Science

Opinion: Orbital Sciences' Antares Rocket Works, But Seems Dated

By Zach White , Feb 25, 2013 03:35 PM EST
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NASA tested its new Antares rocket, made by private partner Orbital Sciences Corporation, on Friday, Feb. 22, showing that it is ready for its mission to the International Space Station in March. But is the $472 million project worth it?

A lot of critics of space exploration programs tend to base their arguments on the claim that we should fix our problems here on Earth first, before we worry about leaving the planet. That’s not what I’m saying. In fact, I feel the opposite: that the faster we get off this rock and give ourselves a little more room to breathe in our increasingly cramped little planet, the better off we’ll be as a species.

I just wonder if maybe another disposable rocket system, which burns once, for millions of dollars, and then plunges into the ocean to sink or become ruined and never used again, isn’t just a little bit too 20th Century.

Mostly I’m thinking of the demonstration video that SpaceX released of its Grasshopper test back in December.

The video, if you haven’t seen or can’t, basically shows the 10-story Grasshopper rocket, “a vertical takeoff and landing vehicle” according to the YouTube description, blast off, rise 131 feet, and hover there before gently lowering itself back to the ground.

The video, which might not appear too exciting to some, represented a major breakthrough in rocket science.

A reusable rocket, like the Grasshopper, has widely been considered the holy grail of the rocketry world. And here it is, working and watched more than 3 million times.

Another, more distant, option is the space elevator that anyone with the resources has been investigating. Google has been rumored to be looking into such a technique in the same secret long-term laboratory that has so far yielded Google Glass and the self-driving Google cars.

These technologies, I guess, are still in various early stages. We still know how to work an old disposable standby.

But once we figure them out, and the cost to get to space becomes comparable to a 19th-century trans-Atlantic boat ride, humanity will be ready to push off from the edge of the pool.

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