SpaceX might get the most media attention these days, but it’s far from the only commercial aerospace firm aiming to revolutionize the way we reach and return from space. SpaceX faces stiff competition from both Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin and Boeing’s United Launch Alliance, a name you might remember being thrown around as possible (but not probable) saboteurs of one of SpaceX’s explosively unsuccessful launches. Aside from these well-established corporate giants, there are a handful of smaller startups seeking to get a foothold in the rapidly expanding private aerospace market. Sure, rockets which can land upright on an autonomous boats are pretty neat (more like mind-blowingly neat), but one new space firm wants to change the entire launch paradigm altogether by constructing a giant catapult which hurls rockets into space. Will the age of loud, fiery space launches soon come to an end?
The catapult idea is the brainchild of SpinLaunch, a secretive space flight firm founded in 2014 by tech entrepreneur Jonathan Yaney. Yaney has already raised $10 million US to help get his space catapult plans off the ground and hopes to raise an additional $30 million. SpinLaunch hasn’t released much information about their system (their entire website is password protected), but what is known so far is that their technology involves massive centrifuges which can spin payloads to speeds of up to 3,000 mph before hurling them into the heavens. What could go wrong?
Yeah, I know: a lot. Yet SpinLaunch is hopeful that their innovations could get the entire aerospace industry thinking outside the box to reconsider how to reach space. In a recent interview, Yaney says SpinLaunch is set on completely revolutionizing the way we launch rockets and lower launch costs significantly:
Since the dawn of space exploration, rockets have been the only way to access space. Yet in 70 years, the technology has only made small incremental advances. To truly commercialize and industrialize space, we need 10x tech improvement.
Yaney says that in just the last three years, SpinLaunch’s catapult technology has been “developed, prototyped, tested and most of the tech risk retired” and that all “remaining challenges are in the construction and associated areas that all very large hardware development and construction projects face.” While the idea of the space catapult might sound crazy, NASA has actually experimented with variations of the idea for some time, including electromagnetic propulsion units used in rail guns. Given the cost and unsustainability of liquid rocket fuels, it's inevitable that the space industry would look towards mechanical launch methods. However, given the g-forces such catapults would exert on their payloads, it's unlikely humans could tag along for the ride. Good thing we'll soon have surrogate android bodies into which we can download our consciousnesses. Who needs these reeking meat sacs when there are space catapults to ride?