Private Rockets Enter Space

As Policy Debates Rage, Advances in Technology Continue

by Taylor Kilgore, age 15

There have been many news reports lately about the Obama administration’s decision to end NASA’s role in manned space flights. Instead, private companies will be encouraged to take a new leadership role.   

Meanwhile, other innovative efforts in the realm of space flight seem to be taking off (pun intended). These projects are moving forward largely without government support.

Many scientists question whether or not private industry can ever replace what our nation would accomplish through NASA. However, impressive advances in science are being made in privately developed space endeavors.   

A case in point: SpaceX, a company based out of Hawthorne, California, was started by Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal and Telsa Motors. Space X’ s first successful launch happened last fall when the spacecraft Falcon 1 carried a dummy load into space. More recently, Falcon 1 sent a Malaysian satellite into orbit.

Falcon 9 was to be launched no later than May 23, although the date was pushed back numerous times. Finally, after the green light from the Air Force, Falcon 9, or Big Brother Falcon, undertook its first successful test-fire.

SpaceX plans to send the operational rocket and capsule on its first voyage into orbit this summer, and on to the space station next year. Falcon 9 is large enough to bring seven astronauts to the international space station and Space X plans to send the craft there next year.                                   

Because of the company’s great success, SpaceX has already been awarded a $1.6 billion contract from NASA to launch some fifteen of its Falcon 9 rockets. SpaceX also has contracts with firms in Canada, Europe, and Argentina.

Another impressive innovation in the field of aeronautics is taking place at the University of North Dakota’s Energy and Environmental Research Center. Scientists there have manufactured a fuel derived from vegetable oil. The fuel is  almost an exact match to military-grade JP-8 rocket fuel.

This is the first biofuel that remains fluid down to negative 52 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature required for use at high altitudes. The research was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA.

This 100 percent renewable jet fuel was manufactured using petroleum-refining catalysts. In July, to show off their success, the engineering firm Flomatics used the fuel to launch a 20-foot rocket similar to SpaceX’s Falcon rockets.

There have been many recent advances in space science. There are, of course, plenty still to be made. President Obama frequently mentions various scientific accomplishments in his speeches. For example, he has placed emphasis on private space firms such as SpaceX, even mentioning the Falcon 9 rocket in his speech at the Kennedy Space Center earlier this year.   

Considering the knowledge that can be gained from space exploration, most experts are excited about such advances. But intense debate within the scientific community continues. NASA or the private space industry? Exploring things beyond our Earth is a marvelous thing. How our nation should pursue these goals remains one of the most important policy questions of our time.

[Sources: Popular Science; Science Illustrated; and; The Washington Post]