Is firing a rocket from the ground straight up into space the right way to do things?
It sure was in the 1950s and '60s and it persists today. But it's still expensive, fraught with technical risk and dwindling into obsolescence.
There could be an alternative on the horizon, however, that incorporates the concepts of railguns, scram jets and kinetic launching into an innovative, reusable space launch system for unmanned cargo.
An early proposal has emerged that calls for a wedge-shaped aircraft with scramjets to be launched horizontally on an electrified track or gas-powered sled. The aircraft would fly up to Mach 10, using the scramjets and wings to lift it to the upper reaches of the atmosphere where a small payload canister or capsule similar to a rocket's second stage would fire off the back of the aircraft and into orbit. The aircraft would come back and land on a runway by the launch site.Engineers say this isn't so far fetched. The technologies for accelerating a vehicle on a horizontal plane are there, the scramjet is within reach and the science behind the slingshot payload is sound.
"All of these are technology components that have already been developed or studied," Starr said. "We're just proposing to mature these technologies to a useful level, well past the level they've already been taken."The 10-year program is scheduled to begin with drone launches, culminating in small satellite payloads. Engineers say there is certainly the potential for manned payloads "after unmanned launches rack up successes."
BREAK BREAK: And it looks as if the Air Force may be looking in a similar reusable, slingshot method but with a vertical launch.