Nova (1974–…): Season 46, Episode 5 - Rise of the Rockets - full transcript

Private companies develop new ways to allow for more human activity in space; NASA builds a rocket that goes far beyond Earth.

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From Earth to space.

There's no tougher 50 miles
to cross.

Fewer than 600 people have ever
traveled it.

But that number...

Liftoff...
The Falcon 9 takes flight.

May be about to get
a whole lot bigger...

Competition will drive
the prices down.

And we can enter a space age,
a space 2.0.

Powered by entrepreneurs
with bold, new ideas.

Landing on a pillar of fire,

that last five feet can be
critical.



Elon Musk set himself up

to do something
that no one else says he can do.

If he delivers,
it might change the world.

And NASA daring to dream big
once again.

We're working
on the next heavy-lift rocket

that will take us farther
than we've ever gone before.

It's giving the nation
what it wants

in a very exciting,
next-generation space program.

Space...

It's never been closer
for humans and machines.

It's the "Rise of the Rockets,"

lifting off right now,
on "NOVA."



Major funding for "NOVA"
is provided by the following:





T minus one minute 35 seconds
on the Apollo mission,

the flight to land
the first men on the moon.

Kennedy Space Center,
Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Launch Complex 39.

T minus 17.

Final guidance released.

From here,
every Saturn V Apollo mission

and every space shuttle
lifted off.

Liftoff.

Liftoff on Apollo 11.



But after the final
space shuttle landing in 2011,

NASA tore down
its Pad 39 launch gantries.

And since then,

no American astronaut has flown
into orbit from U.S. soil.



The one hole in U.S. space
capability

right now is the ability
to transport humans

into orbit or beyond.

The U.S. has spent
more than $100 billion

building and operating
the space station,

and we can't even get there

unless we pay, and overpay,
the Russians to do it.



It's not where we want to be
as a country,

it's not where we want to be
as an agency.



But now Launch Complex 39 is
back in business,

rebuilt with the goal
of flying astronauts once more.

Three, two, one.

And this time,

the rockets are not only
NASA-owned and operated.

Private company SpaceX is
already launching

its Falcon rockets,

ferrying supplies

to the
International Space Station.

Eventually,

they hope to become
a major provider

of human flights
to the station as well.

And SpaceX isn't alone.

A number of private companies
have stepped up

and started providing
economical, reusable,

recyclable launch capabilities
to deliver to space.



But what about NASA?



They're focusing
on pure exploration,

with a new rocket to take humans
into deep space.

We're working on the next
heavy-lift rocket

that will take us farther
than we've ever gone before.

It will be the most powerful
rocket ever built.



The landing burn has started.

At the same time,

the audacious
technical achievement

of SpaceX's reusable rocket

and their stunts,

like launching a car and dummy
driver out of earth orbit,

have ignited
new public enthusiasm.

If you believe the hype,

then we're on the brink
of a new era of space flight.

But great uncertainties
lie ahead.

The demand for seats remains
tiny,

with only governments and
a handful of private citizens

willing to pay
for an expensive ride to space.

So will this lead to a
renaissance in space travel?

Or fizzle out...

nothing more
than a flash in the pan

that fails to take the
next giant leap for humankind?



Liftoff...
The Falcon 9 takes flight

with the Dragon spacecraft

destined for the one-of-a-kind
laboratory in microgravity...

The International Space Station.

We're in the midst
of a revolution;

a surge of commercial rocketry

that could make space
more accessible

and usher in a new chapter
of exploration.

And liftoff.

It's a revolution
that was started by NASA.

In 2005, the agency decided

to commercialize the task
of flying cargo and crew

to the International
Space Station,

freeing NASA to take on
bigger challenges.

It allows NASA to focus

on bolder expeditions
for deeper space exploration,

putting human beings
on Mars and other worlds;

pushing beyond the envelope

and giving the nation
what it wants

in a very exciting,
next-generation space program.



NASA's next-generation
space program

calls for a big, new rocket,

capable of carrying humans
beyond earth orbit once again...

To the moon or even Mars.

It's a return to NASA's roots.

NASA is recreating
a 21st-century

version of the Saturn V

as an exploration vehicle,

a heavy-lift vehicle

intended to enable the
resumption of human exploration

beyond low Earth orbit.

We're developing
the Space Launch System

to carry crew and heavy cargo,

first to the moon
or in near-lunar orbit

and eventually to Mars
and, and the outer planets.

Already eight years
in development,

NASA's Space Launch System...
Or SLS, as it's known...

Is designed to carry 50 tons
of spacecraft and human cargo

beyond Earth orbit.



It will be able

to take the large systems that
we need to land to an outpost,

to do the exploration
in deep space,

and to deliver payload
and humans necessary to do

the research on the moon.



If all goes well,
in the early 2020s,

NASA's new rocket will send
a human-rated spacecraft

around the moon...

The first since the days
of Apollo.

The second mission will follow
a similar flight path,

with humans on board,

the first such voyage
in over 50 years.

Its initial target mission

is to bring astronauts
in orbit around the moon,

in order to lay the groundwork

for a new space station
that will orbit the moon

and an eventual return
to the moon

by U.S. astronauts and robots.

The SLS is the latest

in a long line
of NASA's human-rated rockets,

starting with the one
that carried Alan Shepard

on his famous 15-minute flight
in 1961.



All right now, liftoff
and the clock has started.

These liquid-fueled rockets
all share common features:

engines at their base,

fed by powerful pumps

that draw propellant
from the tanks above.

Perched above all this
is the payload,

the cargo to be delivered
to space.

As payloads got bigger,

so did the rockets required
to launch them,

culminating in the Saturn V,

capable of carrying over 48 tons
to the moon...

Two minutes, 30 seconds
and counting.

We're still go on Apollo 11
at this time.

And the space shuttle,

built to routinely haul
up to 32 tons to orbit.

One, zero...

And liftoff, the final liftoff
of Atlantis,

the shoulders of
the space shuttle...

NASA's new rocket, the SLS,

will be even larger
than the Saturn V.

But rather than designing
from scratch,

NASA has borrowed technologies
that have flown before.

SLS is a cross between
the Apollo,

which had
the capsule at the top,

and the shuttle,

which had
the two solid-rocket boosters

on each side.

So if you look at Apollo
and shuttle,

you can see the similarities
of both of them

coming together to form SLS.



The SLS has not yet flown,

but as these aspirational
NASA animations suggest,

it will be quite a sight
at liftoff.

The minute the SLS launches
off the pad,

it will be the
most powerful rocket ever made.



Building the
most powerful rocket in history

is full of challenges...

Not least,
the size of the rocket.

Even a single fuel tank,
like this one, is enormous.

A building big enough

to put this giant rocket
together inside is so vast,

the engineers use bicycles
to get around.

Even the tools they're working
with to assemble the rocket

are gigantic.

I'm a weld and metals engineer
here for NASA.

This is
the vertical assembly center,

and it's the largest weld tool
in the world,

and it's the only one
of its kind.



The weld tool, a giant tower,

tackles the tank
in sections called barrels,

welding them together
vertically.

When we're assembling a tank,

it's done in different stages.

So one barrel is welded
to the dome,

and then once that's been welded
and checked and verified,

then another barrel
is brought in.

And so to assemble
a hydrogen tank,

and you have five
of those barrels.

And the very last piece is
the bottom, the aft dome.



The tanks are welded

using friction to melt
the metals together,

generated by spinning
the toolhead at high speed.

It looks easy,

but in reality the construction
of this first hydrogen tank

has been plagued by problems,

putting the rocket far
behind schedule.

It's a very troubled program,
basically.

The SLS will cost

at least $8.9 billion
through 2021,

which is double
the amount initially planned.



It's now ten years later,

a couple billion dollars a year.

It's continuing to be delayed.



Overruns aside,

it's an ambitious new rocket.

But why does it have to be
so big,

larger than any other?

The answer lies
in the fundamentals

of rocket science.





At its heart, rocket science is
all about propulsion

and a principle that was first
described by Isaac Newton,

whose third law
of motion states,

"For every action,
there is an equal

and opposite re-action."

So the principle behind a rocket
is actually really simple.

All we really have here is
what's called a mass engine.

If we have enough mass inside,

and we push it out fast enough,

then what we are going to be
able to do...

Through Newton's law,
action and reaction...

Is to propel this rocket,
I hope, skywards.

First, mass.

We're going to pour water
into a tank inside our rocket

to add mass.

And as we fill it up,

I can feel the rocket
actually getting heavier.

That's good sign,

because that gives us
more mass, more propulsion

to get the rocket to go
that much further.

Second, a source of energy

to push the water
out of the back of the rocket

as fast as possible.

For that, we're going to use
high-pressure air

from this compressor.

And so now all I need to do

is to release the compressed air
into the rocket itself.

Pressurizing.

The compressed air raises
the pressure

in the rocket's water tank,

which is prevented
from escaping.

Until...

Five, four, three, two, one.

Go!

Yay!



When released,

the high-pressure air pushes
the mass of water

out of the nozzle at high speed,

producing thrust
that propels the rocket

in the opposite direction...
Skywards.

That's why it's called
a mass engine.

And so there we are,

the principle of action
and reaction.

As we push the water
out the bottom,

the rocket goes up.

And so the question is,

how much fuel and
how fast do you have to eject it

in order to get a rocket
into space?

This question is at the heart
of all rocket science.

The combination
of the mass of propellant...

In this case water...

And the speed you're pushing it
out the back

is what propels you
into the air.

But you can't get to space using
cold, relatively slow water.

Propelling a rocket fast enough
to reach space

requires something much lighter
moving much faster...

Like rapidly expanding hot gas.

The idea of using such
a hot gas rocket to reach space

was first published in 1903
by Russian mathematician

and scientist
Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.

He worked out the best way

of generating a lot of hot gas
expanding very rapidly.

Gunpowder... or "black powder"...

Seemed like
a good way to do that.

It's what humans used
for centuries

to fire everything from arrows

to cannonballs
and rifle bullets.

And it's one of the main fuels
in fireworks.

I've got a small jar of it here.

And what we'll do is
we'll just quickly

take a look at what happens
when it lights.

Here we go, let's go.

Oof!

It's pretty fast.



When ignited,

the gunpowder reacts
with oxygen,

releasing a lot of energy

and turning it into
a rapidly expanding hot gas.

Seems like an ideal fuel
for a rocket.

But there's a problem
with solid fuel like gunpowder.

Once ignited,

it burns
until the reaction is over.

But in a rocket,

it's preferable to have a fuel

that can be controlled.

Tsiolkovsky's crucial insight

was the fact that
if you light a solid fuel,

then the burn kind of goes on
until it runs out.

If, on the other hand,

he were to use liquid fuels,

then he would be able to control

how much liquid was being poured
into the flame.

In other words,

he would be able to exert
even greater control

over his rocket.

Tsiolkovsky started casting
around

for the right liquid fuel
to use.

At the time,

high-quality liquid fuels
like kerosene and gasoline

were becoming available,

thanks to the emerging
petrochemical industry.

Here on earth,

these fuels burn by reacting

with oxygen in the atmosphere.

But in space, there is no air,

so Tsiolkovsky proposed carrying
a supply of oxygen

along with the fuel.

It would take
an American scientist,

also obsessed with the idea
of space flight,

to build such a rocket.

His name was Robert Goddard.

So what Robert Goddard
came up with

was the idea of combining
liquid kerosene

with liquid oxygen,

and by burning the two together,

he would get a fierce flame
that he could control

and that would really push
his rockets skyward.

When the kerosene reacts
with the oxygen,

the result is a very hot
rapidly expanding gas.

And if channeled
through a nozzle,

that hot, fast-moving gas
produces thrust

that can push the rocket
in the opposite direction.

What we get is
an enormous expansion

and enormous push.

But above all,
we can control it.

With just such a design,

on the 16th of March 1926,

Robert Goddard finally launched

the very first liquid-fueled
rocket in history.

The flight was brief.

The rocket didn't go far
or fast,

but the potential was clear.

Carrying liquid oxygen on board

meant rockets could fly beyond
the Earth's atmosphere.

And with that,

Robert Goddard imagined
we could go to the moon.

Goddard might have dreamed
of reaching the moon,

but his liquid rockets
never even reached two miles

into the sky.

And that's because of something

called Tsiolkovsky's
rocket equation.

When Tsiolkovsky

was thinking about
how to power a rocket,

one of the things
that he realized

was that you're not just moving
the payload,

you've also got to move
the fuel.

And the fuel itself has weight.

Now, you can imagine putting
more and more fuel,

in order to power your rocket
more,

but at the same time,

you're adding
more and more weight.

Tsiolkovsky tried to describe
this "Catch-22" problem

by considering things

like the mass of the rocket,
the fuel, and the payload,

and the velocity
it would need to reach

to get to orbit.

The longer the engine burns,

the more velocity
the rocket will have.

But longer burning means
more fuel,

making the rocket heavier
and harder to push.

It's a vicious cycle

and still bedevils rocket
scientists today.

To travel fast enough
to deliver a payload into space,

most of the rocket
has to be fuel.



The critical consequence
of the Tsiolkovsky equation

is the fact that,
really rather depressingly,

only a tiny percentage
of a rocket can ever be payload.

And when you think back

to the lunar missions
of the Apollo space program,

those enormous rockets were used
to fire just three men.



NASA's giant Saturn V...

The largest,
most powerful rocket

ever to fly.

Built in a hurry to race
to the moon,

engineers hacked
the rocket equation

by building the Saturn V in
a series of disposable stages,

where each set of tanks and
engines were discarded

as they ran dry,

shedding weight and allowing
the next rocket stage

to accelerate even faster.

But even a giant staging rocket
the size of the Saturn V

wouldn't be large enough
to carry the Apollo spacecraft

all the way to the moon
without the right fuel.

Kerosene wouldn't do.

In fact,

there's only one fuel
that packs enough punch.

A fuel that Tsiolkovsky himself
had also proposed.

Tsiolkovsky's focus

on the chemistry
that's available to us,

and its crucial role
in being able to push a rocket,

led him, inescapably,
to the conclusion

that he needed the lightest

and yet most energetic fuel
possible.

And that had to be hydrogen.

The power of hydrogen compared
to other fuels

is easy to demonstrate,

using a homemade cannon
and some sacrificial potatoes.

First up, regular gasoline.

We're really using the same sort
of fuel

that, you know, you might put
in a car or in an airplane.

Here we are.

Now, we'll screw the end
over the barrel.

Okay, right, so here we go.

And now all it needs
is that vital spark.



When ignited, the
highly reactive gasoline vapors

are converted into
a very hot, fast-expanding gas

that pushes the potato
out of the cannon.

Whoa!

Gasoline has carried the potato
just over the bushes

into the next field.

Now, the same experiment...

But instead of gasoline,

we'll try the same mass
of hydrogen,

an invisible gas.

And so I've got the hydrogen
here

in these monster syringes,

which we've preloaded

with a little bit of hydrogen
in each one.

We're going to cap
the whole thing up.

Now, I tell you,

this thing is a really
pretty scary explosive mixture.

This one is going to be
really loud.

Here we go.

Ready, aim, fire!

Whoa!

Hydrogen is the lightest element
in the universe,

so you can pack a lot more atoms
into each pound of fuel.

And when it reacts with oxygen,

it burns with a near invisible
flame,

producing a very familiar
substance: water,

which expands rapidly
as a hot vapor.

Whoa!

That was
the biggest distance yet.

Whether you're launching
potatoes across fields

or big, heavy payloads
into deep space,

there's no more efficient fuel
to use.



And that's
why the Saturn V's upper stages

also used hydrogen fuel
to get it to the moon.

The main engines
of NASA's new SLS rocket

will also be powered
by hydrogen.



It's an engine called the RS-25.

This model powered
all 135 space shuttles to orbit.

It's an incredible record

that makes the RS-25 one of the
most reliable rocket engines

in history...

And NASA wants to repurpose them
for the SLS.

It's built by a company
called Aerojet Rocketdyne.

Tom Martin works at their
world-class engine test facility

here at NASA's Stennis
Space Center in Mississippi.

The RS-25

was originally developed
in the 1970s and '80s,

throughout the shuttle program.

Five, four... we've gone
for main engine start...

We have main engine start.

Some of these engines have been

in multiple flights in space.

You know, very reliable,
very high-performing.

There were three
of these RS-25 engines located

at the tail end of each shuttle.

At launch, they were supported

by two detachable
solid-fuel boosters.

Good speed now,
320 miles per hour.

But the three main engines were
part of the shuttle itself

and returned to Earth each time
to be used again and again.



But will they work
on NASA's new rocket?

Today they're going to simulate

a full SLS eight-minute launch
to space

on one of the engines,

to test the control
of its flight computers.



You can see the A2 test stand,

and then further off
in the distance,

the A1 test stand.

The A1 is where the RS-25
is going to be tested here

in just a couple of minutes.



Close to the test engine

are 300,000 gallons

of highly explosive
liquefied hydrogen and oxygen.

A crew will go in
right before test

and verify
that there aren't any leaks,

everything looks good.

And we are standing by
for the RS-25 engine test.

Okay, it sounds like we're
two minutes away, all right.



Nothing's 100% guaranteed,

so there's always a little bit
of nerves before a test.

We do everything we can

to make sure the test and
the flights are going to go off,

but, you know, there's always
unknowns that creep up.

We'll evacuate the area
to at least a quarter mile,

so if anything bad does happen,

we want everybody to stay safe.

Most of the test crew is
in the Test Control Center.

That's where they control
and monitor the engine.



Keeping a safe distance
is crucial,

because when an engine fails,

the results can be often
catastrophic,

as seen in
this early Apollo engine test.

So you can hear the siren.

That means
we're one minute away.

Sounds like auto-sequence
has started.

At this point
the computers take over,

it's kind of
under the computer command.

The engine actually goes
from zero thrust to full thrust

in, in about five seconds.



And we have ignition.



As the engine hits full power,

the temperature reaches
6,000 degrees,

accelerating the exhaust out
at 13 times the speed of sound.

Guzzling 1,500 gallons
of propellant each second,

it's now generating just over
half a million pounds of thrust.

The heavy steel structure
of the test stand

keeps it firmly grounded,

while the exhaust is diverted

out to the side using enormous
flame buckets.

These billowing clouds
of combustion gas

are just water vapor,

formed as the hydrogen burns
in oxygen;

and like naturally formed
clouds,

sometimes they make rainbows.

You don't really get a sense for
what these machines are doing

until you're on the ground
seeing a test,

and then you get the full impact
of how powerful this stuff is

and how hard it is to get things
into space.

It never gets old seeing a test.

I could see it every day.



The 535-second test

of the RS-25 engine has
concluded.

The engine's flight computer has
performed flawlessly,

controlling the throttling
of the rocket

through the simulated ascent
to space.

It gives me goose bumps

every time
I hear the engine start.

I mean,
it's a visceral experience

to, to, to see an engine test.



If it all goes as planned,

the engine they've tested today
will power the first SLS rocket

in the early 2020s.

And like the Saturn V,
this engine...

Along with most
of the rest of the rocket...

Will be dropped into the ocean,
never to be used again,

after just one flight.

That's at least
part of the reason

why getting huge, heavy payloads
into deep space

is still so expensive.

But is that the only solution?

Why not reuse your rocket
like an airliner?



That question poses an array
of new challenges.

The airplane, if you threw it
away after every flight,

would be a very expensive way
to travel.

In the beginning of aviation,

we created vehicles
to be reused.

For rocketry,
we somehow forgot that,

and we're not benefitting
from reusability.

We threw away everything
when we were done.

And that's because

making a landing from space
by reentering the atmosphere

at a speed
of five miles a second,

is much harder
than landing a plane

from a cruising speed

of over 800 feet per second.

After the Apollo mission,

NASA tried to build
a reusable space plane

through the 1970s...

The iconic space shuttle.

And the shuttle has cleared
the tower.

But there were problems
from the start.

The space shuttle was supposed
to travel every other week,

40 times a year was
their proposal,

which would have dropped
the cost significantly.



We thought
if you're reusing an engine,

it's going to be less expensive,

but they again had
to pretty much take apart

and rebuilt the shuttle
main engines

after every flight.



The space shuttle never was able
to launch regularly,

and it was very, very expensive,

about a billion a flight.

Footing that kind of bill was
not sustainable for NASA.

And in the early 1990s

the agency started funding
research

into other ways
of making rockets reusable.

Engineer John Garvey was
on the team.

There are different ways to do
reusability,

and many advocates believe
that a vertical lander

is, is the way to go

if you can just come down on the
same engines that you launch on.



They developed
an experimental rocket

known as the Delta Clipper.

It was a radical departure,

as this rarely seen footage
shows.

The Delta Clipper Experimental,
or DCX,

was an experimental
vertical take-off,

vertical landing rocket.

Unlike the space shuttle,

which was designed to fly
back to earth,

the Delta Clipper would land
on its tail.



Test flights of the DCX began
in the early 1990s

at a desert testing ground
out in New Mexico.

Nothing like this
had ever been attempted before.



We took it out to White Sands,

a missile range
out in New Mexico,

and launched it multiple times.

This footage looks like outtakes
from a science fiction movie.

It flew, you know,
maybe 10,000 feet,

but it was demonstrating

that it was possible to get
the rocket back

and fly it
with minimum refurbishment,

reduce costs.



The engineering team was on top
of the world.

But their fortunes were
about to change.

There was a line
that was not hooked up,

and as a result,
as it was landing,

only three of the landing legs
deployed,

the fourth one did not,

so it actually landed
successfully,

and I was like, "Yep, let's go!"

Landing small negative.

Engine out.

She's going over.

Then you turn around,
and then the rocket's gone,

and it's on the side,

and the tanks are rupturing.

Yeah, it was a tough day.

But, you know, that's how...
that's...

If you're in this business,

you, you've got to get used
to it,

you've got to roll with it
and just say,

"That's part of the deal."

And if you can't handle it,
don't do it.



Losing the entire vehicle

before it reached space

led NASA to cancel the program
to pursue other avenues.

But there was one person
who saw the potential:

a South African-born
entrepreneur

who'd made his first fortune
disrupting the banking industry

with a company called PayPal...

Elon Musk.

Musk had always been
a science-fiction fan

and interested
in the possibilities

of colonizing other planets.

And after he became wealthy
as an entrepreneur,

he had some money

he could put toward
this kind of scheme.

And that's how SpaceX was born.

There have to be reasons that
you get up in the morning,

and you want to live.

Like, why do you want to live?

What, what's the point?
What, what inspires you?

What, what do you love
about the future?

And if we're not out there...

if the future does not include
being out there among the stars

and being
a multi-planet species,

I find that...
it's incredibly depressing

if that's not the future
that we're going to have.



In the early 2000s,

there was
little business incentive

in building rockets
to take people to space,

let alone Mars.

But that was about to change.



GNC, are you ready?

Flight max, we're ready.

GNC is go.

I think we're ready, no deltas.

On the first of February 2003,

NASA's oldest space shuttle,
Columbia,

was returning from orbit.

Columbia, Houston,
UHF comm check.

Loss of voice communication
is always expected

for a short time during reentry.

But on this occasion,

contact was never reestablished
with Columbia.

Damage during launch,
which no one had noticed,

caused Columbia to burn up
during reentry over America,

killing all onboard.

TC, Flight.

Flight, TC.

Lock the doors.

Copy.



The risks of flying
such a complex spacecraft

were brought into sharp focus.

It was time for NASA to rethink

how they launched
their astronauts into space.

There was a decision after
the Columbia accident in 2003,

to retire the shuttle as soon as
the International Space Station

was fully assembled.

Rather than build
a new spacecraft themselves

to reach the Space Station,

NASA decided they would buy
future astronaut seats

and cargo delivery missions
from private companies.

The man charged with finding
and developing those suppliers

was Alan Lindenmoyer.

SpaceX was
a new start-up company;

they had only been in business
for a few years,

and when we visited them,

they had maybe
a couple hundred people.

They were very busy,

and we could sense,
and we could see

that this was extremely talented
team

that we believed had the ability

to, to complete it, the job.

Closing a deal with NASA

to send cargo and crew
to the Space Station

was a huge boost to SpaceX,

but also a risk
for the space agency.

So they appointed their long-
time aerospace partner Boeing

to build
another new crew vehicle,

to fly on their existing
single-use rockets

like the Atlas V.

SpaceX was in the spotlight,
as they set about

trying to develop
a brand-new, reusable rocket.

It's classic Elon Musk.

He's set himself up
to do something

that no one else says he can do,
or is really asking for,

but if he delivers,
it might change the world.



Attempting to fly a reusable
rocket to space and back

is about as hard
as aerospace engineering gets.



It's hard enough building
a rocket that can get to orbit.

Now, if you have to build
the additional capability

to bring it back,

the margins get even tighter.

Returning a rocket safely
back to the launch site

involves a series
of complex steps,

which begin
on the edge of space,

when still traveling
at over 3,500 miles per hour.

First the rocket does
what's called a boost-back burn,

it fires its engines,
slows itself down,

and starts returning
in the opposite direction.

Now on a trajectory

that's taking it back
towards the launch site,

this giant, 14-story tower must
turn itself around once more

to point the engines forward

as it starts to reenter
the top of the atmosphere.

And that's when things begin
to get tricky.

A rocket is an unstable vehicle.

You have to deal
with the control elements,

so how do you keep it stable
on the way down?

It has maneuvering jets
at the top

that shoot out bursts
of compressed air

to keep it aligned,

but its main way to keep going
in the right direction

are something called grid fins.

These fins...
The size of dining tables...

Act as paddles to steer and
slow the falling booster rocket

as it enters
the denser lower atmosphere.

As the rocket gets closer
and closer to land,

it does more controlled burns
with its engine

to slow down and align itself
with the landing pad.

As the engine ignites
into a hypersonic headwind,

the 33-ton rocket suddenly
becomes even more unstable.

It's like balancing a pencil
on the end of your finger

and think of how much effort
and work you need to do that

yourself.

An array of sensors

is now constantly relaying
the rocket's orientation

to the engines at the base,

that swings left and right

to keep the vehicle upright
as it slows down.

Landing on a, a pillar of fire,

that last five feet can be
critical

if you don't know
where the ground is.

Approaching the landing pad,

the onboard autopilot
now deploys legs

and throttles back the engine,

so that velocity and altitude
both equal zero together.

All of these different variables
just show

how much has to go right

every time the rocket comes back
to earth

for it to land.

Easy to pull off
in a slick animation,

but a long shot in real life.

Then another internet
entrepreneur with similar dreams

stepped forward...

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos,

who'd quietly founded a company
in the year 2000

called Blue Origin.

One example

of the secrecy
behind Blue Origin

is the first time we really
learned what they were doing

is when a journalist went
through the trash cans

outside of their office
in Washington

and discovered the plans,

or at least memos discussing
their goals of space tourism.



Working quietly,
without fanfare,

it takes Bezos and Musk more
than a decade to pull off

their first successful
vertical-landing rockets.

Bezos' rocket...
Named New Shepard

after the first American
astronaut Alan Shepard...

Reached the edge of space

on the 23rd of November 2015,

and returned to the launch pad
a few minutes later.



Within a month,

Musk's first reusable
SpaceX rocket booster,

called the Falcon 9,
touched down vertically too,

after delivering a payload
all the way to orbit.

These two triumphs marked
a major step

in the pursuit
of a more reusable rocket,

and perhaps the beginning
of a new era

for lower-cost trips
to Earth orbit

and the long-awaited promise of
more affordable space tourism.



While Space X has continued
its successful track record,

with over 20 commercial launches
in 2018 alone,

another, quieter rocket
revolution is underway...

One that's being driven
by miniaturization.

Today, everybody knows that
microchips, batteries,

solar panels are smaller
and more powerful

than they ever have been,

but what that allows engineers
to do

is build small satellites that
are cheaper and weigh much less,

but can do everything
old satellites do.

Such small,
low-cost satellites...

Some known as cube sats...

Can be deployed very quickly

and may transform

the way we communicate,
navigate, and observe Earth

from space.

One of the advantages

of having multiple spacecrafts

working in synergy
with one another

is that you can monitor things
like wildfires

that are spreading rapidly.

You can do this in real time.

We can track earthquakes,

whether or not it's going
to shoot off a tsunami.

We have much more data

to be able to pinpoint
the location

of catastrophic events

and then take action
to remedy that.

This new generation
of tiny satellites

is spawning a new array
of rocket-launch companies.

Because, thanks to Tsiolkovsky's
rocket equation,

once the payloads are smaller,

the mass of fuel can be smaller
too.

And that makes it cheaper to get
to orbit.



One company aiming at
this new market is Rocket Lab.



Its founder is New Zealand
engineer Peter Beck.

The whole purpose of Rocket Lab
is, is to enable frequent,

affordable access to space,
and if we can do that,

then some really incredible
things will start to happen.



Until Rocket Lab came along,

the most affordable rocket ride
to orbit

would set you back
around $60 million.

But they can do it for
less than a tenth of this price.

Our prices start at
$5.7 million.



So that's a, a dramatic order
of magnitude change.

Five, four, three, two...

Ignition.

Getting to orbit
for this sort of price

requires a new approach
to rocket building.

It's the world's first

all-carbon composite
launch vehicle

to ever reach orbit.

The carbon-fiber gives us
a strong advantage

with mass
and structural performance.

Using carbon fiber instead
of heavier metal alloys

reduces the rocket's weight,
allowing for more payload.

The rockets are
incredibly light.

You can wheel it around
with no issues at all.

The actual structures
and the tanks of the rocket

weigh almost nothing.

Rocket Lab has already put
24 cube sats into orbit

on three flights.

They hope their radically
cheaper carbon-fiber rocket

will create even greater demand
for launch services.





Hacking the rocket equation
can bring costs down...

But only so far.

So innovators are looking
at other ways to economize.

For example,

what if a rocket doesn't need
to take off from a launch pad,

eliminating
the expensive infrastructure

which accompanies all liftoffs?

What if you could launch
to orbit

from almost anywhere?

Even from back of a truck?

That's exactly what Delta
Clipper veteran John Garvey

is trying to do.

We've designed the rocket
certain ways

to make it simpler.

We use a trailer, drive it
a mile or two to the pad,

go vertical, and launch.

We basically need a paved road,

a concrete pad,
and, and some utilities,

power and the internet's nice.



By focusing
on really small satellites...

Under 130 pounds in weight...

Garvey can reduce
the size of his rocket,

allowing him to experiment
with much cheaper solutions.

We use liquid oxygen
as the oxidizer,

and we're using propylene
as the fuel.

It gives us just enough
extra performance,

a thrust on the order
of 20,000 pounds at liftoff.



Garvey's rocket engines
might be puny

compared
to NASA's main SLS engine,

but they have the potential

to change the way
we launch very small satellites

in a very big way.

Our job is to get to the point

where when we launch,
people don't even look up.

It's just like,
"Oh, yeah, okay, fine."

And we'll be truly successful...

We, collectively
as an industry...

When we're doing that,

and people barely look over
and say,

"Oh, yeah,
that's another Vector launch.

They do that all the time."

That's going to be the metric
that we are really establishing

we're hitting the numbers.



Garvey imagines
a low-cost mass market

where rides to orbit
are as mundane as jet travel.



Another way to reduce costs
to orbit

is to start your rocket
closer to space

by eliminating the need to
launch from the ground at all.

One company, Virgin Orbit,

thinks it can cut
launch-to-orbit costs down

by allowing the rocket to
hitch a ride partway to space.

Their CEO is Dan Hart.



Well, Virgin has been working
on air-launch systems

for quite a while.

And so there's a whole
Virgin Galactic company

that is working
on space tourism,

where a spaceship comes off
of an aircraft

and takes tourists into space.



And from that,
the discussion of,

"Well, what else
can we get into space,

and "How can we use similar
technologies?"

really rose.

Virgin Galactic's rockets
are designed to carry

a relatively heavy cargo
of humans

high enough to reach space,

but not fast enough
to get into orbit.

But by reducing the mass
of the payload,

a small rocket carried
to altitude

under the wing of a plane could
reach the speeds needed

to get to orbit.

So, it was an easy,
logical progression

to use those technologies

for the purpose of
taking satellites into space.



Spinoff Virgin Orbit

has a fully reusable,
first-stage launch vehicle

in the shape of a repurposed
jumbo jet airliner,

christened Cosmic Girl.

Cosmic Girl is
the carrier aircraft.

She'll carry our rocket,
Launcher One,

to about 35,000 feet

and get close to Mach One,
the speed of sound.

Having altitude and velocity

is a good thing
for a rocket to start off with,

and it gives us
an initial boost.

That helps us,

because it allows us to make
the rocket smaller

and less expensive.



Just like Vector and Rocket Lab,

Virgin Orbit's also chasing

the burgeoning
small-satellite market.

So, are there enough
new small satellite companies

to keep all these new
rocket companies in business?

The eternal bane
of all rocket companies

is making sure
there's enough cargo

for you to launch in the future.

And with so many rocket
companies forming right now,

it's not clear
that they'll all survive.





While these small-rocket
companies fight it out

to see who'll become king
of the micro-satellite market,

the bigger players...
Like NASA, SpaceX, Boeing,

and Blue Origin... grapple
with the challenges

of carrying immense payloads
into deep space.

Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos
are talking

about millions of people living
in space habitats

or colonizing Mars.

And even though it sounds crazy,

it is a difference
in their approach,

and it shows
in how they try and do things...

To be cheap, to be long-lasting,

to be infrastructure that can be
built on by the broader economy,

not just
a one-time military mission.



Behind these ventures
is a common impulse,

one that drives some of us
to build rockets.



We're all explorers.

We're departing
from low Earth orbit,

and we're going to go further
than we've ever gone before.

And I think that we're really
going to do this someday.



SpaceX has announced
it is building prototypes

of its giant Starship rocket,

intended to ferry hundreds
of people to Mars.



So could today's
"Rise of the Rocket"

really carry us all
to the stars?

I really believe that, just like

we are now taking humans
to low Earth orbit commercially,

that pretty soon there will be
a commercial space station

in orbit as well,

which will be
the next destination.

So what I tell people is

"If you don't think you can go
to space today, just wait."

A hundred years ago,
when all there were

were biplanes
that didn't fly very fast,

the, the average person would
say,

"I will never fly an airplane."

So you have to think about,

"What's it going to be like
tomorrow?"



A hundred years
after the first powered flight,

airplanes and air travel
are commonplace,

something we take for granted.

Will the same be true of rockets

a hundred years
after Goddard's first flight?



Will this be the dawn of an age

that ultimately propels society
even further?



Naples, Italy...

Two volcanoes and three million
lives at stake.

The most dangerous volcano
in the world.

Scientists scramble for answers.

That spike in carbon dioxide

might mean new magma
coming into the volcano.

But can Pompeii offer clues?

Can we predict...

This can erupt at any time...
Even tomorrow.

"The Next Pompeii"?

Next time, on "NOVA."



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is provided by the following:

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visit ShopPBS
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