Instead of planning to build a city on Mars, one SpaceX competitor is building cargo trucks to ferry supplies into orbit above Earth in a new space-based economy employing thousands of people.
They’re called space trucks, and they’re designed to carry cargo from low-Earth orbit to commercial space stations and lunar colonies.
United Launch Alliance (ULA), a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, plans to develop a cislunar space-based economy in low Earth orbit culminating in lunar colonies.
The key to the space economy is cutting costs, which the ULA hopes to achieve by building reusable rockets, like SpaceX, and mining natural resources from the moon and nearby asteroids.
Unlike SpaceX, the ULA is building a reusable rocket that isn’t designed to return to Earth, and it’s called the space truck.
Instead of reusing the first stage of the rocket, like SpaceX does with its Falcon 9, the ULA plans to reuse the second stage, the part that normally carries the cargo to its final destination. The second stage of ULA’s reusable rocket will stay in orbit permanently and ferry cargo brought up by other spacecraft, ULA CEO Tony Bruno told Quartz.
“We realized that you don’t have to bring it back in order for it to be reusable. That’s the big paradigm change in the way that you look at the problem – if you have an upper stage that stays on orbit and is reusable.”
They also plan to make a reusable first stage and call the whole space launch system Vulcan.
The first stage of Vulcan looks like a fat fuel tank with four rockets on the end. It’s called Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES), and it’s specially insulated to store fuel in the cold environment of space and be restarted after months floating above the Earth, Bruno told Quartz.
“Once you get to [low-Earth orbit], you’ve used two-thirds of the energy to be anywhere in the solar system. [You could fly a spacecraft] that was so heavy or so gigantic that your biggest rocket could barely get it to LEO, then one of these reusable upper stages that’s already in space can swoop down and grab it and take it to its final destination.”
It’s similar to the Solar Express space train concept idea engineered by ImaginActiv that’s designed not to stop. Speeding up and slowing down takes a lot of energy for spacecraft, and the Solar Express avoids this unnecessary expenditure by having other craft rendezvous with it.
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The ULA envisions a fleet of these space trucks ferrying cargo to space stations above the Earth in a cislunar economy that will ultimately result in lunar colonies and asteroid mining operations, Bruno told the Christian Science Monitor.
“It starts becoming practical to construct large-scale infrastructure and support economic activities in space, a transportation system between here and the moon, practical microgravity manufacturing, commercial habitats, prospecting in the asteroids.”
Even the International Space Station could become a commercial hub in ULA’s cislunar economy. NASA recently announced they would be putting the ISS up for sale sometime in the 2020s and seeking a commercial partner to fulfill their obligations in space while they redirect federal funds to a manned Mars mission.
The ISS could become a commercial hub by acting as a gas station in space where companies mining resources from the moon and nearby asteroids could buy supplies boosted into orbit.
Space companies could use the metal and other resources mined from the moon and passing asteroids to further construction in space. By building space stations, ships, and colonies in space, commercial companies can cut down on the cost of boosting heavy objects into orbit.
What do you think of ULA’s idea for space trucks and a cislunar economy?
[Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA/Getty Images]