Friday, September 06, 2013

Mighty Big Grasshopper Jumps over Texas (and other News)

One of the more intriguing bits of news from SpaceX has been the development and testing of their Falcon 9 first stage "fly-back" technology. This is part of Spacex's overall plan to maximize the reusability of it's spacecraft and thus dramatically reduce the cost of space access. An article in Popular Mechanics gives some idea of the cost savings. Without reusable stages, Elon is expecting the Falcon 9 Heavy to deliver material to orbit for about $1000 a pound (which in and of itself is dramatically less than the $5000 to $10000 per pound that was sent up via the NASA Shuttle), but with reusable stages, he's expecting the costs could drop by as much as two orders of magnitude (but would be happy with a 50% cost reduction to start).

Their demonstrator booster/vehicle is code-named "Grasshopper". It's 10 stories tall and is an impressive sight as it maneuvers and hovers 800 feet above the Texas prairie. While some other new space companies (Armadillo Aerospace & Masten Space Systems) have developed hovering rockets, SpaceX wins the prize for frighteningly huge hovering rocket, hands down. Good luck to them. I wish SpaceX all the success in the world.

In non-related space news, Elon Musk has proposed a replacement for the California High-Speed Rail plan he calls Hyperloop. His partially evacuated tube design would shuttle capsules between Los Angeles and San Francisco at speeds up to 700+ miles per hour. Instead of high-speed trains riding on steel rails, taking up large amounts of land in the form of easements, the hyperloop runs through tubes lifted above the landscape on pylons and routed along pre-existing freeways as much as possible to take advantage of the freeways' easements. A one way hyperloop trip is planned to take about 30 minutes and could cost as little as $20, which would make taking a dinner trip to the other end of the state very practical.

I'll be quite honest: while I like it very much I'm not entirely convinced of the concept, but then again, I am nearly certain High-Speed Rail is a boondoggle (people barely ride the train as it is). Any rail or tube system has to provide significant advantages over automobile or airplane transportation, and I don't think high-speed rail can cut it (mostly because it won't be significantly cheaper than planes or cars). Hyperloop would provide those advantages, but I am somewhat concerned about (1) Safety, and (2) Scalability. If those concerns can be answered, I believe Hyperloop could be a winner.

In the decades to come, petroleum prices will force California to shift away from cars and planes to all-electric transport. I just hope we make the right decision when arriving at that all-electric transport.

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