On May 28, 1940 representatives from the U.S. Army met with super-genius Robert Goddard and they talked about rockets. At the time Professor Goddard was the world’s foremost expert on liquid-fueled rockets. How do I know this? Because he, um, invented the the first liquid-fueled rocket and had only spent his entire life working with them? Duh.
In the meeting Mr. Goddard offered all his research data, patents, and facilities for use by the military. For free. We can only presume he did this to not only advance the development of the technology (something he was passionate about) but also because war had broken out in Europe and maybe a giant tube filled with explosives might be useful in a future war?
What did the military say? They sort of scratched their heads, thought about it, and couldn’t figure out any good uses for rocket technology. They basically said no thanks. Seriously.
But you know who was interested in rockets? The Nazis. Germany had it’s own rocket genius (Hermann Oberth) who had independently developed a lot of the same stuff Goddard had. Being a bunch of homicidal maniacs bent on world domination, the Nazis instantly recognized the value of rockets as an offensive weapon. As such, Hitler’s government authorized full production of the V2 missile in September 1939, only months before the U.S. military rejected Goddard. Highly classified at the time, the V2 would become the world’s first ballistic missile. After five years of intense research and development, the V2 was ready to reign terror on the Allies. Thousands were fired on London and Antwerp in the last months of the war. It was awful.
How might the world have been different if the military had accepted Goddard’s offer? Might World War 2 have ended sooner? Would nuclear-tipped ICBMs have been developed faster, putting the world at greater risk? Might humanity have reached the moon earlier?
In a previous post I described the four new options for amassing raw materials in orbit for the purpose of space development. They are: using rockets to lift stuff up from Earth, using mass drivers on the moon to shoot regolith into orbit, capturing asteroids a la Planetary Resources, and constructing a lunar space elevator a la LiftPort to transfer lunar ore into orbit. In this post I will describe the basic advantages and disadvantages of each method.
The goal here is to determine the fastest and most cost-efficient method for collecting hundreds of tons of raw material in Earth orbit. Hundreds of tons – if not thousands – are necessary to manufacture the large structures necessary to develop space i.e. to build a self-sustainable and self-replicating civilization in orbit. Let’s talk pros and cons one by one:
I. Rockets – There are several big benefits to using rockets:
Proven technology with a deep market: rockets are proven and there are lots of vendors to choose from. It’s the “devil we know” versus the other technologies which are all unproven.
Direct to orbit: rockets are the only option available to boost items directly from the Earth’s surface. This, in theory, allows one to boost finished structures to orbit, skipping the raw material/manufacturing stage. This is both a blessing and a curse: while having some finished products in orbit will be useful (Bigelow modules and 3d printers immediately come to mind), especially in the early stages of space development, ultimately the goal is to build an indigenous manufacturing base in orbit, not just boost everything up from Earth. Also, rockets are the only way to get people into orbit!
However, the major drawback to using rockets is, of course, their expense. Rockets are ultimately too expensive to boost anything except the highest value cargo. This is reef that every space development has foundered on since the beginning of the space age.
Future posts will discuss mass drivers, asteroid capture and lunar space elevators.