisioned flights once per week at a cost of just $20 million. But the space shuttle program ended up flying just several times per year at a cost of about $1.6 billion per flight.
The Air Force’s robotic space plane X-37B, a miniature version of the space shuttle, has flown two missions aimed at testing satellite technologies, rather than paving the way for cheap, reusable launch vehicles. Like the retired space shuttle, X-37B launches aboard a rocket and flies back down to Earth after reentering the planet’s atmosphere. [Photos: Air Force's Secret X-37B Missions]
“We’ve got to learn how to build and fly this class of system,” Sponable said. “It’s some strange, in-between hybrid that’s not an aircraft and not a rocket.”
The private space industry has also experimented with the space plane concept. SpaceShipOne, a private suborbital space plane, won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004. But the air-launched vehicle and its SpaceShipTwo successor are more suited to carrying space tourists to the edge of space rather than lift heavy cargo.