Space Launch

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:

  • 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;
  • 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.

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:

  • There would be no interfering atmosphere;
  • Lighter gravity would mean that a much smaller catapult could do the job of flinging the payload out of the gravity well;
  • On the Moon there are many areas of juxtaposed high-low terrain for supporting a launch track.
  • 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.

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

  • 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;
  • 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;
  • 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.

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.

O’Neill was right in arguing (in The High Frontier) that economies-of-scale would make living in space feasible for millions of human beings, long before we can terraform other planets for that purpose. He proposed hollow cylinders, a mile or more long to realize those economies-of-scale, rotating around their axis so centrifugal force would supply one “gee” around the surface of each internal world (as well as for stability a la gyroscope).

Unaccountably, he overlooked a much greater economy-of-scale by not realizing that not all decks have to be at one “gee” gravity. You can have many decks, concentric, at other “gee” levels for industrial, recreational, storage, and agricultural purposes — and low-gee hospitals and research labs (the lower gravity stress should enable the elderly, and ill people, to live comfortably longer by twenty to thirty good years).

This further enormous economy-of-scale should make living in space affordable for millions of people within relatively few years, and represents life insurance for our entire human species if anything should happen to our one fragile little planet.

(“Note: the low “gee” acceleration provided by the Wenger Space Launch System, herein proposed, should enable the ill and elderly to travel comfortably to low-gee environments, hospitals and habitats.)

All components exist—only engineering needed

Problems for this proposed system appear to be well within the abilities of present technology to accomplish, all with off-the-shelf materials and techniques. “Exactly which configuration is the stablest?” is an engineering question, as is the question of best method of coupling the launch vehicle to the track without friction and/or with the most efficient transfer of energy to momentum. Whether to make all elements of the track mildly flexible, to accommodate deformations rendered by storm or launch, or whether it should be a succession of short rigid lengths locked into place in the configuration and arranged to break loose without damage when need be and then automatically and quickly slipped back into place….All these are mere engineering questions.

So also is the question of initial erection of the structure—whether by add-on-at-the-end, pay-out kind of arrangement, or laying linked components out along the ground under where the track will go, then lifting the whole toward final configuration by filling and release of the requisite tethered balloons, possibly in successive stages.

Premise: Every configuration, even an enemy, represents a utilizable resource if one is bright enough to figure out how to make use of it. Except for braking purposes, for generations the students of rocketry and the space sciences have considered the atmosphere to be anything from a minor nuisance to a major enemy or handicap. Once we begin to think of using the atmosphere as a structure, though, it is evident that Earth’s atmosphere is actually a not-inconsiderable ally!

Safety and health factors

We have already cited several safety factors: not having to ride an enormously explosive bomb; and freedom from chemically affecting the ozone layer. Nevertheless, there are some trade-offs in safety in that the proposed space-launch system presents another set of design problems, different from those now accommodated as part of the ongoing systems. Moreover, the safety inherent in any system has to reside in the quality of its management. Nevertheless, in net the proposed space-launch system represents substantial safety gains in two additional regards:

  1. Tremendously simpler vehicles can be placed into space. Though this advantage will be partially offset by the huge increase in volume of space traffic and launchings resulting from this system, such a grand simplification should nonetheless mean a substantial absolute saving in safety, not only a dramatic improvement in safety “per passenger mile.”
  2. Since there is no way for vehicles to go astray near populated areas, when launched along the proposed system, there is no longer need to include destruct ordinance and that entire system for blowing up errant launch vehicles. Even if that system has not yet in itself been the source of accidents, it certainly presents that potential both directly and as part of the overall complexity with which launch teams presently have to cope.

We cannot emphasize enough the safety savings of astronauts’ no longer having to ride a half-million-pound bomb through the hazardous period of launch. The vehicle would still have to carry along enough fuel for maneuver and for further mission once it had kicked off the end of the track and achieved orbital velocity in space. A smaller fuel load requirement for these activities, however, smaller by so very much, should make escape in an emergency much more feasible. Moreover:

  • The increased traffic resulting from the proposed space-launch system will make it quite feasible to launch main fuel tanks entirely separately from the manned missions, should it be determined that doing so with whatever it takes to rendezvous in orbit is safer than launching both together.
  • A health safety factor can also be considered here. The long acceleration track and thus low g-forces required for launches, and the sheer economy of this proposed high-volume-use space launch system, should immediately make it not only feasible but very appropriate to “put civilians in space.”

As capitalization cost becomes divided ever more thinly among more payloads, the cost of going into space should come within the unassisted reach of many ordinary citizens (and industrial or business activities), and even affords the prospect of maintaining in orbit a low-spin, low-g health research and medical treatment facility, especially as regards geriatrics and cardiovascular matters.

One possible shortcoming of the system

However valuable the system may be in civilian and economic and scientific terms, the proposed system does not appear to be useful for most military purposes. If some other nation has sufficient incentive to destroy the system, it is sufficiently exposed and vulnerable that a sustained effort could probably penetrate most defenses arranged for it. Conventional defenses and security should suffice against lesser threats, and redundancy of systems past the first one should “lower profiles” in a political sense.

Ramifications of the invention

This invention was released into public domain on June 26, 1997. We strongly recommend that such patentable devices, procedures and engineering as may emerge in course of developing this invention also be given freely or on very generous terms to interests around the world, further effectively removing this profoundly consequential and beneficial invention from the arena of geostrategic power play and further lowering political profiles.

Here are some alternatives to balloon-supported catapults which use similar principles to conserve or avoid the expending of reaction mass, and applications for future development.

  • By means of laser beams intense enough to create a strongly ionized track slanting upward through the atmosphere, one might power and accelerate the launch vehicle without some or all of the supporting hardware.
  • With so much launch capacity brought online by the present proposed atmosphere-supported track system, a modified version of an entire such track system could be placed into space supported not atmospherically but orbitally. Such a system could reconfigure after each launch by means of secondary tethers, cable-tighteners, laser sighters and computers, and/or by radio and by small jets or even retrieval by equipment and personnel.
  • Another, even more interesting version is one in which—if the mechanics and logistics can be adequately addressed—components of the system are so placed in orbit that their tendency to fall is the supplier of power for launchings within the total system.
  • The extensive new launch capacity brought online by means of the proposed Space-Launch System means the capacity to freight materials into orbit, to construct an inertia-supported, solar or nuclear-powered or otherwise powered catapult based in space, for still more ambitious activities up to and including mining of the asteroid belt, terraforming of Mars, construction of large-scale habitats, and/or interstellar probes.
  • Atmosphere-supported structures rather than isolated balloons or air vehicles could serve as a basis for launching objects into the upper atmosphere, into ballistic transport trajectory to other continents or into near-Earth space and orbit.
    • And they could serve as a basis for atmosphere-supported enterprises ranging from research pods and stations, forest fire watch stations, manned or habitable service pods, regional telecommunications provisions, and tourist traps, to high-borne cities.
    • Note that this air-structure catapult track system can provide a continuity and gradation of experience, location, and technical and economic activity, toward many airborne features including Fulleresque airborne cities and factories and farms, and for “swelter shelters” to partially screen torrid habitats on the ground, and reflectors to warm frigid ground regions.
    • Although not lightly done (double-pun intended) because so many climatological variables are as yet unknown, such tracks can provide the basis for countering undesired specific effects, possibly even in the long run undesired general effects, of global warming.

Many such features are ostensibly within the range of contemporary technology but presently represent too great an economic and experiential quantum-jump to be very likely of undertaking, whatever the prospective returns. These would become realizable and profitable once the basic system is in being.

Related Space Science Reading

  • Sky Ramp Technology is the remarkable website of a non-profit group of scientists and engineers promoting a revolutionary method of launching spacecraft and airborne vehicles. Every proposal on their website has been proven mathematically possible. Using a Sky Ramp will cut launch costs by 90%, compared to the 40-year-old method of using multi-million dollar rockets for just one mission.
  • How to Advance the Development of Space by Twenty Years — proposal to build the Space Elevator with today’s materials.
  • Coils — Electromagnets to deflect space radiation from astronauts.
  • Fund the Development of Space — Two major, obvious proposals, including lease-bonds for Martian acreage.
  • An Easy Way to Fund the Development of Space — one simple experiment showing benefits of partial-gee versus Zero-gee.
  • One Destiny, or Many? — Picking up the pace of space development.

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