Aerospace engineers have been saying for years that space flight costs will eventually start coming down due to advances in engineering (scramjets, for one), and even more wishfully, competition amongst the private sector. There is a reason these people are engineers and not sci-fi authors- the sci-fi authors are more convincing.
(The voice of reason)
Call us skeptics, but as long as space requires rockets, it's the ultimate glass ceiling. And by glass, we mean the stuff they use in high rise windows like that movie where Ben Stiller and that other dude smoke crack and take turns bouncing off of them. It's hard to imagine an economy of scale involving a goddamn ROCKET that gets cheaper than air travel.
"this is basically just a bus stop, really."
And while space elevators are everyone's favorite sci-fi trope after hookerbots and pulse rifles, there's nagging problems with things like materials strength (even after you read 5 articles about carbon nanotubes), Coriolis forces, and traveling so slowly through the Van Allen Belt that you get radiation damage. Here then, are 6 ways that are absolutely 100% ammonium perchlorate-free, and in no way require you to hang out with chicks who wear adult diapers on cross country stalks.
1. Space Fountain- Yeah I know, I thought we said no space elevators. The thing is, space fountains are actually *more* feasible than space elevators. There's a couple of competing claims to who came up with the idea first, but the one we find most interesting is where a bunch of scientists more known for their work on robotics & artificial intelligence (Hans Moravec, Marvin Minsky & John McCarthy), and laser-initiated fusion (Lowell Wood, Roderick Hyde) used an early version of the internet to knock out the math of the idea and discover it was actually feasible. Robert L. Forward then suggested the idea of a pellet stream as fountain substance. We imagine it went something like this:
First Church of Evil Genius IRC 03/02/82 16:32/***/
MEN-skeetskeetskeet: robots are boring me, let's kill shit in space.
HANSoileaux: I love cock, I want to robotize it.
JMC: Consider this: space stations held in orbit by deflecting a ring of pellets orbiting below them
MEN-skeetskeetskeet: sounds tame. HANS, I have cock for those who love and serve me.
Bobby->: if you shot enough iron cocks into space and then redirected them down at the same speed, and then never quit doing it, you could build a tower into space supported by PURE IRON COCK VELOCITY
HANSoileaux: iron cock? I'm listening.
JMC: It's just crazy enough to work. So of course we'll stick with rockets and dreams of iron spiders shitting nanotubes.
Arthur C. Clarke made the concept famous as it ever will be with his novel The Fountains of Paradise, but since it was neither made into a movie by Kubrick nor despite its name, featured a lot of Spice Channel fodder, tends to go into the part of his back catalog that doesn't even get the love of Rendevous With Rama. The thing that makers a space fountain preferable over a space elevator is that it basically requires no handwavium or unobtainium, so to speak. Existing materials would work fine, and the concept is completely scalable- build as quickly or slowly as you like. If you think the idea of magnetic levitation and acceleration over the course of several miles is silly, consider the LHC, the Large Ion Collider, Fermilab, and just about any other nuclear accelerator worth a damn.
Basically we just have to build one pointing up and then another one pointing down. Basically.
2. Laser propulsion- as in a ground based station vaporizing metal propellant or plain old air into plasma with frickin LASERS.
Leik Myrabo got a rocket 100 feet in the air with these in 1999, so he's probably putting kitties into the ionosphere with LED pointers now. The idea almost sounds simple- the bottom of the beamcraft is so shiny that it refocuses & intensifies the lasers and makes a hunkahunka burning thrust. How hot? 30,000 K, or five and a half times as hot as the sun, or half as hot as Renee Olstead.
The specific impulse of that sweater has absolutely nothing to do with propulsion.
Mainly it's limited to how powerful you can get the laser, which is such an insignificant problem, that its why we're only now just installing the fucking things as glorified flash-bangs and the occasional 747 that can knock down a missile with a written warning. Clearly it's only a matter of getting the appropriate people for the job.
3. "America's Other Space Program"- Airships. Wait, why do you laugh? Oh yeah, Hindenberg, we get it. The page is a nightmare to navigate, but basically it sounds like a 3 stage series of airships, each bigger than the last, capable of higher and higher points in the atmosphere. This sounds like completely, well, hot shit-smelling air until you realize they've already made the second blimp, which they call a Dark Sky Station. By the way, as far as branding, "Dark Sky Station" is what a focus group calls "hell fucking yes". Right now though they're complete message board fodder.
(not so much)
As nanotechnology brings more of science's horror and wonder within the reach of yr average Spore enthusiast, we're thinking the doom/profit scenario is something like:
1. space blimp launches a Craig Venter-wannabee's tailored goo
2. tailored goo drifts in space until it finds feedstock (dead satellite/asteroid)
3. goo uses feedstock to replicate itself and come back to Earth as an army of conquering goo-bots
But they're thinking bigger than that- manned mission in seven years, they say. Smart money says America's other space program will still favor skinny folks.
4. Gerald Bull's Ghost
That's right, a fucking GUN to BLOW shit into space.
What really is there to explain?
Right off the bat we're going to admit Project Babylon's got some problems- whatever you launch into space with it has to be small, light, able to withstand a hell of a lot of acceleration, and the general experience of being a bullet shot out of a cannon longer than a football field. Since that rules out most satellites, experiment platforms, and living beings of a more complex form than Carlos Mencia, it will end up in Dubai as a toy for the world's most worthless rich, shooting I don't know, cricket balls with their initials etched in pure elephant ivory. Somehow that last sentence just made it seem the most likely of the whole lot.
5. Project Orion- we got the know how, we got the bombs...we don't really have the ecosphere to burn to survive something that flies by dint of shitting hydrogen bombs out and then catching the (hundreds of) blasts with a very very VERY big plate. But hey, did you know they did successful flight tests with conventional explosives like RDX? Scientists have calculated that if Michael Bay could be prevented from making another movie until 2016, the concomitant savings in explosives could be used to make a 180 day Mars run. By scientists, we mean comedy writers who've read George Dyson's excellent book about the project.
She is keeping you from space.
6. StarTram- Imagine a maglev into space, a REAL Shinkansen, if you like, and apparently the launch tubes themselves are somewhat levitated as well? We can't follow the math, but they're trying to say all the science and engineering necessary for the superconducting magnets and attendant cryogenics has been done on the LHC and is actually easier.
We've already showed you one picture of the LHC, so just pretend she's it again, and somehow 'old hat'.
Imagine a magnet bent into a V and then leaned on one side. These guys say that a train on the bottom of the V could very well be shot into space. Of course, if this really did result in space travel becoming accessible to all, and it ended up being staffed & used by those of us who rely on public transit, we're imagining a lot of hobos dying in vacuum for lack of proper change.