Deep Space Exploration: Consider Designing an Alternative Approach

As engineers, we need to avoid getting stuck in the same old mindsets and attempting to solve problems in the same way over and over. Sometimes we need to toss out the old way of doing things and take a fresh approach.

Consider the approach that some of the commercial (privately held) space research companies are taking in doing projects, and compare that to NASA's traditional approach. Rather than lift the whole launch vehicle vertically using powerful rocket engines (high stress over a short time frame), they are using a high-altitude aircraft to lift the launch vehicle to 40,000 to 50,000 feet over a longer period of time — a kinder, gentler approach.

Aircraft are a more mature technology, and statistically more reliable, more environmentally friendly, and less expensive to operate than rocket boosters. Modern electronic navigation and flight controls allow high-altitude aircraft to fly precisely enough to place launch vehicles on the correct orbital path.

The kinder, gentler approach allows new classes of payloads that previously could not withstand the launch into space, and also allows humans that cannot endure a bone-shaking, lung-crushing, vertical launch to enjoy space travel. It could also allow greater flexibility in launch locations, as there are plenty of airfields around the world.

Now that you've put equipment and people in orbit, consider longer-distance space exploration. There are many new outer space research areas opening, regarding astronomy, physics, and engineering. An increased understanding of dark matter is bringing the realization that the Milky Way (and the universe in general) is full of objects and matter that cannot be seen with visible light detectors. There's stuff out there to explore and probably exploit.

If one has a fairly good closed-cycle (i.e., recycling) environmental system, a good power plant, and good sensors, it may be feasible to do a combined human-plus-robotic journey of exploration. Astronauts would, of course, travel towards a nearby star system — the obvious choice in looking for other life forms or mineral resources.

On the way there, they could send robotic probes out on side trips, jumping from dark matter body to body. These probes would be scavenging frozen hydrogen, methane, and other elements or compounds as needed. This would make it practical to visit any nearby star system with potentially inhabitable planets. Humans are fragile cargo in space, but the robots are more tolerant of the extremes of outer space, making their side trips practical. Quite the robotics experiment!

So — would this work? Do you want to be of the design team? Or the crew?

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24 comments on “Deep Space Exploration: Consider Designing an Alternative Approach

  1. MrPWM
    August 30, 2013

    In the last few paragraphs you eluded to what we dream of doing in the future but, for the next few decades at least, the industy has to learn to be like SpaceX and other commercial space innovators. Such radical changes you mentioned like using aircraft to place a payload in orbit instead of huge wasteful 1st stage rockets, can presently only be done practically by private firms which like SapceX, know how to get innovation out of their engineers.

    I have worked for 3 different companies designing space hardware. These were subcontractors to either Lockheed or NASA. Dreaming of radical new products like you mentioned was, well it WAS a dream. Their idea of “change” was putting a new resistor into a 20 yr old product. The engineering behind changes such as this would require close to a year of worst-case analysis, test, and qualification paperwork.

    The rational behind these changes was that, “well, the spacecraft cost half a billion dollars, so if that resistor failed it would be extremely costly” Now, WHY was that spacecraft half a $billion? Well, because every single transistor in every circuit required 6 months of costly engineering analysis. Yep, that's the “logic”.

    If designed by a private company, in which the engineers were allowed to innovate and do the calculations they knew had to be done, the spacecraft could of only been around $20 million. Therefore, the “rational” in these large behemouth companies is just irrational.

    So, THAT's the hurdles we have to get around first before we ever start dreaming of intersteller space travel.


  2. BillWM
    August 30, 2013

    Really Space X, Virgin Galactic, and others are just at the X-15/Vanguard Rocket Phase of Private Space Travel  — There is loads of innovation left to go in this area.

  3. RedDerek
    August 30, 2013

    @MrPWM – I agree that the old way of thinking is not wanting to change the parts easily and the innovators are using what they can. I believe the space station is still working with the 80486 processors! (OK, maybe not that old). I did some work with Aerojet and they were still looking at the hi-rel parts that have been screened. With semiconductor companies not willing to do the extreme testing, it does limit which components to use. Thus limiting the design capability, or the need to do things discretely with hi-rel parts. (I remember reading about the verbage of why have $0.05 2N2222 transistor take out billion dollar piece of machinery – hence the $50 2N2222 is used to minimize the chance of failure.)

    I am certain that Space-X and others are using screened parts in some way. Otherwise, they are screening the system and not the component level. I am certain there is some amount of over design to ensure that things are capable of high stress – look at the Apollo program that used safety factors of 2, 3, or more in certain areas.

  4. MrPWM
    August 30, 2013

    redderrek, Yes, I agree. Hi-reli parts and 2X or 3X derating is required for hi-reli space products. SpaceX has these same ground rules just as the old bureaucracies do.

    Somehow, I get the feeling that SpaceX could make an advanced new product even if they were constrained to only a '486 processor. This “somehow” is probably because their engineers are allowed to innovate.

    I have worked with engineers who used to work for Elon Musk. They talked about how fun it was to design advanced products. I have worked with engineers at Lockheed Martin. They talked about the importance of arranging paragraphs in reports with the correct font.

  5. eafpres
    August 30, 2013

    @William–“An increased understanding of dark matter is bringing the realization that the Milky Way (and the universe in general) is full of objects and matter that cannot be seen with visible light detectors.”

    Well, maybe.  Dark matter is far from understood, if it even exists.   Consider that dark matter was invented to explain the (apparent) acceleration of all observied celestial objects moving away from one another.  However, this is not the only accepted theory, the whole thing about the red shift and the (alleged) Hubble constant notwithstanding.  There have been very recent theoretical approaches to the idea that in fact, mass increases over time, instead of apparent velocity.  That also explains red shift but requires a new cosmology and physics.  One of the biggest proponents of this type of theory is an astronomer named Halton Arp, who wrote the book “Seeing Red”.  In that work he shows that the red shift of radio sources is inconsisent with the red shifts of x-ray sources.  He also shows that high-red-shift objects often appear in clusters and lines consistent with explosive creation of matter.

  6. eafpres
    August 30, 2013

    @redderek–“am certain that Space-X and others are using screened parts in some way.”

    Consider that tolerance to failure and fall back safety systems might take the place of forcing unreasonable reliability upon all components.  An aircraft can fly with less than one engine.  Launch vehicles using multi-engine constellations can adapt to the loss of one or more engine during launch, including not reaching space but doing a controlled path and recovery.  In fact, some of the commercial launches have experienced failures and due to redundancy (instead of a few really big engines) they worked just fine.

  7. BillWM
    August 30, 2013

    Dark matter in my mind is just all the “Junk” in interstellar space that has not been captured by Stars / Planets — When it does get captured, it becomes a comet, or other orbiting body — 4 light years is a very large amount of “Empty Space” – or a place that has the occasional object that as the Sun or other stars move, may be captured as a Meteor or Comet.

  8. Netcrawl
    August 30, 2013

    @easpres I like the idea of Elon Musk's SpaceX, they're trying to bring space exploration into new height, making it much cheaper. SpaceX is making a huge advances in propulsion system.

    I think reusable aircaft is the future, modern development like VTOL aircraft would definitely change the way we launch vehicles into space, its much efficient and cheaper, a new kind of space vehicles- a shift from much expensive NASA” s straditional multi-stage rocket system. SpaceX will continue to take a lead here, its a whole new approach of space exploration, its a collaborative works between NASA and private companies. I think this has the potential to change everything, by bringing those engineers (private companies) on board we could able to do more innovation and open up some opportunities for some companies  to show up their skills and expertise.         

  9. SunitaT
    August 31, 2013

    NASA has launched a preliminary design review of new space suit after 40 years of moon mission. NASA's present program intended at sending individuals outside low Earth orbit. Now NASA needs more flexible dress that could also tolerate longer moon assignments. All space suit designs must defend humans from the dingy effects of depressurization, which happens during impulsive revelation to a vacuum.

  10. David Maciel Silva
    August 31, 2013

    If it would be to choose the designer team, despite being exciting to think of the possibility of visiting other planets …

    But on the other hand, an ordinary person who wants to meet other planet that NASA will think of some low-cost design for an interplanetary journey?

  11. eafpres
    August 31, 2013

    Hi William-“Dark matter in my mind is just all the “Junk” in interstellar space that has not been captured by Stars / Planets”

    There are a couple of issues with your description.  First, the postulated dark matter must be responsible for the apparent increasing rate of expansion of the universe.  Thus, it cannot be either ordinary matter or anti-matter, as both have positive gravitational attraction, which should lead to slowing of expansion.

    Second, if most of space were filled with a very low density of invisible ordinary matter, then there would be drag on objects passing through space.  Going back more than 100 years Michelson and Morley found no such drag.  In addition, the calclations for all space missions would be off if this were the case.  Although it might not show up on a moon shot, surely it would be apparent on the inter-planetary probes.

    So I must conclude that dark matter, if it exists , is something entirely un-anticipated by current physics.

  12. BillWM
    August 31, 2013

    @eafpres — Then when a star explodes, If it has outer planets what happens to them?  Pluto is 20 light minutes from the sun or more — a very long distance for instant vaporization to occur.  Perhaps some of these outer objects are cast into space as “projectiles”  — In deep space these can be very hard to detect, but they likely are out there, as are other rare bits of matter — An interesting experiment would be to send a probe out there — open a shutter to a micro-metorite catcher and leave it open for a year, and then snap another picture of the catcher after the year and send the images back  – There is stuff out there — it is just very rare, and the effect at present technology spacecraft speeds is random in all directions.

  13. eafpres
    August 31, 2013

    Hi William–I agree there is matter out there.  We can see nebula etc.  We can see the ejecta from exploding stars.  We can also see evidence of high gravity objects pulling matter into them.

    I agree then that some of this matter may travel around.  However, it would have a thermal signature if nothing else.  Perhaps that's even below the 4K background signature, so perhaps we can't “see” a lot of this.

    But still 2 points: unseen normal matter would not account for the increasing apparent rate of expansion, so dark matter cannot be the unseen detritus of exploded solar systems.  Also, to your point the net momentum transfer would be zero on average for a stationary object.  But it cannot be zero for moving objects.  If it were zero for some moving objects, that implies it has a net average motion.  Then objects going the other way would see even larger effects.  Integrate the momentum transfer around a surface with the condition that at initial velocity of zero relative the “field” of moving matter.  Then start the object comprising the surface moving.  There has to be a drag force.


  14. D Feucht
    September 1, 2013


    Your opening paragraph got my attention. When you write “Sometimes we need to toss out the old way of doing things and take a fresh approach” I am reminded of a study I have been doing for the last year, that of looking into the UFO/ET issue. It is not brushed off lightly (except by those who brush it off lightly).

    There are some significant indicators that covert space technology is far in advance of the open state-of-the-art – possibly since advanced German technology in the WW II era. This has left NASA to either be involved in covert missions (which it has) or to be left to mow the lawns at NASA facilities (which appears to be its main mission nowadays).

    The “alternative approach” might well exist now. The TR-3B is a possible example. I have an article series on Undisclosed Technology in the queue for my “blog”. More on it there in a couple months.


  15. samicksha
    September 2, 2013

    Apart form landing crews and robots, we have project named Mars One running in central of world, that will establish a permanent human settlement on Mars in 2023, and more over as per mars one site this is unmanned preparation of a habitable settlement, followed by human landings.

  16. Davidled
    September 2, 2013

    As other view,

    If NASA thinks some low cost design for public transportation, it might slightly risk to get the quality of space shuttle including astronauts dress code including safety.  There is so much concern and question for “low cost design.”

  17. Netcrawl
    September 2, 2013

    @samicksha I think NASA won't do it, I mean putting the first man on the martian soil, its diificult we're still not able to fix some of our tech problems like propulsion system and lading systems.  In addition NASA face “the fight of its life” -a huge budget cuts, which could put NASA's big budget programs like mars exploration into serious trouble. 

  18. Netcrawl
    September 2, 2013

    @Daej I agree with you, there's some big issue in NASA's low cost design vehicle, there's an issue about quality and sustainment, can it really meet NASA's requirement for its next generation space vehicle.

    Outsourcing NASA space works could be a good idea but this won't solve some of NASA big problems. Survival is the name of the game, without enough budget NASA would definitley starve, NASA is facing tough challenges in many areas in space exploration, propulsion system, reentry vehicles, moon landing  and etc. The huge budget cuts has put the agency into serious trouble.  

  19. samicksha
    September 3, 2013

    @Netcrawl: I am noy sure if they do it or not, but they cliam that more than 78,000 registered for the selection programme within two weeks of its launch and when it comes to they say, The challenge is to identify the risks in every step of the ten year Mission, from astronaut selection through training, from launch to living on Mars. Mars One has incorporated into its Mission plan a detailed risk analysis protocol, built by highly experienced individuals, some of them with experience at NASA and the ESA.  Which i guess does not clarify anything as if now.

  20. Karl Wiklund
    September 3, 2013

    @William: It is worth remembering that much of the early work *was* done using air-lauched craft.  Both the X-1 and X-15 for example were first carried aloft by modified B-52s.  NASA at the time also did explore other ideas such as “rockoons”, which were to be launched via a balloon stage.  I would surmise that these were eventually relegated to the sidelines owing to the problems associated with launching the much larger payloads that have become the norm today. However, with the entry of some civilian companies into the space market, some of these notions are being re-visited.  It may be that with the growth of a market micro-satellites we may see air-launches becoming a viable alternative in some application areas.

  21. BillWM
    September 3, 2013

    @Karl — On the micro-satellites — with Robotic Assembly becoming the norm, and advances in electronics miniatureization — Plus new 3D parts printing and machining becoming low cost, I see a big future for micro-satellites — Virgin's EVE aircraft platform per advertising has capability to launch a 250lb micro-satellite into Low Earth Orbit with a semi-expendible launch vehicle — Think of all the agricultural, environmental, and natural resource monitoring applications that can come available from such a low cost launch  –

  22. eafpres
    September 3, 2013

    @William–all the hype aside, I looked at an article on another UBM site today regarding images from the much ballyhooed phone sats.  Frankly, I was disappointed.  While I think that remote sensing from things like small UAVs has a bright future, and I believe launch costs for orbital hardware can come way down, I'm not jumping on the every high school kid can launch a satellite craze.  Take a look at what DN showed and tell me what these phone sats are good for?

    Images from Phone Sats

    The applications you mention are surely good ones.  Precision agriculture is a great example.  But you can do what is needed at a fraction of a phone sat + launch by putting better sensors on a remote controlled airplane.

  23. BillWM
    September 4, 2013

    Remote controlled aircraft that fly high enough for remote sensing similar to small (250lb satellite) have many complexities that a regular aircraft has like:

    The need for TCAS and Transponders for ATC — as well as newer items like ADSB.

    (Collision avoidance and coordination/supervision by air traffic control)

    A small satellite can provide significant coverage, and avoid this, as well as provide coverage of maritime natural resources like fisheries, kelp beds, and other aspects of the ocean, that only a 5-10Million dollar UAV can provide.


    The satellite can provide coverage for a sigificant timeframe while having low operating costs compared to an aircraft/UAV which requires fuel, crew, ATC supervision, airfield and airfield support, repairs, maintenance ………


    The satellite can also provide a data communications relay / platform.

  24. Netcrawl
    September 5, 2013

    @William you're right about the satellite, they're really a great stuff. But its not easy job, satellite communication systems involve lots of hardware like transmitters and receivers that are constantly moving with reference to one another, satellite's signals are subject to atmospheric noise and weather-related perturbations, and also accidental jamming and interference. 

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