Skip to content


October 4, 2014


We are moving into a new generation of space design.  I see parallels between fact and fiction at times.  We can see different philosophies in Star Trek as we do in real life.  Captain Kirk is a boldly go Captain of industry who will enter with emotion more than logic.  It usually leaves him in a wrestling match, either with a Gorgon or an Orion Slave Girl.  Spock on the other hand will analyze the problem until funds run out and no hardware ever gets built.  So now we are navigating between the Experimental Aircraft Association and the NASA X-plane programs.


So ten years ago Burt Rutan took a kit plane legacy into space with little heavy investment while NASA has decades of dead X-planes lying around.  NASA does have some expensive flying hardware…now decommissioned; and more (expensive ones) in the works.  But the commercial versions of Virgin Galactic are also having trouble (?) scaling the hybrid rockets for real profitable service.  Some analysis will be required by Mother Nature and the laws of physics.  We need a new generation to see reusable designs serving orbital launches.  Clearly there is something wrong with Kirk, who we first meet destroying a classic antique (300 years old?) Corvette.


I’m not sure “The Next Generation” of Star Trek is our example either.  Captain Picard is a Frenchman…with an English accent, and a taste for Earl Grey TEA.  He is in Star Fleet because the French don’t TRUST him!  There is something wrong with this old boy too!




Now we have to design a next generation launcher with a bargain price tag.  We are identifying issues and solutions with the digital tools of our generation.  Some hope to mate these upper stages to an existing aircraft.  At some point we will have to analyze balance, structures, and aerodynamics with these digital tools.  However an existing aircraft to modify is not in our digital database.  Whatever parts we need to use are either from the pencil drawing era or locked in a secret vault on the Klingon (manufacturer’s) home planet.  Kirk may have us boldly go to wrestle with the seat of the pants hot rod shop modifications on the fly.  Spock wants to analyze all the bolts and structures in digital detail and a small nation’s budget.

Vertical launch structures may consist of a fuel tank as outer skin and structure all in one.  That is the rocket guy’s perfection for low mass.  A pop can tolerates a great load if you stand on it in the upright position.  It is even stronger when the pop is still in an un-opened can.  But if you step on its side it is WEAK.  Vertical launch rockets need help when their side loads are greater than a cross-wind.  On the X-34 the tanks are aiding with the loads, but some structure is added to help with loads that cross out to the wings.  That still did not have to deal with landing gear attachment and runway loads.  Its fuel tanks are empty when it lands on its light gear.  A traditional aircraft may use stressed skin construction where structures are used to prevent that thin skins from buckling under side loads.  Spars are heavier in the wings, and across the fuselage in the wing roots.

Space launch science retains hope that tanks will contribute somewhat to reduce traditional air frame structures whenever possible.  We should expect some new solutions to include tanks, composites, stressed skin, and bulkheads only as needed for the mission.  It is hard to guess at these before we can actually do some digital analysis.  We start by entering the largest mass items in the picture, so we see the great stress sources.  Fuel and engines are in the CAD now, and some structural estimation is possible.  If my images suggest structural solutions we could use suggestions and estimated strength potential for early concepts.  Then we have to position systems for balance and service needs over the operational life of the vehicle.

Other groups are planning similar prototypes, and we don’t know how much they can get funded, built, or flying.  Xcor is fielding a little demonstrator but may have bigger plans growing.  They will be validated to investors if they fly a small launcher now.  Others are planning modified commercial aircraft as launchers.  Their performance and cost potential is limited by the lifter not being rocket boosted.  We have targeted a unique advantage if we build all the potential the system has to offer.  A compromised prototype may miss the chance to develop and demonstrate all the advantages needed for the top paying satellite markets.

500 with MicroSOLVESAir Side

COMPETITION IN THE WORKS..but with limited performance and markets



ADVANCED STATE OF PROGRESS…may still be improved on?

This vehicle is small, so it may miss advantages of tanks in structure seen in the X-34.  These tanks are shaped conformal to the airframe, and may not be optimal for thin walls and light weight.  The aerodynamics have advanced after NASA wind tunnel work, and their propulsion experience may their greatest asset.  I see the wide bottom shielding the thermal issues from the upper airframe.   Most commercial aircraft do not have that advantage so they may be limited in reentry from ambitious altitudes.  This Lynx vehicle is too small to employ any high performance turbine engines though.  For this vehicle it is better to leave that penalty behind.

Another technology we have proposed is unmanned guidance systems, and that could be part of small prototype demonstrations as well.  Is it possible that a small prototype could deliver a lot of valuable lessons for future orbital ventures?  I know that smaller size does not always mean lower price, but it may deliver technologies for a full size vehicle.  Williams FJ44 turbine engines might offer a step from the Xcor Lynx towards a larger design.  Perhaps smaller rocket and airframe ventures would like to collaborate on that middle step.  These are old images of a scale vehicle which could be unmanned, but needs a good test site.  Un-manned rocket planes might make the authorities jumpy.  Perhaps the military needs to be a participant in the early planning.


P2.4g P2.4h P2.4m

We are looking at small vehicles for big solutions.  Now we need to establish a small group that is willing to target smaller, faster, cheaper steps to the future!



From → Uncategorized

One Comment
  1. I enjoyed this article. Have you seen this page on some new Design concepts that are really cool?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: