Tuesday, 23 May 2017 06:07

How NASA Might Push Aerospace's Next Big Propulsion Breathrough


What does fast food have to do with interstellar travel? At first blush, not much. But halfway through the film, “The Founder,” on a grueling, recent ten hour flight, it hit me that aerospace, even NASA, might learn something from McDonald’s corporation founding CEO Ray Kroc.

Three years before Sputnik, Kroc was a frustrated milkshake mixer salesman eating at a never-ending string of low-rent drive-ins. The fact that none of them appeared interested in his mixers was secondary to the fact that even with waitresses on roller skates, the food was slow to appear. Likewise, in our quest to send humans and massive payloads over interplanetary distances and beyond, aerospace is arguably still stuck in what in food service terms might be seen as the drive-in era, circa 1954.

Then in a change of fate, that would forever revolutionize the way the world eats, Kroc made the long drive from Illinois to San Bernardino, California to see why a small hamburger joint would need ten of his mixers. What Kroc found spurred the kind of eureka moment that would enable him to franchise the McDonald’s ‘Speedee’ delivery system in a way that would create what the world now commonly terms fast food.

The RS-25 engine, which successfully powered the space shuttle, is being modified for NASA’s Space Launch System. Credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne via NASA

Credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne via NASA

The RS-25 engine, which successfully powered the space shuttle, is being modified for NASA’s Space Launch System. Credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne via NASA

Likewise, we need to ask ourselves where are the breakthroughs that will make hypersonic spaceplanes and crewed interplanetary transfer vehicles as common as fast food outlets at an interstate interchange?

Maybe the answer lies in rethinking chemical propulsion altogether and investing time and more energy into nuclear, ion, or laser propulsion.

But what aerospace really needs is a Ray Kroc McDonald’s moment that will allow for revolutionary propulsion mechanics to be economically replicated en masse. It wasn’t until Kroc and associates found a way to fundamentally change the way he thought about his business model that the brand became the behemoth that we know today.

Funding independent initiatives such as the Tau Zero Foundation will help. Its goal is dedicated to finding breakthrough propulsion technologies for interstellar flight, in particular. The Foundation recently reported that NASA awarded it a $500,000 grant for a three year “interstellar propulsion review.” The aim, says the Foundation, is to “create an interstellar work breakdown structure tailored to the divergent challenges and potentially disruptive prospects of interstellar flight.”

To date, however, the three biggest problems with crewed interplanetary space flight remain:

--- The cost of getting beyond Earth. That’s one reason the Saturn V launcher, which ferried the Apollo astronauts to the Moon and back, and NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) remain so few and far between.

--- How to efficiently shield the crew from lethal radiation without adding onerous payload mass to the spacecraft.

--- How to speed up interplanetary transfer to make travel within our own solar system and beyond tenable over human lifetimes.

This last one is a known unknown and if solved, there would be more of a clamor to adequately address the first two.

Bottom line?

Although in the film, Kroc attributes his success to tireless persistence, he appears to also have been obsessed with the idea that it was his patriotic duty to provide America and the world with reasonably-priced hamburgers at unheard of speeds. With all due respect to this new crop of space entrepreneurs, the current aerospace community needs to find and nurture a generation of Ray Krocs.

Here’s hoping someone credible out there among us is thinking about how to dramatically democratize breakthrough propulsion technologies.

Source: This article was published forbes.com By Bruce Dorminey

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