If you wanted to go to space 15 years ago, your only option would be to miraculously win (with all odds against you) the support and endorsement of an entire bureaucratic organization in which thousands of people would work to get you into space (aka “NASA”). But in the early 2000s, there was a small team that got people into space, led by Burt Rutan. Their spacecraft, “SpaceShipOne,” was the first commercial spacecraft to go into space and take people with it. So we went from huge institutions getting us to space to small teams doing it. What’s next? You, baby, all you! Technological advancement means that we go from huge institutions doing things to the common individual doing those same things years later. So sometime in the future, any (wealthy) individual who wants to go into space can buy a spaceplane kit, build it, and go to space- just like any wealthy individual today can buy an airplane kit, build it, and fly. You might have to get some kind of space pilot license before you buy your spaceplane kit… I’m not sure exactly how that’s going to work. So, before those spaceplane kits are available, we have some extra work to do. So are you ready to build your spaceship? Let’s do it! I’ve been working on the design of spaceplanes this year, so I’m going to break down 10 easy baby steps on how to get your spaceplane engines roaring.
And just so we’re clear- by “spaceship” (or rocket plane or spaceplane)-I mean a manned aircraft that is rocket powered and at least able to reach the Karman line- the edge of space. If you’re wanting to build an unmanned droneship (how lame) you are probably setting space exploration backward, so look elsewhere, you sham of a space cadet.
10 Steps to Build a Spaceship:
1. Decide whether you want a suborbital or orbital spaceship. These are two very different aerodynamical problems. If you build a suborbital spaceship like SpaceShipOne, you will be enjoying the weightlessness of space and the black sky, but you won’t be flying circles around the earth. A suborbital spaceplane must have a maneuver that maximizes drag so that your spaceship can dive back to earth at a safe speed (no drag maximization means kaput for your plane). An orbital plane, while it will be slowed down by the earth’s atmosphere automatically on it’s dive down, will have over-heating issues, so you will have to have some fancy insulation figured out to prevent spaceship fireworks. Also, if you are building a suborbital spaceship, depending on your design, you may need a mothership, which is an airplane that will drop off your spaceplane at the right height for it’s rocket motor to ignite into space. So basically you might need to build a mothership and a spaceplane.
2. Decide on how much stuff you’re bringing to space (your payload). If your grandma is coming with you on your trip to space or you just have to bring your entire collection of star wars figurines, that might dramatically change your spaceship. To get started on the specifics of your spaceship, you start out with your delta v (the velocity needed for the impulse required to get your spaceplane to the height you want) and your payload weight, which are your starting points or mission requirements. For instance, to reach 100 kilometers (the edge of space) with a 500 kg payload, SpaceShipOne needed a delta v of 1700 m/s. From your delta-v, you calculate your specific impulse, and then from there you can figure out a slew of structural coefficients and mass ratios that determine how massive your plane has to be and how much propellant you need to bring along each and every one of those nerd dolls.
3. Glue together a paper/styrofoam model of your spaceship and throw it around. If it doesn’t fly in paper form, it definitely won’t be flying in epoxy/metal form. After you’ve got a paper thing that’s flying and have maybe run some simulations on your wing design (most all wings fly, and in this case it’s the rocket that’s doing all the work), you’ll wanna get your paws on a mold machine and mold out each part of your spaceship. Then screw the parts together. (SpaceShipOne was essentially a “kit-plane” that was screwed together, so yeah, it is that simple). You’ll also want to calculate the wing loading (the total weight of the spacecraft divided by the area of the wings) of your spaceship and the maximum coefficient of lift (which is usually correlated with a particular type of wing). With these values, you can use equations that allow you to estimate your landing speed, which will you tell if your spaceship is going to land back to earth safely. If the landing speed is high, you might want to work on your piloting skills.
4. Don’t copy Burt Rutan or Virgin Galactic. Yeah, yeah they did this stuff first. But they didn’t really do it very well. I mean, for Christ’s sake, the pilot that Burt Rutan chose to fly SpaceShipOne didn’t even go to high school. How disturbing is that?! That means that someone who probably doesn’t know his multiplication times tables was flying thousands of kilograms of rocket explosives above our heads… and that has to be the most terrifying thing ever. Sure, he was the dumb guinea pig- they figured he’d instantly die. But still- you don’t hand the reigns of space exploration over to someone who can’t multiply. If you’re reading this blog, I’m sure you at least went to high school, so I’m not too worried about you. But also don’t copy Virgin Galactic. Their first spaceship exploded in mid-air and that’s definitely not a procedure you want to replicate.
5. Pay someone else to build your avionics. But definitely test that shit out.
6. Pay someone else to build your booster. But definitely test that shit out. Please don’t barbecue hotdogs with your booster tests like Burt Rutan did. Ew, gross.
7. Make sure your rocket isn’t going to explode. If you’re using solid rocket propellant, which is the cheapest, (you can use solid, liquid, or hybrid in which you use some solid and some liquid), the most common rocket failure is due to the solid propellant cracking or becoming un-bonded from the motor rocket casing, which doesn’t allow the propellant to burn correctly, causing an explosion. So don’t be lazy, you gotta calculate out the exact amount of propellant necessary. Also, to make sure the rocket isn’t going to explode, you need to incorporate a factor of safety into your motor casing. The motor casing should be able to uphold so many factors of safety times the chamber pressure. Meaning, the motor casing better be a hell of a lot stronger than the pressure of the combustion chamber of the rocket, or else bye-bye spaceship. Also, make sure your rocket fits in your spaceship, that’d be good.
8. Before starting test flights, you probably should take some flight lessons. But since this is an experimental homebuilt aircraft, I don’t think you need a private pilot license. But I’m not sure on this one- if any one knows about licensing requirements for experimental aircraft let me know, I couldn’t find anything online that seemed legit. I’m getting some super elitist flight training right now, so I’m good. But yeah, probably get your private before you blast off three times the speed of sound.
9. Use a checklist, use a checklist, use a checklist. I know you think you’re badass flying spaceships and all, and you probably think that since you’re rockin the frontiers of space exploration, you definitely don’t need instructions. But when your body is attached to a rocket flying in circles at Mach 3, you’re gonna forget stuff. If you’re not following a checklist on what flight procedures to follow, I’m sorry, but you’ll end up in a million pieces in the desert like SpaceShipTwo (which is the sister plane of SpaceShipOne- SpaceShipOne flew three times to space and is now chillin in the Smithsonian in D.C.).
10. Oh shoot, forgot to mention something kinda important. You’re gonna need at least 10 million dollars to get this whole homemade spaceship thing rolling. So hopefully you have that tucked away somewhere, under your mattress or something. Or hopefully you’re a sexy blonde who can canoodle a billionaire into investing in you (ah-hem).
Goodluck, space cadets! And if your flight makes it to space, giddy-up on those spaceplane kits! Or else start the first commercial space liner that puts all the airlines out of biz. (Oh yeah you didn’t know that? Spaceships travel faster than airplanes, baby. Trip to the Taj Mahal from NYC in just two hours anyone?).
P.S. Make sure you’re space bound in vogue while you fly your homemade spaceship, because after all, you might die doing this and you’ll wanna go out in style.