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I can kick this over to World Building if it's more appropriate, but I was hoping to get an actual technical examination of this.

So here's the question: if money were not an issue and for some reason humanity needed to get absolutely as much mass to LEO as possible in one year, how would you go about it? What vehicles would you focus on? Any crash development you would do? Please consider all systems globally, no need to focus just on American or whatever.

How would your answer change if the timeline were five years? Ten?

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    $\begingroup$ Well...as of Q1 2021, there's really not much choice: i.redd.it/xgoabb35qxv61.jpg $\endgroup$ Jul 27 at 21:09
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    $\begingroup$ @ChristopherJamesHuff The fact that Atlas V and Delta IV didn't fly in Q1 2021 was a matter of choice; they're still available. $\endgroup$ Jul 27 at 21:17
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    $\begingroup$ If in desperate need of mass-to-orbit, may I humbly present the Orion Drive for consideration? It could potentially lift many, many tonnes. It does not monopolize any of the traditional aerospace industry facilities and skills (more like shipbuilding + nuke engineering). Plus, as an added bonus, once you start launching them en masse, it will be much easier to motivate groundhuggers to abandon their (now radioactive) groundhugging tendencies and embrace free flight to space. $\endgroup$ Jul 28 at 7:02
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    $\begingroup$ I suggest using pigs. Asking "if money weren't an issue" is equivalent to asking "if pigs could fly". Money is always an issue (and pigs can't fly). Since the question posits that money is not an issue, I suggest a massive research effort that not only enables pigs to fly but enables them to fly to LEO. $\endgroup$ Jul 28 at 12:25
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    $\begingroup$ Reusable winged scramjet pigs on a nuclear pulse propulsion space elevator. $\endgroup$ Jul 28 at 18:01
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Opinion-based, but I'll give it a shot.

In the timeframe of one year, it's not possible to develop any new launch technology of consequence; we have to rely on existing launchers, with a couple of possible exceptions for launchers that are well in development.

SpaceX has the best track record for high production rates and rapid scaling, so if I were in charge of the budget allocation, I'd put most of the money and attention on the existing Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy. They're a reliable launcher; the first stage (and FH boosters) are reusable, so we don't have to build as many. user2702772 points out that FH gets more payload to LEO per expended second stage, but F9 might be flyable from more launch sites, so I'd guess we'd want some mix of the two. SpaceX isn't set up for a lot of concurrent flights at present, so improving launch site logistics might be as important an investment as building additional stages. We'd want to fly RTLS missions instead of barge landing missions -- less upmass per flight, but much faster turnarounds. The important thing here is that we give SpaceX the money and let them figure out how best to apply it without too much micromanagement. I'm not the biggest fan of SpaceX, but agile project development is what they're good at.

Second priority is to go to everyone else -- ULA, Roscosmos, China, ESA, ISRO -- and ask them how many rockets they can build in the next year and how much that'll cost, give them twice as much money as that, tell them to do their best, and then forget about them. Those agencies aren't set up to change their plans quickly, so I wouldn't expect too much from them.

Starship/Super Heavy and SLS are potentially useful in this scenario, and Starship/SH in particular can be relatively rapidly built, apparently, but the ultimate limit here is how much manpower can be brought into play to construct, stack, and manage the rockets. I'd give Boeing et al as much money as they thought they could spend -- one SLS launch provides something like 8 times as much mass to LEO as a RTLS Falcon 9. If SpaceX felt they could get Starship/SH flying, more power (and budget) to them, but my guess is that, logistically, it will be easier to snap up additional factory space that can accommodate manufacture of the smaller Falcon 9.

For a 5-or-more-year plan, I agree with Slarty that Starship is the smart money, but start building Falcons anyway in case the design turns out to have issues that take years to resolve. Even for a 10 year plan, I don't think Sea Dragon is the strategy to pursue; there are too many unknowns in building a booster that size.

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    $\begingroup$ Alternative, suggest you use falcon heavy over falcon, because your limiting factor is likely to be second stages. FH gets more mass to orbit per second stage? $\endgroup$ Jul 28 at 8:51
  • $\begingroup$ @user2702772 There're two big catches there that I suspect would make it not worthwhile. The first is that you'd be back to a drone ship landing for the center core, slowing down the cadence. The second is that unless you're launching very dense payloads most of the extra paper performance of FH to LEO isn't achievable because you run out of fairing volume first. $\endgroup$ Jul 28 at 14:19
  • $\begingroup$ On the SLS: from what I've been able to find, the "LEO payload" capacity includes the fueled ICPS upper stage. SLS really isn't optimized for launches to LEO. $\endgroup$ Jul 28 at 15:30
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    $\begingroup$ @ChristopherJamesHuff Nothing about this project is optimal. $\endgroup$ Jul 28 at 15:50
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    $\begingroup$ @PcMan because shipping the rocket back to shore adds about a week to the time before the next booster flight. Meaning you either need to build more boosters (which would cut into 2nd stage production) or have a lower launch cadence. $\endgroup$ Jul 30 at 13:23
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In 1 year all aerospace companies resources could be requisitioned / maxed out (I'm assuming it's a free for all war like situation here). For example there would probably be scope to launch more Falcon 9 rockets with selected maxed out payloads. But options are limited.

Over 5 or 10 years the best option would be to give Elon Musk free reign with Starship, provide everything he needs and then requisition all of the capacity. If there was a national emergency the Environmental review required for launch at Boca Chica (and elsewhere) could be waved, unlimited government funding could be brought in to build further multiple launch sites at KSC and elsewhere as well.

Allowing for minimal delays it seems likely that SpaceX will achieve the first orbital flight of Starship this year and would refine that in 2022. With unlimited funding in Engineering, construction and logistical support from the US Government it seems reasonable to assume that Starship could become operational by the end of 2022.

Being reusable the cadence of Starship operations should be capable of being rapidly increased as experience was gained. And with more and more ships boosters and launch sites coming on line the number of launches could expand rapidly from 2023 on.

By 2025 there could be many hundreds of Starship launches per year and by 2030 many thousands. Each one capable of delivering 100+ tonnes to orbit and probably more like 150-200 tonnes with gradual improvements.

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    $\begingroup$ you realize there are other places in the world to launch rockets from beside the USA, right? $\endgroup$
    – njzk2
    Jul 28 at 13:15
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    $\begingroup$ @njzk2 Sure. But who else would be in a position to make such a massive impact at this point in time? If Starship comes up to expectations (and given what has happened with Falcon, Tesla and Paypal I wouldn't bet against Musk) it will create a truly revolutionary change in the launch business, supercharge that effort with endless funds and it seems to me it would be hard to beat. The keys being reusability and ease of manufacture. Everyone else is still throwing their rockets in the ocean. $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Jul 28 at 17:25
  • $\begingroup$ @njzk2 because SpaceX has already been working the technological and logistical challenges for a similar "shift mass to orbit ASAP" problem and is already out-launching everyone else with the Falcon 9, the rest of the world would be scrambling to catch up. Russia might be able to scale up Proton and Soyuz launches, but that'll take time...and if Starship is successful, SpaceX will still have vastly greater mass to orbit capabilities. $\endgroup$ Jul 28 at 18:07
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Nuclear pulse propulsion.

Nuclear pulse rockets are a form of rocket engine that involves the rocket dropping a very small shaped-charge nuclear explosive out the back and then detonating it, such that the force of the explosion is transferred to a pusher plate that is connected to the main body of the rocket via shock absorbers.

Based on the preliminary design work performed in the 60s, it would be possible for a nuclear pulse rocket to carry 6000 tons to the moon and back on one tank of fuel. If you want to get as much mass into orbit as quickly as possible, nothing can beat nuclear pulse rockets - even many other nuclear rockets are less capable of lifting mass to orbit.

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    $\begingroup$ This is less "if money isn't an issue" than "massive amounts of fallout and nuclear EMP aren't issues". Project Orion assumed pure fusion bombs would be available to power it; because without those every takeoff involves nuclear ground bursts; which generate maximum amounts of fallout. The airbursts mid flight would generate substantial EMP; but without looking more closely at the timelines I'm not sure how well understood that problem was when Orion was being seriously considered. $\endgroup$ Jul 28 at 14:33
  • $\begingroup$ @DanIsFiddlingByFirelight Fair points. Question states: "humanity needed to get absolutely as much mass to LEO", so sounds like "all other priorities are rescinded" territory to me! :-) $\endgroup$
    – SusanW
    Jul 28 at 20:56
  • $\begingroup$ @DanIsFiddlingByFirelight Fallout is caused by objects getting vaporised by the nuclear fireball, so once you're airborne very little would be produced (just the fallout generated by the casings of the bombs themselves), and it can be minimised during ground launch with a properly designed launchpad (IIRC an iron plate covered in graphite powder is optimal). $\endgroup$
    – nick012000
    Jul 28 at 21:40
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If money truly isn't an issue, then I would build a HUGE tower in a country on the equator. (Having purchased said country outright.)

I would also need to purchase the entire steel and aluminium and much of the concrete output of the entire world.

The Earth's orbit would probably change a little as a result, but I could probably balance that out if I wanted, given that I had all the money available. A 1-year timescale might be a little tricky though...

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    $\begingroup$ Trouble is we don't have the materials to build an reliable space elevator currently and development of such a massive project would almost certainly take more than 10 years. Note the Earths orbit would not be effected in any significant way by anything as tiny (by comparison) as a space elevator. $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Jul 28 at 17:38
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    $\begingroup$ Note that the cable would not be steel, you need something much stronger than that. $\endgroup$
    – Harabeck
    Jul 28 at 18:10
  • $\begingroup$ Who said anything about cables??? Answer edited to make that clearer. $\endgroup$ Jul 30 at 9:02
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    $\begingroup$ You CAN'T build an arbitrary high building. When the weight overcome the compression strength of the material used it will break and the building collapse. $\endgroup$
    – JFL
    Jul 30 at 9:40
  • $\begingroup$ @JFL To overcome that it merely needs to be an approapriately wide pyramid. I haven't done any calculations on how wide that would need to be, but I suspect that if the base was as wide as Africa, it shouldn't be impossible to reach orbital height. $\endgroup$ Jul 30 at 15:58
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If you don't care what the mass you are sending to LEO is and you really have infinite money you could ask every military around the globe to shoot every capable rocket they have into orbit. It's really hard to estimate how many of those are around, but each having a mass on the order of magnitude of 1 ton, and the ability and existing factories to produce a lot of them even in 1 year that will get you more mass into LEO than any option based on space programs.

This actually has been tested. A RIM-161 has been shot into LEO, and other countries like China and Russia also have successfully tested Anti-satellite weapons.

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    $\begingroup$ Reaching orbital altitude is different from reaching orbit; a RIM-161 can't achieve the horizontal velocity needed to stay up. $\endgroup$ Jul 28 at 16:01
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The expensive bit is getting above the first ten miles. If you really have to move a LOT of mass into LEO rather then just a few traditional satellites, then ground based rocket launches may not be the most effective way to achieve that goal. I know you said money no object but building traditional big rockets takes a lot of time and deliver very little into orbit. An option to consider is air launched. Standard air launch such as Virgins LauncherOne will put 500Kg into LEO for ~$12 million. Put if you want to launch 50 tons or more you would be a long time waiting while they built booster after booster. A compromise solution would be to fly a plane to 40'000ft or more on the equator and drop a reusable winged scramjet off the belly. This would fly to mach 8+ and 100,000ft or more before releasing a much smaller booster rocket to inject the payload into LEO. Each plane could fly six or eight times a day, the scramjets could glide back to base and be reused, so only the small booster rocket is lost on each flight. It reduces the cost of each individual launch but more importantly, it reduces the wait time required to build each booster.

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    $\begingroup$ The expensive bit is the first bit, but distance isn't the important part. Don't think of it as the first ten miles, think of it as the first ~29 km/s of acceleration. Air launches don't really let you launch more mass, they just give you more options on launch directions and coping with weather. $\endgroup$
    – Harabeck
    Jul 28 at 13:59
  • $\begingroup$ The atmosphere is much thicker and harder to get through at low altitudes then high ones. At sea level, the atmosphere has a pressure of 10.13 kN/m2, a density of 1.225Kg/m3 and a viscosity of 1.789 x10-5 Ns/m2. At 10,000 meters, those figures have dropped to 2.650, 0.4135 and 1.458. At 15,000 meters, they have dropped to 1.211, 0.1948 and 1.422, so yes getting away from the surface is the expensive bit, and you can't go fast until you get past the thick bit. Aircraft are a cheap way to get above the thick bit. $\endgroup$
    – Paul Smith
    Jul 28 at 17:17
  • $\begingroup$ This is pretty much entirely wrong. Atmospheric density and altitude have next to nothing to do with the cost of launch. Air launch options are expensive and limited in scale: Falcon 9 with RTLS can put 32 times as much mass in orbit for about 3.5 times the cost, while recovering the booster for reuse. LauncherOne expends all its launch hardware with every launch, and it's likely any air-launch system will be too small to have margins for reuse. And scramjet spaceplanes are almost certainly not an effective approach to bulk launch, besides always being decades away. $\endgroup$ Jul 28 at 17:45
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    $\begingroup$ Can I buy that reusable winged scramjet at Fred's Friendly Aerospace Planes down the block? $\endgroup$ Jul 28 at 17:59
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    $\begingroup$ @PaulSmith I understand why it would seem like that should be true, but it simply isn't. You save some fuel by starting higher, but not enough compared to a sea level launch to make it worthwhile. This question about launching from mountain tops may interest you. $\endgroup$
    – Harabeck
    Jul 28 at 18:08

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