Episode 031: Rockets and the Challenges of Space Travel with Dr. Vanstone

Leon VanstoneDr. Leon Vanstone is an aerodynamic engineer and a real life rocket scientist.  Travelling really fast through the atmosphere generates a lot of heat due to friction from the air. Leon’s work looks at how to stop things that do this from melting. It’s pretty hard to travel fast enough to melt something unless you drop the object from space and so this problem usually only applies to rockets and re-entry vehicles.  Leon discusses some of these challenges and tells us a bit more about orbital travel.


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TEDx talk

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“A good rule for rocket experimenters to follow is this: always assume that it will explode.” -Astronautics, issue 38, October 1937.

Glimpse into the interview:

ES: Tell us about your most recent project/research?

LV: Most of my research if focused on understanding and controlling shock-wave boundary-layer interactions. Sock-wave boundary-layer interactions occur almost every time a shock-wave hits a surface (they do this a lot). When this happens you get a lot of heating that can be very difficult to predict. They also like to move around a lot and result in a lot of problems for high speed engines. Shock-wave boundary-layer interactions are the current limiting problem in how fast you can fly and probably one of the single greatest contributing problems to building a plane that can fly to space.

ES: What makes this project/research special to you personally?

LV: Being able to design a truly re-usable vehicle that goes to space. A rocket and a commercial airliner cost about the same to make. The tickets for the plane cost a lot less. This is because you only get to use the rocket once. When you can get to space in a re-usable vehicle the cost of each flight drops very significantly. Can any one imagine what society would look like if going to space cost the same as flying long distance? 

ES: What do these developments mean to our everyday lives and the world as a whole?

LV: It means that slowly, as species we are moving ever closer to being a space fairing race. To a world where going to space can be as mundane as flying long-distance. To a place where going to orbit is cheap.

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