Saturday, April 9, 2016

Falcon-9 Sends BEAM to ISS, Lands 1st Stage on Barge

Update 5-7-16:  they just did it again during a satellite launch.  Successful launch,  plus successful landing of the first stage on a barge out in the ocean.  Many congratulations,  Spacex!

Congratulations to Spacex on the recent launch to the ISS.  There's a triple whammy of good stuff here:  (1) delivery of over 3 tons of stuff in a returnable and reusable capsule,  (2) successful landing of the first stage booster on a barge in the ocean,  with intent to reuse and re-fly,  and (3) delivery of the first inflatable module for the ISS.  

Being able to send stuff home from the ISS is important,  as not everything needing to come back is waste to be burned up on reentry.  Spacex uniquely offers that capability with its cargo Dragon capsule.  There's very limited weight and space available for any returning cargo in the Russian capsules that currently carry crews to and from the station.  

Landing and reusing booster stages is a big step along the way to less expensive space travel.  Once space vehicles are as reusable as airplanes,  the fare to orbit ought to look more like airfares here at home.  Not just millionaires and billionaires and governments will be able to go.  It will still be awhile before this becomes reality:  doing it with spacecraft is tougher than was doing it with airplanes.  

Both of those are fairly well-known benefits of this accomplishment.  The inflatable station module is perhaps not so well-known.  The Bigelow BEAM module that Spacex delivered to ISS is a small demonstrator for a larger module that Bigelow is developing:  its B-330.  

The B-330 is as big as any ISS module,  once inflated.  Yet it is rather compact for the ride up.  This technology offers a practical path to assemble large stations or vehicles in orbit by docking modules (which is how we built ISS),  but without requiring such large and expensive super-rockets to launch them.  That's a major cost savings,  even without reusable boosters.

This module assembly idea is actually the real prerequisite for practical travel beyond the moon.  The moon is but 3 days away:  missions to it are but 2 or 3 weeks long,  and astronauts can tolerate riding in a cramped capsule that long in weightlessness.  For such short voyages there are no microgravity disease penalties.  Short term,  even mediocre food is well-tolerated,  too.  

To Mars or anywhere else beyond the moon,  voyages are measured in months or years,  and we already know that we can fight-off serious microgravity diseases for only about a year or so.  Assembling a larger vehicle from inflatable modules and propulsion stages allows us to spin the vehicle for artificial gravity.

Besides the obvious health benefits for the crew,  spin gravity enables simpler,  more familiar toilets,  a proper bath or shower,  conventional laundry,  and free-surface conventional cooking (which in turn allows the use of fresh and frozen foods).  

Frozen foods last a lot longer than any of the freeze-dried meals used in weightlessness now.  Plus,  they taste better,  and can also serve as radiation shielding,  along with the water and the wastewater in the life support equipment.  Good food plus a big living space are crucial for crew sanity long-term.  There's no real question about that.  

Space for living,  better food,  and no microgravity diseases:  these lead to healthy,  well-adjusted crews for really long voyages.  Long term,  it is my opinion that the inflatable module that could make a huge difference for the true exploration of our solar system.  

It has been 44 years since astronauts last left Earth orbit.  What we see just starting to materialize on this mission to ISS could be the means we need to fly successfully far beyond the moon,  and also part of the means by which to afford the trip.  

There's no telling what we will eventually find "out there".  But the last 500 years of exploring down here on Earth says that going and looking have always eventually paid off.  

Again,  congratulations to Spacex on a job well done.  And to Bigelow for their first demonstrator inflatable at ISS.  

1 comment:

  1. Of course, NASA operated a partially reusable vehicle for more than 30 years (reusing the SRBs) that was supposed to dramatically reduce the cost of space travel.

    But that never happened, of course, because such reductions would have required a demand of a few dozen launches per year.

    So I don't think we're going to see any dramatic reductions in launch cost for private commercial vehicles unless there is a-- dramatic increase-- in demand for launches.