For those who thought the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s were the golden age for rocket scientists, think again. The June 2007 issue of Wired Magazine has several articles relating to the new “rocket boom,” and I read Carl Hoffman’s article “Elon Musk Is Betting His Fortune on a Mission Beyond Earth’s Orbit” this evening. The following two paragraphs really grabbed my attention:

“Look,” [billionaire Elon] Musk says, scribbling equations on a notepad, “the energy increases with the square of the velocity. To go 60 miles into suborbital space, like Rutan and the X-Prize, you need to travel at Mach 3. The square of that is 9. But to get to orbit, you need to go Mach 25, and the square of that is 625. So you’re looking at something that takes 60 to 70 times more energy. And then, to come back, you need to unwind that energy in a meteoric fireball, and if there’s one violation of integrity, you’re toast.”

To date, only the interests of national security have harnessed the capital and intellectual muscle necessary to get to orbit. “Virtually every rocket that exists today in the US fleet is a legacy of ballistic missiles,” says Roger Launius, a historian at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. The American and Russian space programs required armies of engineers working with nearly unlimited budgets. The Apollo lunar program cost more than $150 billion in 2007 dollars and took 300,000 people and more than 3 percent of the US federal budget for 1964 through 1966. Even the “cheap,” reusable space shuttle is such a thoroughbred that it requires a ground crew of 50,000 and costs $1 billion every time it flies. (It also remains the most dangerous rocket system ever created.)

I listened to Burt Rutan’s February 2006 presentation for the TED Talks several months ago, and was impressed by the potential he related for commercial companies to revolutionize as well as energize our efforts to more affordably venture into earth orbit and beyond. Rutan is known for several aeronautic feats, including the record-breaking, globe circumnavigating without refueling Voyager aircraft and his award winning SpaceShipOne aircraft.

Where Rutan’s tone and attitude toward NASA in his TED Talk seemed condescending, Musk’s tone in this Wired article seemed very cooperative and realistic. NASA and the US Department of Defense are very interested in his work, not as underwriters keeping him afloat (as has been the case with many aerospace contractors in the past) but rather as two of many entities contracting to have their payloads delivered into earth orbit. If NASA does retire the Space Shuttle in 2010 as planned, there will likely be a bright future for Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX.) The commercial influence of wealthy and gutsy entrepreneurs like Rutan and Musk is likely to be strong in the years ahead. Where in the past, teachers might have encouraged students to study math and science hard so they could become NASA engineers, scientists and/or astronauts, today and in the future there are more opportunities for rocket scientists outside the world of government contracts than ever before.

The Falcon 1 being assembled on its launchpad in the Marshall Islands.

The accomplishments to date of SpaceX are truly amazing. Consider the following statistic, also from this Wired article:

At the dawn of the space age, between 1957 and 1966, the US sent 429 rockets into orbit; a quarter of them failed.

A 25% failure rate. This series of rocket launch failures is hinted at, but likely not adequately communicated, by a sequence in one of my favorite movies of all time, “The Right Stuff.” Even though SpaceX’s second launch did not actually achieve orbit, it did attain an altitude of 180 miles above earth. SpaceShipOne and its successor will just go 60 miles up. The International Space Station orbits at 250 miles up. 180 miles high on the second launch, with a rocket and launch system built from scratch, is an amazing achievement. Yes, it’s rocket science. How thrilling for those engineers to work on a project like this, which is literally making history just as NASA did with its unmanned and manned space programs, and the Soviets (and now Russians) did with their space program achievements– from Sputnik to Mir.

Creativity, innovation, people with a lot of brains and a ton of hard work are at the heart of the SpaceX story. As your students learn about past, current, and future NASA missions in the months ahead, make sure they also read up on the work of 21st century space pioneers like Elon Musk and Burt Rutan. Also remember to study all the Mir Expeditions. This Wikipedia page of all human spaceflights EVER is pretty amazing, it includes all missions, from Yuri Gagarin in 1961 to the current Soyuz mission to the International Space Station, scheduled to land in October 2007. Also check out this alphabetical list of EVERY astronaut in the history of planet earth, with their nation’s flag beside their name. (For the WikiPedia naysayers out there, I’ll remind you you’re unlikely to find an updated list like this in any traditional encyclopedia!)

How many students in your class are seriously thinking about being rocket scientists? Maybe it’s time to go build and launch some rockets? There’s nothing like hands-on learning with real rockets to make the theoretical become very, very real.

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