The right chemistry: Embark on space tourism! Well, maybe not all


Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos’ recent space flights, using two different technologies, have paved the way for others.

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With all the publicity surrounding Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos’ recent space flights, you might get the impression that these men are the pioneers of space tourism. In fact, the honor of being the world’s first space tourist goes to American millionaire Dennis Tito, who in 2001 paid $ 20 million for a trip to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket. . An aeronautical engineer who worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Tito made his fortune as an investment manager.

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Tito had been captivated by the orbital flight of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in 1961 and dreamed of following in his footsteps. He described his first feeling of weightlessness as the greatest moment of his life and his time on the ISS as “eight days of euphoria”. Seven more space tourists followed, paying the Russians millions of dollars until the program ended in 2009, when the US space shuttle program was withdrawn, leaving the Russian Soyuz spacecraft as the sole means of transport to the ISS. .

Space tourism was revived on July 12, 2021, when Richard Branson, with three crew members and two pilots, climbed into SpaceShipTwo, a winged aircraft with a single rocket motor attached to a specially built aircraft. At an altitude of 15 km, the spacecraft was released, its engine on, propelling the vehicle to a height of about 80 km and allowing its occupants to experience weightlessness for a few minutes before landing 14 minutes later. on a runway like an ordinary plane. .

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There is a bit of controversy as to whether the flight was actually “space flight,” as the technical starting point of space is somewhat controversial. Most regulators accept the “Karman Line,” defined 100 km above the Earth’s mean sea level, as the boundary between space and our atmosphere. It is named after the aerospace engineer Theodore von Karman, who was the first to make calculations about where the atmosphere is actually depleting. Karman was born in Hungary, eventually becoming a professor at the University of Aachen in Germany, but because he was Jewish he was forced to flee to America with the rise of Nazism. The US armed forces and NASA consider 80 km to be the demarcation of space, and by that measure Branson and his crew are recognized as astronauts.

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SpaceShipTwo is a descendant of the X-15 rocket planes of the 1950s and 1960s. Carried in the air by a modified B-52 bomber, the X-15 would be detached before the single pilot ignited the burning rocket motor. anhydrous ammonia as a fuel using liquid oxygen as an oxidizing agent. This reaction produces nitrogen and water vapor, gases that exit the engine at high speed. According to Newton’s third law according to which for each reaction there is an equal and opposite reaction, the plane is then propelled in the opposite direction. In 1963, an X-15 reached a height of 108 km and essentially became a spacecraft. The pilot experienced a few minutes of weightlessness before hydrogen peroxide propellants directed the aircraft for re-entry into the atmosphere. The aerodynamic flaps of course do not work at this altitude, because there is no air.

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Richard Branson’s flight was similar to that of the X-15, but SpaceShipTwo’s engine burns hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene (HTPB), a type of plastic, with the necessary oxygen supplied by nitrous oxide which at high temperature, decomposes to produce oxygen and nitrogen. . In 1914, rocket pioneer Robert Goddard suggested the use of nitrous oxide, which was first manufactured by Joseph Priestley in 1772 by the reaction between wet iron filings and nitric oxide. The latter was produced by dropping pieces of iron into nitric acid. Today, nitrous oxide is made by heating ammonium nitrate.

Priestley did not experiment further with what he called “diminished nitrous air”, leaving the next step in gas development to the brilliant chemist Humphrey Davy. It was he who coined the term “laughing gas” noting its hilarity-generating effects and also raised the possibility of its use as a pain reliever. Laughing gas parties among the British upper class quickly became popular, but the pain relieving effect was not exploited until American dentist Horace Wells introduced nitrous oxide to dentistry in 1844. It is still used today to relax patients before undergoing dental procedures.

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In the case of Jeff Bezos’ flight on July 20, an entirely different technology was involved. This time around, there was no controversy that Bezos and his three companions got astronaut wings. The NewShepard rocket, named after America’s first astronaut, propelled the crew’s capsule to an altitude of 107 km, clearly exceeding the Karman Line. The launch was timed for the 52nd anniversary of NASA’s moon landing, and it’s interesting that the NewShepard rocket bears similarities to the Saturn V that propelled Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins to the moon, in this means that it uses liquid hydrogen as fuel and liquid oxygen as the oxidant. The total flight lasted about 11 minutes, with the capsule making a soft landing in the desert using parachutes and retro-rockets. Impressively, the booster also made a successful landing after running out of fuel, ready to be used again.

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The stage is now set for future space tourists, with Ilan Musk’s Space X rocket capable of flying into orbit ready to join the race. So, all aboard! Well, maybe not all of them. Deep pockets are needed for a ticket: $ 250,000 for a flight on SpaceShipTwo, and several million if you want to ride Bezos’ Blue Origin rockets. Costs that are skyrocketing, one might say.

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Joe Schwarcz is Director of the Office of Science and Society at McGill University (mcgill.ca/oss). He hosts The Dr. Joe Show on CJAD Radio 800 AM every Sunday from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m.

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