Working On The Railroad

Funny, it doesn't LOOK golden...For those of you not familiar with the American history of Westward expansion (that wasn’t summed up in popular lore by an old Iron Maiden song), the “golden spike” refers to the completion of the first Transcontinental Railroad. It signified the opening of the West, and allowed us to transition from pioneering to something more permanent.

The railroad made life easier for settlers who before could only live off the land, and allowed more people from “Back East” to head West. A century later, this all provided rich fodder for Clint Eastwood movies, but that’s another story.

Today, “Golden Spike” also refers to a new company intent on getting people back to the Moon by the end of this decade.

Like everyone else in the space-nerd corner of the blogosphere, I’ve been eagerly awaiting today’s announcement (no, not the one for the new Trek movie – but hey, that works too). I hadn’t posted anything on it because recent rumors suggested that one of the company’s investors happens to be a gentleman whom I work for.

Sadly, it now appears those rumors aren’t true – because you’d better believe I’d have been all up in his office looking for a foothold in the new company.

Though it does appear to have signed up some serious investors and human spaceflight experts. It’s also nice to see that they’re pushing a framework along the lines of what I’d been holding to for a long time:

That is, rocket science ain’t exactly rocket science anymore. 

In particular, there are ways to get to the Moon that don’t necessarily demand a Saturn V-class launcher. If these guys are serious about a “cislunar superhighway”, then that presumably means they’re serious about orbital depots, reusable landers, and maybe even Aldrin cyclers.

Aldrin cyclers are – surprise – named for the second man to walk on the moon, Buzz Aldrin. He earned the first PhD in Orbital Mechanics from MIT, years before there was even a manned space program. His doctoral thesis in orbital rendezvous became NASA’s standard, especially after he and Jim Lovell were forced to prove the concept when their radar on Gemini XII failed.

Dr. Aldrin proposed a system of reusable spacecraft that would semi-permanently orbit between two bodies: in this case, Earth and Moon. They would be on long, low-energy orbits, maybe two weeks each way (recall that Apollo missions only took 3 or 4 days each way).  The idea is they would be constantly shuttling people and stuff between the two, and could be met by other spacecraft at either destination.

So instead of a crew needing a big one-way booster to lunar orbit, maybe they’d only need to get up to a high Earth orbit with their stuff and dock with the Cycler while it’s swinging by.

Of course nothing lasts forever up there, which is where the fuel depots come in. If that technology could be mastered (and a lot of really smart people think it could be, rather soon) then it opens up all sorts of possibilities: namely, smaller and more frequent launches. Reusable landers. Semi-permanent cyclers.

If it sounds like I’ve been thinking about this a lot, it’s because I have been. All of this cislunar-infrastructure-stuff (say that three times fast) is an integral part of the Perigee sequel, working title I Have No Freaking Idea What to Name This Book Yet. But I’m still leaning towards Terminal Velocity or maybe Farside Down.

In the meantime, I hope this group can put together enough money to actually do something but there’s a long, sad history in this business of people with grand ideas and no money. It’s certainly more plausible than just five or six years ago, and one encouraging aspect of today’s announcement is that no one’s laughing them out of the room: major newspapers, networks, and magazines are all featuring this story today.

That’s because Musk and SpaceX have shown us how it can be done. If they can drive down launch costs as much as they’re hoping for, then Golden Spike has a realistic chance to move this project beyond PowerPoint. Unless at least a few billionaires sign up to bankroll a flight, all of this is just neat-looking vaporware until they start putting money down for someone to bend metal.

No bucks, no Buck Rogers. Or so I’ve heard…

3 Replies to “Working On The Railroad”

  1. Will these dreams pan out? Maybe, maybe not. But they are serious efforts, by serious people, at doing the kinds of exciting things in space that NASA hasn’t seriously thought about in 40 years. That they’re bearing fruit now is a testament to Obama’s space policy and its endorsement of free markets.

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