Though fish are happy to frolic in oil rigs, humans are very concerned about the environment. We must be careful not to overuse nature’s gifts. We did such a good job with the Prius that they are now difficult to buy. During the oil shock of 2008, many people discovered the advantages of saving petrol. This new Space age may also finally be the era of the electric car.
Elon Musk, who made a big success with Paypal, developed the Tesla electric car. This Tesla dealership in Menlo Park, California is one of only two. (General Motors has over 7,000 dealers.) To get a Tesla, I must put down half the cost or about 60,000 US. I must wait about a year for my car to be ready. Though going overseas is a big temptation, Elon has chosen to make cars in the US. The big US automakers ruined the environment with SUV’s and are now begging for help. Without a handout, Elon’s car is doing quite well.
To make a small fortune in Space, one should start with a large fortune. Elon’s other big project is SpaceX. On September 29 their Falcon 1 rocket finally reached orbit on the fourth attempt. On November 22 the larger Falcon 9 had a successful ground test in Texas. Thursday the Falcon 9 first stage was trucked out of El Suegundo on its journey to the Cape. Early next year Falcon 9 will be launched from Kennedy Space Center.
Both Falcons use the Merlin regeneratively cooled engine. Fuel is circulated around the combustion chamber for cooling, so there is still fuel in the pipes when the first stage separates. On the third flight of Falcon 1, the first stage continued accelerating after separation. It bumped into the second stage, sending Falcon 1 spinning out of control. This problem did not occur on ground tests because sea level does not have the low pressures of Space. A ground test does not always translate into a successful flight.
The Shuttle system was due for retirement in 2010. The STS-134 flight that I suggested for the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer may push that date into 2011. A report issued by the Congressional Budget office November 3 estimates that, with the AMS flight, chances are only 5 to 30 percent of finishing by September 2010. NASA is currently aiming for a September 2014 flight of Ares 1. This leaves at least a 3-4 year gap between US spaceflights.
If all goes well, 2010 will also see an unmanned Dragon dock with ISS. A crewed version will have maximum commonality. SpaceX is already lining up scientific customers for their Dragonlab. Elon and SpaceX employees point out that Falcon/Dragon are all-American systems. Like the Tesla, they are built of US parts in US plants. A manned Dragon may be the best hope for the US closing the “gap,” and they are not asking for handouts.