Sci-Fi Eye: Maybe it's time we stopped using rockets?

Access to orbit is essential for communications, scientific research, and national security. According to figures provided by the British government, the UK space sector contributes £16.4bn per year to the UK economy, and the global space economy is projected to hit £490bn in the next seven years. With this in mind, our resident science fiction author, Gareth L Powell, takes a look at fictional alternatives.

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The cost of rocket launches determines the weight, size and complexity of anything we wish to place in orbit. Putting a satellite the size of a washing machine into space requires the design and manufacture of a launch vehicle, a fully crewed launch facility, and tons of propellant. Granted, rocket reusability could possibly reduce the cost per launch by eliminating the need for manufacturing new rockets for each mission, but the technology is still in its infancy, and achieving full reusability remains a complex challenge.

But even if we do manage to produce a cheap, reusable launch vehicle, rockets aren’t always reliable. In a 2018 report for NASA Ames Research Center titled Small-Satellite Mission Failure Rates, Stephen A Jacklin reported that “between the years of 2000 to 2016, 41.3 per cent of all small satellites launched failed or partially failed. Of these small satellite missions, 24.2 per cent were total mission failures, another 11 per cent were partial mission failures, and 6.1 per cent were launch vehicle failures.”

Surely then, there must be an easier and safer way to get a multi-million-pound payload into orbit than strapping it to something that was originally designed during World War II as a bomb?

Science fiction is full of alternatives, some of which are far beyond our current technology, but which may be worthwhile investigating if we truly want quick, cheap and simple access to space.

A particularly alarming example is nuclear pulse propulsion, in which a rocket fires a stream of atomic bombs behind it, and rides their shockwaves into space. The idea first appeared in Robert A Heinlein’s 1940 short story, ‘Blow-ups Happen’, and was seriously studied by the US Air Force and NASA in the 1950s and 1960s as Project Orion. The concept provided a huge amount of power, and would have enabled enormous payloads to be fired into space. However, the idea of detonating large numbers of atomic warheads in the atmosphere raised concerns about radioactive fallout, and thankfully, although it has appeared in several works of fiction, the nuclear-powered launch vehicle never made it off the drawing board.

Another concept that’s been kicking around for a few years in novels such as The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C Clarke, is the space elevator. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky first published the idea in 1895, but his proposal was for a tower, which would be too heavy to support its own mass, so most modern thinkers focus on the concept of a cable that is connected on one side to the Earth's surface around the equator and on the other side to a weight in space located beyond the geostationary orbit at an altitude of 35,786 km. The cable would be under tension and remain stationary over a specific location on Earth due to the opposing forces of gravity, which is stronger at the lower end, and the centrifugal force, which is stronger at the upper end. By utilizing the deployed cable, crawlers would have the ability to ascend and descend the tether using mechanical methods, enabling them to transport their cargo to and from orbit, eliminating the need for massive rockets. The main drawback to this idea is that the cable would need to be made of an unreasonably strong material that could be manufactured in huge quantities. In his Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars), Kim Stanley Robinson postulates an elevator cable made of carbon nanotubes mass-produced from the raw material of an asteroid and then lowered into the Martian atmosphere using the leftover husk of the asteroid as a counterweight.

First postulated in HG Wells’ The First Men in the Moon, anti-gravity has become a staple of science fiction, enabling craft to counteract or negate the force of gravity, and float or move freely in the air. Instead of being pulled downwards, an effect analogous to the force produced when two positive or two negative magnetic poles repel each other. The potential applications of anti-gravity are vast, ranging from revolutionising transportation and space exploration to enabling new forms of architecture and sports.

Of course, on Star Trek, everything can simply be teleported (or ‘beamed’) into space, but such a process would involve the total deconstruction and accurate reassembly of every atom and subatomic particle in the object or payload being transported. And who’s to say the ‘you’ that came out the other end would be the same one that entered here?

Gareth L Powell is an award-winning British author known for using fast-paced, character-driven science fiction to explore big ideas and themes of identity, loss, and the human condition. He can be found online at