Delta IV Heavy Lifter - Space Freighters In Fact And In Fiction

In the next few days, the new Boeing Delta IV Heavy rocket is expected to launch. The 23-story tall Heavy was developed under the USAF Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. The vehicle's RS-68 core-stage engine is the first large, liquid-fueled rocket engine developed in the US in more than twenty years.


(From Delta IV on the pad)

The two strap-on booster cores will be jettisoned 100 seconds into the flight; the center core's RS-68 engine will burn for about 330 seconds, an increase of about 70 seconds over previous flights. This demonstration flight will carry an instrumented payload to measure vehicle performance.


(From Delta IV diagram)

The Delta IV Heavy rocket is capable of the following payloads and orbital targets:

  • 48,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit (LEO) like the International Space Station
  • 28,000 pounds to geosynchronous transfer orbit (used by communciation satellites)
  • 22,000 pounds to Trans Lunar Injection routes to the moon
  • 17,000 pounds to Mars-bound trajectories
Science fiction authors have written about ships of all sizes. In Methuselah's Children, written in 1941, Lazarus Long needed a ship capable of lifting 100,000 people into geosynchronous orbit. He went shopping on the Moon; lunar colonists needed much more in the way of goods than they produced, which led to a lot of ships making one-way trips:

Lazarus soon saw that just two ships had both the lift and the air space needed. One was a tanker and the better buy, but a mental calculation showed him that it lacked deck space, even including the floor space of the tanks, to accomodate eight thousand tons of passengers. The other was an older ship with cranky piston-type injection meters, but she was fitted for general merchandise and had enough deck space. Her payload was higher than necessary for the job, since passengers weigh little for the cubage they clutter - but that would make her lively, which might be critically important. (Read more about the space freighter.)

If you'd like to launch up to 28,000 pounds of real (not fictional!) payload into geosynchronous orbit today, you'd better take a look at the Delta IV Payload Planners Guide and updates page. If you would like to read about one of Robert Heinlein's smaller spacecraft, see the article on the Joy-Boat Junior, a sub-orbital craft very similar in function to SpaceShipOne - The First Strato-Yacht, which won the Ansari X-prize this fall.

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