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March 25, 2013


HORIZONTAL IN LINE LAUNCH STAGING; this is a small step, but it could be the first of many. 

What does in-line staging do for us?  It offers a very small reduction of drag for horizontal launchers, and adds a little lift contribution that reduces the launch vehicle weight.  These are small improvements to horizontal launch, and that idea seems to have a lot of problems to overcome.  It has been considered and rejected countless times for decades.  But it is resilient, and has surfaced again at NASA in recent years.  It also survives in privately funded new space ventures.  A resilient concept may need only a few small refinements to reach maturity.

We do have some wings in space today.  Virgin Galactic is developing aircraft for civilian rides to space.  Stratolaunch is preparing an orbital launcher to ride on an aircraft.  That effort reunites Scaled Composites with Orbital Sciences Corporation.  They built the first winged launcher to deliver orbital payloads using aerodynamic lift on ascent.  The Sierra Nevada Corporation is reviving a NASA mini-shuttle for manned flight.  The Air Force is flying a small winged orbiter similar to the space shuttle today.  Lessons of the X-15 and the shuttle are not lost.

A lot of effort is going in a different direction now.  Vertical launch seems simple, but reusability is limited to parachutes and powered vertical landing.  I believe that vertical landings will be accomplished, even with complex large boosters.  However I sense that reliability engineers may have some migraines when missions and systems become big and complex.  One way trips are complicated enough, and there will be mishaps along the way. 

It’s good to see booster recovery, and winged upper stages assure more safety for crews and payloads.  These hybrids may offer a good transition to higher flight rates and reduced costs.  I expect vertical landings to generate more problems than their builders expect though.  I hope to see all components having options for propulsion loss scenarios.  Winged vehicles have a path to safe landings in many power loss situations. 

Perhaps we don’t need to rush to develop horizontal launch systems.  They are expensive development programs, and time may be in their favor.  If there is one or more spectacular events connected to vertical landings, the opportunity may fall to winged recovery systems.  We may not yet fully recognize the advantages of wings on the ascent phase of launch as well.  More horizontal flight operations may build a case for this.

While great new systems are delivering payloads to the space station, the HILLS projects will be incredibly small in comparison.  We might as well be content to find scraps to feed on while the giants of the forest tower over us.  Heavy launchers from Spacex and NASA will recall the glory days of the cold war, if a hot war doesn’t drain their resources.  One climate change that threatens the NASA heavy lift Space Launch System may be weak economy and budget cuts.  That is the biggest throw away booster we have proposed since the last century.  Time may empower the little rats and birds that scurry away for now.

Aerospace giants have come and gone since the Wright brothers.  Who would have thought that North American aviation would upstage the Curtis P-40?  But then, where is North American today?  New ideas will come, and each will leave their marks on our aerospace future.  I will enjoy hearing each new revelation and hope all receive a fair evaluation in their season.  H.I.L.L.S. will build a case for smaller, faster, cheaper, solutions in our season.   Our Kickstarter Rollout is drawing closer now.



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