Is External Propulsion the Answer for Space Travel?

Escape Dynamics envisioned a new way to launch spacecraft, bringing better efficiency and reliability.

Dmitriy Tseliakhovich and his team at Escape Dynamics started the company with the aim of changing space travel. They wanted to make sure that space travel could be affordable, reliable and efficient. Current space options are expensive, costing between $5-10,000 to put a kilogram of payload into orbit. The failure rate is high, with four percent of missions failing to launch or land their cargo or ships. Most missions are also incredibly inefficient, with around two percent of the weight of a launch coming from the payload, and most launch vehicles are not reusable. These facts make up the guts of the problem statement in Escape Dynamics – Efficient Space Access, a Solve for X talk discussing Dmitriy’s theory and work in space exploration.

Comparing computers from the 1970s to today shows incredible progress and innovation, while looking at rockets from the same time periods show very little difference in technology. Escape Dynamics wanted to find a way to not just make small incremental change but instead shift forward the way we travel in space. Their first insight was that chemical propulsion was too inefficient to make great leaps, and they began to look at external propulsion.

Transforming electricity into microwaves and transmitting that energy into the ship as it ascends is the group’s radical idea. This eliminates the need to hold the fuel onboard the spacecraft and allows for different designs and smaller footprints. Dmitriy hopes that this method will leave the complexity and risk on the ground instead of in space. A larger or smaller spacecraft can be launched by changing the scale of the transmission equipment on the ground.

Like many moonshot projects this amazing breakthrough doesn’t have a completely happy ending. After almost a decade the company says that microwave propulsion is “feasible and capable of efficiency and performance surpassing chemical rockets” but the cost of research and development makes the project impossible. After successful tests the project and company slowed down and phased out around the end of 2015. Dmitriy now works with SRI International as the Principal Innovator and Entrepreneur, and the technology and legend live on. Escape Dynamics was named one of 2016’s Most Innovative companies by Fast Company in the SPACE sector.