We Must Think Outside the Rocket Equation

The rocket equation contains three variables. Given any two of these, the third becomes cast in stone. Hope, wishing, or tantrums cannot alter this result. Although a momentum balance, these variables can be cast as energies. They are the energy expenditure against gravity (often called delta V or the change in rocket velocity), the energy available in your rocket propellant (often called exhaust velocity or specific impulse), and the propellant mass fraction (how much propellant you need compared to the total rocket mass).


The common soda can, a marvel of mass production, is 94% soda and 6% can by mass. Compare that to the external tank for the Space Shuttle at 96% propellant and thus, 4% structure. The external tank, big enough inside to hold a barn dance, contains cryogenic fluids at 20 degrees above absolute zero (0 Kelvin), pressurized to 60 pounds per square inch, (for a tank this size, such pressure represents a huge amount of stored energy) and can withstand 3gs while pumping out propellant at 1.5 metric tons per second. The level of engineering knowledge behind such a device in our time is every bit as amazing and cutting-edge as the construction of the pyramids was for their time.


If the radius of our planet were larger, there could be a point at which an Earth escaping rocket could not be built. Let us assume that building a rocket at 96% propellant (4% rocket), currently the limit for just the Shuttle External Tank, is the practical limit for launch vehicle engineering. Let us also choose hydrogen-oxygen, the most energetic chemical propellant known and currently capable of use in a human rated rocket engine. By plugging these numbers into the rocket equation, we can transform the calculated escape velocity into its equivalent planetary radius. That radius would be about 9680 kilometers (Earth is 6670 km). If our planet was 50% larger in diameter, we would not be able to venture into space, at least using rockets for transport.


The giant leap for mankind is not the first step on the Moon but attaining Earth orbit. If we want to break the tyranny of the rocket equation, new paradigms of operating and new technology will be needed. If we keep to our rockets, they must become as routine, safe, and affordable as airplanes. One of the most rudimentary and basic skills to master is to learn how to use raw materials from sources outside the Earth. Our nearest planetary neighbor, the Moon is close, useful, and interesting. Extracting and producing useful products from the raw materials of the Moon would relieve us from the need to drag everything required in space from the bottom of Earth’s deep gravity well, significantly altering the consequences of the rocket equation more in our favor. The discovery of some new physical principle could break the tyranny and allow Earth escape outside the governance of the rocket paradigm.


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 The Tyranny of the Rocket Equation
Electronic/World Wide Web>Internet Article:  Pettit, Don (05.01.2012), The Tyranny of the Rocket Equation, NASA, Retrieved on 2015-02-06
  • Source Material [www.nasa.gov]
  • Folksonomies: science equations equations