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Space Launch Invention

A safer, gentler, less-expensive launch system
which does not consume reaction mass
nor affect the ozone layer


by Win Wenger, Ph.D.

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Chemically-derived expulsion of reaction-mass is expensive, relatively dangerous and complex to handle. Moreover, it damages the environment and adds its increment of effect to the changes being made in Earth's protective ozone layer. Above all, it is expensive. Moreover, its costs are driven up further by the wasteful one-time-only use of extravagantly costly boosters and tanks which still feature in most such launches.

When human beings ride such boosters, they are all too aware of riding atop a phenomenally dangerous bomb—one which has, in the program of every nation actively pursuing a space program, exploded and, in both the American and Russian programs, resulted in fatalities.

In part because of these and other drawbacks, many have opposed the space program or pushed for reduction of its budgets. Others have speculated on many kinds of alternative, ranging from even more dangerous and damaging nuclear-powered engines to drive devices for which no known technology or physics exists—a deus ex machina in the most literal sense.

Yet space is utterly essential:

o Even if we set aside the longer-term considerations which require the resources of the Solar System and beyond to merely maintain, much less improve, living standards around our shrinking Earth;

o Even if we fail to recognize that human freedom will cease to exist in a closed environment and must have space to accommodate humanity's variety of needs and aspirations or else we all become prisoners of one tightening set of circumstances—

Even if we set these considerations aside, space is essential in our immediate daily lives. From Teflon to TV, from checking the weather to checking the news or working with the information your office gets from the Internet every day, each of us uses space and the resources which development of space has made available to us.

What could it mean to the life of each of us—and the work of each of us—if we were able to reduce the costs of space development and space launches to below a nickel on the present dollar; expand ten-fold or a hundred-fold the present volume of use and development of space; and set up a situation whose long-term cost curves decline instead of rising (and so encourage further and more rapid development and use of space)?

And a safer, gentler system for space launches?—Not only in terms of each individual payload but in terms of environment, in terms of chemicals put into the stratosphere and ozone layer? (The new system revealed below will have less impact on upper air chemistry than does the flight of a single airliner!)

Nor do we need to turn to the deus ex machina of as-yet undiscovered materials and/or technologies. Sometimes the most profound inventions, including the present one, involve merely the rearrangement or combination of already-existing elements. Everything in the present invention already exists except its combination. Indeed, some of its elements have existed for a very long time.

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Some elements
Before decades of televised thundering Saturns and Titans stamped gantried rockets indelibly into the public mind (and, it seems, also into the scientific mind), a seemingly possible component, which was widely popular in discussions and then long since dismissed, was the catapult. In other locations the idea remains apparently feasible. Princeton professor Gerald K. O'Neill (author of The High Frontier and inventor of the mass driver device for such a purpose), pointed out that a solar-powered catapult on the Moon might be the ideal mechanism for return transport from Luna, for humans, lunar-manufactured goods, scientific samples, and raw materials mined from the Moon:

o There would be no interfering atmosphere;

o Lighter gravity would mean that a much smaller catapult could do the job of flinging the payload out of the gravity well;

o On the Moon there are many areas of juxtaposed high-low terrain for supporting a launch track.

o Such a system on the moon would also be invaluable for economically launching manned and unmanned expeditions further out into space.
But as matters stand, here on Earth not even the Death Valley/Mt. Whitney configuration would be enough to support a long-enough track to bother with, in launching against Earth's far more formidable gravity well in addition to fighting Earth's interfering atmosphere.

Alongside this difficulty we see continuing efforts of researchers to avoid effects of the atmosphere, by high-altitude launches from airplane and from sounding balloon. Though the atmosphere is recognized as indispensable for landings because of braking, no one has yet apparently viewed the atmosphere as actually a true ally of launches instead of as an enemy.

In the past we have also seen R. Buckminster Fuller's economical and ultra-stable geodesic configurations giving rise to proposals to weather-proof most of Manhattan (though the sheer quantity of enclosure makes that still appear too costly). His geodesics have even been speculatively proposed to create sky-floating spheres, heat difference to give buoyancy, to house new, major cities in midair. Costs in transport to and from, and political issues involving float-overable international boundaries, to say nothing of what would be the economic contribution of such cities, have been the main apparent reasons why such proposals have not been taken seriously by many.

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The Invention—the new, inexpensive, safe, gentle,
suspended-track Space Launch System

o O'Neill's mass drive or other electric or electromagnetic-powered or however-powered catapult system, extended as a very long track—a reusable track system stably supported overtop most of the Earth's atmosphere for hundreds of miles, long enough to give very gentle launches and still build the requisite speeds;

o Supported by hydrogen (preferred) or helium (if required) or heated-air (if the engineering and power supply and/or insulation parameters can be so configured) balloons or air-buoyant enclosures;

o Tethered in triangular or geodesic-configured networks, to each other and to the ground, maintained in alignment by laser-guided computers and cable-tighteners.
Payloads would be launched up the track, energy supplied through the track continuously for hundreds of miles, to accumulate the necessary orbital (or sub-orbital, ballistic in the case of intercontinental transports) speed from a very gentle acceleration. No reaction-mass, boosters (except maybe a small JATO-type unit applied at the end to change trajectories), tanks or other expensive hardware would be sacrificed after one use. Instead, the atmosphere, serving as structural ally, becomes the means for transfer of moment of impulse. The balloon-supported track would deform with each launch, then re-configure and re-form within the hour to support the next launch.

Essentially, the function of the accelerator track or tube is to impart momentum to the payload vehicle, and reaction momentum to the local atmosphere.

The preferred configuration is one where the system acts as a rigid structure while thrust is being applied. It breaks apart easily from the shock but only behind the vehicle and not in front of it, and then reconfigures quickly enough to be ready for the next launch a half-hour or so later. The mass of the track structure, with its supporting balloons, together with the resistance of the atmosphere to the sudden movement of the tethered track components, provides the reaction momentum. Ground tethers, aiding in the process of reconfiguring the track, complete the slight remainder of reactive momentum transfer.

As the payload nears orbital velocity, dozens or hundreds of miles before being kicked off the end of the launch system, it faces much the same problem as do returning vehicles undergoing re-entry.

1. One potential solution, which seems impractical but might be the preferred solution if it should prove within the range of today's engineering, would be to enclose the accelerator track within an evacuated tube to minimize air friction.

2. Another solution, less elegant but well within present engineering resource, is to equip each launch vehicle with a disposable ablation shield. Costs might be reduced if the shields could be routinely recovered, restored and re-used.

3. A third solution, also with present engineering resources, would be to upgrade the present ablation shielding on the Shuttle and other re-entry vehicles so that it will withstand a two-way ablative passage before needing checkup and restoration.

In the long run, on second-generation launch systems, the evacuated tube may be the preferred solution despite the initially much higher cost of the system, because cost per payload would be reduced. For now, on the proposed initial system, this inventor suggests either Solution 2 or 3 as the more practical.

Reserve loft and support capacity would be represented in pressurized tanks and by uninflated balloons. Some of these would be already in place in large number, controlled remotely, and the tanks would also compensate for slow leakage from inflated support members over time. Further supplies of these elements can be lifted and fastened into place periodically, by supplementary line and by equipment, from either along the track itself or directly from the ground at points underlying the track.

Though cable moorings would tether this air-supported network to the ground at points over thousands of square miles distribution, most of it would be eye-invisible from any given point by reason of size and distance-from-viewer.

With a high enough volume of traffic, the unit cost of launches into space will begin to approach the level of cost of merely the power consumed by each launch.

Any power supply will do, building accumulated capacity toward discharge. If the Death Valley/Mt. Whitney configuration is used to support the first few miles of track, or if this structure is based anywhere in the desert southwest or other suitable "Sun Belt" region, power supply could be onsite and possibly solar, saving further costs in terms of transmission lines. We are advised that the insulation of the Mojave Desert, if harnessed, reportedly would suffice to meet the entire world's power needs over the next century.

One seemingly inexpensive solar power source for such a region would be a few square miles of simple parallel trenches, aligned along the sun's diurnal path, spray-painted with reflective aluminum, with oil, liquid sodium or even water-into-steam carried in black or absorptive painted pipes running through those trenches. These should concentrate and convey heat energy to drive turbines for electric power. As the seasons progressed, the trenches could be jacked over periodically, depending on what their configuration needed, to maximize the heat collected thereby from the Sun as its ground-apparent path shifts. Whenever power was not being built up for a launch, the solar energy installation could be pumping pollution-free power into the continental grid. Its supplier, whether NASA or private firm, would become not a prodigious consumer but a modest supplier of energy for the rest of the country.

Several such systems should be built, a hundred or more miles north and south of each other so that when the ground-based first few miles of one track are being stressed by storm or jet stream, the other can continue bearing the normal load of traffic. Recovery from such wind-stress—by secondary tethers, laser-sighting and/or radio guidance, and computer controls—would be similar to that effected in the main track itself across the top of the atmosphere, after deforming from a launch.

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We have proposed to NASA for the space stations and, eventually, the orbital habitats, and maybe also for any vehicles which have to go out through the Van Allen Radiation Belts:

Rig light-weight coils of wire some distance "upstream" (Belt or Solar Wind) of them. Pump electrical current through these coils to generate magnetic fields, deflecting the radiation away.

With superconductor materials it wouldn't require much juice to provide good shielding — nor, by this method, much weight.

Cost-effectiveness and cost recovery
Whatever the costs of the total system, these would be very quickly written off by the inexpensive launching of thousands of payloads. A traffic of one launch every hour or so, perhaps every half-hour or so, could be sustained indefinitely with each track in the structure. Only design and cost decisions would set the limits as to how large a payload could be launched.

Cost of any payload would be virtually down to that of its contents plus the cost of the on-site-generated (solar?) energy consumed, plus technical care plus its very finely divided share of the overhead investment. The more it was used, the less its costs, encouraging further use—whereas with systems to the present, efforts to launch at rates closer to intended capacity have driven costs up very rapidly indeed!

Following normal economic laws: as the system realizes savings in the costs of launches, expenditures for space activity will increase strongly as more and more projects become economically attractive and lead to still other such activities. And these won't have to cram their way, as now, through the severely crimped bottlenecks of presently available launch vehicles and facilities.

Further economies-of-scale can be realized as traffic needs expand, by smoothing of a used engineering technology, and by adding on more multiple tracks not only to expand the frequency of launches but to further define the bases of stability for the whole structure.

Land-shared-use-rights costs would be the most expensive "component" of the system. These might argue for location on the East Cost instead of the desert southwest, despite higher power costs, arching out over claims-free portions of the Atlantic. This East Coast location, conveniently near existing space-launch facilities, would also favor use for commercial, sub-orbital, intercontinental ballistic transport, replacing the SST for transatlantic traffic.

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