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NewSpace 2010: Advanced Space Propulsion

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
July 25, 2010

Approaching Warp Speed: Advanced Space Propulsion

Bruce Pittman (Moderator) – NASA Ames Space Portal
Franklin Chang-Diaz – CEO and President, Ad Astra Rocket Company
Leik Myrabo – CEO, Lightcraft Technologies, Inc.; Research Associate Professor, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Steve Howe – Director, Center for Space Nuclear Research
Vince Teofilo – Lockheed Martin

Bruce Pittman

— If we want to do anything economically beyond low Earth orbit, we need propulsion breakthroughs

Franklin Chang-Diaz
Ad Astra Rocket Company

— VASIMR – type of technology we badly need in order to send humans out into
— Fusion and plasma physics and magnetic mirrors
— First experiments done at MIT in the early 1980s
— Moved to Johnson Space Center – spent 10 years there
— VX-50 – 50 kilowatt test bed where they verified most of the controlling physics of the device
— About 2004-05 – NASA decided to shut down its advanced propulsion program to support other efforts
— A “virtual massacre” occurred
— Convinced NASA to privatize the project – formed the Ad Astra Rocket Company in 2005
— Space Act agreement with NASA
— Able to bring in large sums of money to make the project possible
— VX-100 – VASIMR experiment 100 kilowatts
— Finished experiment in 2007
— VX-200 – fully integrated prototype inside of a vacuum chamber
— Last September, fired the engine at 200 kilowatts
— Next step – ISS test – signed an agreement with NASA in December 2008
— VF-200 – VASIMR Flight 200 kilowatts
— Will tests VF-200 in mid-2014
— Develop a space tub that allows them to work in LEO, lunar orbit and possibly Mars missions – using only solar power
— Larger rockets will be tested on the moon

Leik Myrabo
CEO, Lightcraft Technologies, Inc.

— Showed video of a laser-powered lightcraft – funded by FINDS group
— Lifting small payloads to orbit using ground-based power
— Formed Lightcraft Technologies Inc.
— $10 million – put 1 kilogram cargo into suborbital trajectory
— Looking to locate in Las Cruces, New Mexico
— Beamed energy propulsion – vehicle is a power converter
— Multiple concepts being pursued around the world
— Doesn’t think that chemical rockets will be dropped more than 10-15 percent
— Beamed propulsion could cut costs by factors of 10s or 100s or even 1000s
— Phased approach – 1 kilogram to 10 kilograms to 100 kilograms
— High-level work between U.S. and Brazilian air forces to develop technology
— Economic, technical and political obstacles to beamed propulsion
— Point-to-point travel possible with beamed propulsion – anywhere in the world in 45 minutes
— Replace system of jumbo jets with lightcrafts

Steve Howe
Director, Center for Space Nuclear Research

— Based in Idaho Falls, Idaho
— RTGs – used since the 1960s – Apollo and deep space missions
— Working on radioisotope thermal rocket
— Mars hopper – hop 10 kilometers every five days with a small payload
— Liquify carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and use it to power the propulsion systems
— Working on nuclear thermal rocket
— Can no longer have radioactive material in exhaust
— Shifting to a tungsten-based fuel
— Trying to produce a lower mass, high propulsion rocket for space
— Nuclear thermal rockets could open up the Solar System for robotic and human exploration


Q: How much depends upon government support?

Franklin Chang Diaz

–  Private sector has been more reliable
–  Working with NASA Glenn, Marshall and Johnson agreement to enhance the ISS test article to be launched in 2014
— Delighted to see NASA engaged and interested
— But if they don’t, our investors are committed
— Major impediment is money

Steve Howe

— Need government support and interest in NTR
— Hope that happens in 2011

Leik Myrabo

— Mainly a matter of money, time and interest
— Lasers are available – getting access to using them
— Will need sources of power that are affordable for orbital transport
— Engines he has been developing are pulsed laser propulsion – all the engines are CW

Franklin Chang Diaz

— See a market to re-boost the space station
— Cost of re-boosting the space station is $210 million per year
— Fuel cost of $30,000 per kilogram
— VASMIR – $10.5 million per year

6 responses to “NewSpace 2010: Advanced Space Propulsion”

  1. James Brinton says:

    Thanks for posting this. The subject is near and dear to my heart, and almost totally overlooked in the mainstream.

  2. hyperdrive says:

    I hope they talk about the most innovative propulsion system up to now.

  3. Adam says:

    VASIMR and Laser Launch are both good ideas for near-term apps and both do better with nuclear power systems, thus there exists a fair amount of common ground between the “Nukes in Space” crowd and the others. Would be good to see all-solar versions of both, to appease the no-Nukers.

  4. net-ftl says:

    Howdy….hello…..Everything that will bring humans to the farthest stars is important. Exhaust thrust is the leader, maybe one day non exhaust thrust-faster than light may be experimented on in earnest. m/m’, even though it is extremely weak maybe there might be a way to allow an apple to ‘fall’ to another star system. It is not anti-gravity, but pro.

  5. Tom says:

    The way technology has been accelerating, its difficult to predict where things will go? Space travel is one of those venues where knowing what is current can be misleading to how the technology will grown. I loved the results of the Mercury thru Apollo programs; but you could spin-off everything but the propulsion systems? The shuttle was supposed to cost $5 million a launch with a 30 day turn-around…. With a fleet of 12 shuttles you could launch every 2 weeks and keep ground operations running at NASA with damn near airline efficiency. But it didn’t quite happen that way in real history. I’m 48 years old, I have ridden in jet planes commercial only 8 times in my life. 4 times in military service, twice in job relations and only 2 times (I didn’t pay for the tickets in any case) for vacation. I wanted to travel in space like in all the sci-fi movies;the economics or technology hasn’t been there.
    If sustained zero-gee stopped the aging process or cured all known diseases, we would have made LEO the 51st State! So we’re just going to have to keep on it til we got a sustainable system for spaceflight.


    I have invented a propulsion engine too. It’s a novel meachanical propulsion system. Check it out on my website:

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