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Houston, we're trying to fix the problem: Aerospace challenges and future exploration

You've heard "it's not rocket science" throughout your life, but but turns out that aerospace exploration — even in 2021 — is still very hard. Photo via Pexels

If there is anything that goes hand in hand so perfectly, it's Houston and Space. Houston is home to the Johnson Space Center, named after former president Lyndon B. Johnson, and is home to revolutionary space research projects and spaceflight training for both crew members and flight controllers. While it's every kid's dream to become an astronaut, have you ever wondered why rocket science is actually so difficult?

Though the space race of the '70s has been over for some time, the new space race — the race to Mars and the commercialization of space tourism — has just started. Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson are spearheading the "Billionaire space race." But even with their billions being put into developing spaceports, NASA rocket partnerships, and planning future Mars missions, rocket science is just as difficult to implement as it was the first time around.

So why, even with billions of dollars at their disposal and many companies pushing for more funding, are scientists and engineers still struggling to make rocket travel an everyday thing? Here are some of the countless reasons why rockets science is insanely difficult, no matter how much money you throw at it.

Small talent pool

The Apollo astronauts were the best of the best — and the hundreds of thousands of engineers and rocket scientists behind the scenes were just as talented. But getting to the point in one's career where you have the right background experience and the right hands-on work and real-life experience to create a safe rocket is difficult. The talent pool that SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin are working with is extremely small and notoriously competitive. As these programs continue to build in credibility, it may be easier to find talent, but few engineers want to be tied to a failed launch.

The risk of failure

Usually, when you fail at something like a math test or a driver's exam, the ramifications aren't too big. But with space travel, a small problem can quickly turn into a deadly situation for those on board the rocket. Think back to the Challenger explosion in 1986. The success of previous missions (not to mention the administrative corner-cutting) led to a false sense of security when in reality they were still embarking on the insanely difficult feat of launching humans into space. The risk of failure is so great, many commercial manufacturers are cautious to put their weight behind an operation that could in all likelihood come crashing back down to Earth.

Rocket construction

Think back to when you were in school learning about Isaac Newton's Third Law of Motion: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. It's a simple idea, but complex in reality. That law of motion forms the basis for rocket science: the combustion of rocket fuel down into the earth is one action, so the opposite reaction causes the rocket to launch upward into space. But the engineering that's needed for a launch to take place is the hard part.

As mentioned in a 2012 NPR article, there are millions of pieces in every rocket, and "therefore millions of opportunities to make errors — to make errors in calculations, to make errors in construction." The devastating Challenger mission failure is often attributed to faulty O-rings — it's a simple piece of equipment and can often be overlooked.

Even after hundreds of successful launches over the years, rocket construction is just as complex, and the process of shooting humans into space cannot be distilled to a law of motion when there is so much more involved to make that process happen.

Public perception

Throughout the '70s, Americans were enthralled by the idea of the space race and becoming the first country to set foot on the moon. But the public's passion died down after that initial landing. Today, the public perception of current space projects is making doing the actual rocket science and engineering difficult.


Objections against NASA's waste of taxpayer money on "futile" missions and the idea that space travel will only be for the mega-wealthy make any conversation around actual scientific discovery second to politics. Not to even mention the newly minted Space Force. Engineers and scientists have to navigate a hoard of political, financial, and PR battles to even get to do the work of getting people back into space.

The bottom line

Rocket science is thought of as one of the most difficult fields for a reason. Building a piece of technology capable of going into space and even housing people inside is a relatively new feat when considering the span of time. As the billionaire space race continues to unfold, scientists and engineers behind the scenes are creating feats of engineering on a regular basis that will shape the future of space travel. But, if you want to just get a taste of space life, without all the schooling, then a trip to the Johnson Space Center is for you.

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Natasha Ramirez is a Utah-based tech writer.

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Building Houston

 
 

Irving-based ExxonMobil has announced the Houston Ship Channel will be the site of an "innovation zone" for carbon capture and storage. Photo via Business Wire

In a move that would be a gamechanger for Houston, oil and gas giant ExxonMobil envisions creating a $100 billion carbon-capture hub along the Houston Ship Channel.

ExxonMobil foresees the Houston Ship Channel being the site of an "innovation zone" for carbon capture and storage. In a blog post on the ExxonMobil website, Joe Blommaert, the Houston-based president of ExxonMobil Low Carbon Solutions, says Houston would be "the perfect place" for the project because:

  • The ship channel is home to dozens of refineries and petrochemical plants.
  • The geological formations in the Gulf of Mexico could "safely, securely, and permanently" store tons of carbon emissions under the sea floor, according to the blog post. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates the storage capacity along the U.S. Gulf Coast could handle 500 million metric tons of CO2.

Irving-based ExxonMobil, which employs more than 12,000 people in the Houston area, says the project could capture and store about 50 million metric tons of CO2 annually by 2030. By 2040, that number could rise to 100 million metric tons.

"We could create an economy of scale where we can reduce the cost of the carbon dioxide mitigation, create jobs, and reduce the emissions," Blommaert tells the Reuters news service.

In a news release, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner applauds the ExxonMobil plan.

"This proposal by ExxonMobil is the type of bold ambition and investment we will need to meet our climate goals and protect our communities from climate change," Turner says. "ExxonMobil's proposal represents a significant step forward for the energy industry, and I hope it brings more companies to the table to help Houston lead a global energy transition."

Turner notes that the Houston area is home to some of the largest emitters of carbon in the U.S., adding that everyone has "a responsibility and role to play in decarbonization."

Blommaert says the project would require public and private funding, along with "enhanced regulatory and legal frameworks that enable investment and innovation." According to Politico, ExxonMobil wants the federal government to kick in tax breaks or to set carbon-pricing policies to help get the project off the ground.

Politico reports that the Biden administration isn't considering ExxonMobil's idea as it prepares a climate-change package.

"Meanwhile, environmental groups and many Democrats have slammed carbon-capture proposals as a climate strategy, saying the only way to permanently reduce greenhouse gas pollution is a wholesale switch away from fossil fuels," Politico says.

Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency maintains that carbon capture and storage "are critical for putting energy systems around the world on a sustainable path." Achieving net-zero goals "will be virtually impossible" without carbon capture and storage, the group says.

ExxonMobil announced creation of its Low Carbon Solutions business unit in February as part of its push to invest $3 billion in lower-emission energy initiatives through 2025. Low Carbon Solutions initially will focus on technology for carbon capture and storage. The business unit is exploring opportunities along the Gulf Coast, as well as in Wyoming, Belgium, the Netherlands, Qatar, Scotland, and Singapore.

Last year, ExxonMobil hit the pause button on a $260 million carbon-capture project in Wyoming due to fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Bloomberg news service.

In a December report, the Global CCS Institute, a think tank, said 65 commercial carbon-capture projects were in various stages of development around the world.

"Climate ambition, including efforts to decarbonize industry, has not been curtailed despite the adversities faced in 2020," Brad Page, CEO of the institute, says in a news release about the report. "We're continuing to see an upward trajectory in the amount of CO2 capture and storage infrastructure that is being developed. One of the largest factors driving this growth is recognition that achieving net-zero emissions is urgent yet unattainable without CO2 reductions from energy-intensive sectors."

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