Since the last manned Apollo moon mission in 1972, it has been more than four decades since humanity set foot on a celestial body other than Earth. The long years’ wait has led to multiple unmanned missions to both Mars and even a comet, but the primal desire of curiosity remains unfulfilled. Desire leads to expectations and expectations lead to promises by both governments and private companies, but a clear line separates the realms of wistful hope and clear-cut reality.
From National Aeronautics and Space Agency’s (NASA) Space Launch Systems (SLS) to SpaceX’s Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), the upcoming years may prove an exhilarating journey for space exploration. The SLS project, revealed on September 14, 2011, involves three versions, Blocks 1, 1B, and 2. Block 1 will feature a low-earth orbit (LEO) payload capacity of 70 metric tons, while Block 1B is set to carry 105 metric tons to LEO. Block 2, however, is projected to carry 130 metric tons—only 10 tons short of Saturn V, the rocket that took humanity to the moon.
▲ Reusable 1st stage rocket boosters developed by SpaceX. Provided by SpaceX.
In terms of payload, however, SpaceX’s ITS overshadows NASA’s SLS project or any other launch vehicle in history. The ITS launch vehicle also features three versions: a reusable, expendable, and Mars transport version. SpaceX projects 300 metric tons of payload on the reusable version, 550 tons on the expendable version, and 450 tons on the Mars transport version. These figures overshadow that of the Saturn V by two to four times.
However, the merit of NASA’s SLS project is not in its payload, but rather in its goal. On March 28, 2017, NASA announced its Deep Space Gateway and Deep Space Transport, two phases of a project NASA hopes will bring humanity to Mars. The gateway will be built across 3 SLS launches by 2025 and will orbit the moon instead of Earth, allowing astronauts a glimpse into deep space. The transport, or the Mars ship, can sustain crew for over 1,000 days, and will and will be gravity assisted by Venus on its journey to Mars.
The significance of NASA’s Deep Space Gateway lies not only in humanity’s return to the moon or its first lunar space station, but also in that it signals space exploration’s increased dependence on civilian aerospace companies. “I envision different partners, both international and commercial, contributing to the gateway and using it in a variety of ways with a system that can…enable a variety of missions,” said William Gerstenmaier, the associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA.
Furthermore on March 30, 2017, SpaceX successfully demonstrated that a reusable launch system is possible, potentially reducing the cost to orbit by 75 percent, according to the chief executive officer (CEO) of SpaceX, Elon Musk. Reusability would be a promising leap towards increased commercial viability and a successful ITS program, as SpaceX aims to reuse the entire vehicle. In the midst of these staggering advances to and beyond the final frontier, Korea is looking to belong as well.
▲ KSLV-2 engine test firing. Provided by KARI.
Korea in the Space Age
South Korea is no stranger to space, ever since its successful launch of KSLV-I on January 30, 2013. Dubbed the “Naro-1,” KSLV-1 is a retired Korean launch vehicle that was launched three times, the first two of which were failures. The third launch on January 30, however, reached orbit with 100 kilograms (kg) of payload. Compared to the larger vehicles that were aforementioned, the Naro-1 lacked in thrust, payload to LEO, and practicality. On the other hand, KSLV-2 may prove a different story.
KSLV-2, or the “Naro-2,” is a launch vehicle under development by the Korean Aeronautical Research Institute (KARI). While KSLV-1 was a joint development by KARI and the Russian state-owned aerospace company Khrunichev, the KSLV-2 is a purely Korean vehicle designed to lift South Korea into the ranks of spacecraft operators. Set for launch by 2020, KSLV-2 is a three-stage rocket designed to carry 1.5~2.6 tons to LEO.
While surely a promising development for Korean aerospace technologies, KSLV-2 suffers from problems regarding cost. In a time where space travel is being increasingly privatized, aerospace companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin to even Boeing and Lockheed Martin are struggling to lower their cost per kilogram to LEO. KARI’s KSLV-2 comes to a staggering $20,000 per kg (22.26 million won), while SpaceX’s Falcon-9 costs $2,719 per kg (3.03 million won) to orbit.
However, KARI believes the concerns surrounding cost are unfounded in the long run. Given that KSLV-2 is Korea’s first independently developed launch vehicle capable of reaching orbit, the institute believes that it is only expected that its first vehicle lack financial appeal. By 2030, KARI believes it can reach mid-earth orbit (altitude higher than 2,000 kilometers), and by 2040, it projects it can reach high-earth orbit (altitude higher than 35,386 kilometers).
Also, the development and capability of South Korea to launch a vehicle through its own abilities may prove to be beneficial for information security. Space projects, launch vehicles, and their cargo can sometimes hold sensitive instruments or even classified projects in the interest of governments. As of now, Korea’s only choices for lifting cargo into orbit are through American aerospace companies or through the Russian Soyuz program. Privatization of space and the development of KSLV-2 has the potential to give Korea an edge in the Space Age.
As dreams begin to realize and prospects of deep-space exploration become feasible, so does hope and expectations. In times where the realms of science fiction and science fact begin to blur, it may prove facile to place faith in optimism and promises. While the world has come much further than just ten decades ago, there is much to be solved, and the 2020s is still distant. The road may call for patience and support in the face of both frustration and failures. A flight to Mars, however, is absolutely feasible and finding Korea’s place in the stars is altogether possible.