Some other way

The explosion of the Space X rocket on the pad in Florida brings back to the fore the question of how to put humans into space.  The rocket that blew up during a pre-flight procedure was a proven launcher, having a number of successful launches.  Yet, the concentration of energy required for vertical launching makes the machines extremely sensitive to flaws or errors.

This is of little consequence when dealing with cargo, but for human payloads, the risks are considerable.  Launch vehicle failure can occur without notice, and any kind of an abort after lift-off will result in the complete loss of the vehicle.  Conditions must be as close to perfect as possible before a launch will be attempted, and the slightest discrepancy can bring about a scrub.

Taking off like an aircraft allows for many abort points without losing the whole vehicle, all the way through the launch. Takeoff can be refused, and the orbiter can separate from the carrier wing and return to the launch site, or abort to orbit.  Avoiding the performance requirements that vertical launching puts on launch vehicles should be first and foremost in designing a manned launch system.

By lifting the launch pad to 50,000 feet, we can allow our spaceship to use all of the energy stored aboard for gaining speed, instead of wasting much of it fighting gravity’s pull while deep in the atmosphere.  At no point do we have to use all-or-nothing strategies: losing an engine on the way to orbit should not mean catastrophe, just a longer climb.  We want reliability, not ultimate performance, when we are putting people into space.

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