The holiday shopping rush is upon us, and this year, one online vendor is offering something a little different from the rest: Rockets. No, not models. Bonafide commercial rockets, complete with available launch dates, that you can price and customize to your specifications on RocketBuilder, a site launched Wednesday by the private rocketry provider United Launch Alliance (ULA).
"RocketBuilder is a website, but it's also a revolution in how you will purchase a ride to space," said Tony Bruno, ULA president and CEO, in the above video. "It's not just for our customers, it's also a tool that will be available for educators and students and space enthusiasts."
Indeed, RocketBuilder will be addictive to space nerds even if they don't have the baseline $109 million it takes to lock down one of ULA's Atlas V launch vehicles. Designing rockets a la carte feels like a game, like a real-world riff on Kerbal Space Program. The imaginative exercise of customizing a potential spaceflight mission and watching its price tag update with every click directly engages even casual customers in the process of securing a path off the planet.
For instance, take the dope rocket I put together on the site. I decided to start big with a vehicle destined to escape Earth orbit, scheduled for launch in the third quarter of 2019 (seemed like a good idea not to rush my fake rocket).
Pro-tip: The payload weight maxes out at 6,109 kilograms (13,469 pounds) for these deep space missions, so you can't chuck something crazy to the Moon or Mars, like a blue whale or a Truckosaurus.
Still, there's a lot of cool stuff you can send to space under a 6,109-kg limit, so I settled on that weight for my hypothetical payload. As a side note, it's interesting to watch the relationship between payload weight and booster requirements within the store; the only option that could suit the maximum weight ended up being five solid booster rockets, each with short five-meter-long fairings.
Next, RocketBuilder asks for your service preferences. That process felt kind of like selecting a phone plan, and involved scrolling through the different matrices of services ULA offers to its customers. Since I was already in a splurgy mood, I went for the Full Spectrum Service, which includes perks like a spacecraft separation system, an on-board video system, classified mission security, and the capability to deliver my payload into any orbit.
I also checked off "Mission Insight," essentially an option to be heavily involved in ULA's development of the mission, and "Rocket Marketing," because I want people to know about the giant rocket I plan to launch in 2019, which will be carrying 6,109 kilograms of something beyond Earth.
When I rang it all up, my launch request ended up being $175 million, and would require an Atlas V 551 rocket, the same series that launched NASA's New Horizons and Juno spacecraft on their respective missions to Pluto and Jupiter. You can submit these preliminary specs to ULA with the ease of ordering socks online. No doubt the company will be receiving quite a few of them today, as users try out various configurations to match their spaceflight dreams.
RocketBuilder is representative of the rapidly evolving private spaceflight sector, shaped by industry titans like ULA, SpaceX, Moon Express, Blue Origin, Bigelow, and other companies with a diversity of goals in space. These efforts have already revolutionized the landscape of 21st century spaceflight. With its newest project, ULA has signalled that this emerging market is ultimately intended to be open to everyone, even if most of us can only conceptually participate. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have more rockets to build.
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