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Space exploration has a relatively short but storied history.

From the space race led by governments as an outgrowth of the Cold War to the new era of space commercialization led by private companies and startups, space exploration has been characterized by great leaps forward abounding with new discoveries.

While technologies have changed since the launching of Sputnik 1, the steps involved in designing a space mission have largely stayed the same. According to NASA, the first step is defining the mission. What is the purpose of the mission? That question begins the avalanche of other questions which lead toward design requirements. What is the payload, how big is it, how much acceleration and entry heating must it take? Once these, and many more requirements are decided, a study is done to determine whether the mission performance requirement can be met.

Step two involves the design of the space mission. The nature of the payload and its special needs help determine the design — shape, size and configuration — of the space vehicle. If people are going to be in the payload, there are obvious unique requirements such as seating capacity, entrance and exit hatches and access to certain systems. The configuration of the spacecraft must provide for all of the support systems, such as communications, electrical systems and life support.

Analysis is the focus of step three. For NASA engineers this has meant determining the craft’s general operation before launch and upon its return. Engineers are involved in many different areas: They must  analyze the aerodynamic, or air flow, characteristics of the configuration, as well as monitor structural stress, effects of high speed, heat tolerances and the performance trajectory and of course making sure the craft will fly to space and back.

Another crucial role for space engineers is evaluating new materials for the spaceship that could minimize cost and weight. Every pound of extra structure may take up to 10 pounds more in total launch weight to get it into space – and back. And every pound of structure raises the cost of the mission.

The final two steps, according to NASA, involve testing the spacecraft and then fabricating a full-scale model. Once a working model has been designed to everyone’s satisfaction, then an actual prototype sometimes called the flight model is constructed. The flight model normally undergoes many hours of tests including a series of experimental flight tests. If all goes well, the spacecraft is then ready for production and operation.

Want to Learn more? Tonex offers Designing Space Missions and Space Environment Training, a 3-day course that focuses on conceptual understanding of space missions, space environment, mechanics, maneuvers, propulsion and control systems used in all space missions.

For more information, questions, comments, contact us.

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