(This article now cross-posted at AtlasBlogged
Last week saw the anniversaries of three separate NASA disasters that weigh heavily on the future of spaceflight. It is inherently dangerous to strap oneself in at the top of a rocket and travel at the speeds necessary to achieve orbit. It is expected that NASA is doing everything it can to mitigate those dangers. But it is not enough to fix the O-rings and launch away.
When the family car breaks down too many times and repair costs stack up, many people face the quandary of paying the maintenance costs or putting the money toward a new automobile.
But at NASA, officials are trying to keep space shuttles far older than most cars on the road today going until at least the end of the decade, while hurrying to build and fly a new reusable passenger launch vehicle to replace the shuttles. All this, under a virtually flat budget.
Most experts say the agency really has no great options for reliably putting astronauts or large sophisticated cargoes into space over the next 10 years or so.
(story by Lee Bowman, here
The fact is that the nature of spaceflight over the last 30 years has been relatively boring for the public, who funds space flight but probably does not understand why – especially in the post-Cold War era. Are we racing anybody at this point? Well, maybe China
, but I don’t think most Americans actually see it that way.
(Incidentally, I recently found that the Chinese astronauts are called “taikonauts”. See previous
Due to safety concerns about the shuttle fleet, we are actually now in a position of having to rely on the Russians, despite our victories over them in the original Space Race and Cold War. Soyuz flights are the only way to replenish the ISS with crew and supplies, and new components for the ISS are not able to be delivered as long as the shuttles sit grounded. Too large to be taken on Soyuz, they highlight our inability to fulfill our promises regarding ISS.
The situation chafes partners like the European and Japanese space agencies, each with sophisticated modules that cost more than $1 billion to build gathering dust until they can hitch a ride.
It may be that the vehicle itself isn’t the biggest problem, since the vehicle is designed around the larger goal. Why are we in space at all? Is it to have an ISS, or to have manned missions and eventually a base on the moon, and Mars?
John M. Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said human spaceflight had never recovered from the decision to build the program around the shuttles and then the International Space Station, maintained mainly by shuttles.
"NASA is attempting now to recover from 35 years that in many ways were a dead end," Logsdon said. "That was not NASA's mistake, but the country's, the national leadership's."
It took two disasters -- the Challenger and then the Columbia -- to shock the White House and Congress into trying to redirect the program, Logsdon said.
(from NYT story carried here
So what about the next generation of American spacecraft? What is it, when will we see it, and will it be any good?
Current plans have the shuttles flying through 2010 to finish building the ISS, with new lunar-capable vehicles coming on line by 2014. Projected dates vary, but it seems hard to avoid a gap in flight coverage of at least three years. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has recently confirmed that the agency expects roughly 18 more flights out of the shuttle program (no definitive word on whether any will involve repairs to the popular Hubble Telescope), but the cost of these flights precludes other projects and expenditures, including R&D.
That means other projects have to be canceled, cut back or postponed in order to free money for the shuttle's last missions. A steady trickle of reports in recent months indicate several space science and aeronautics projects are being cancelled or pushed back.
Well, it turns out the next generation of vehicle didn’t need that much R&D. The Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) is planned to make use of shuttle booster rockets (Solid Rocket Boosters, “SRB”) along with a variant of the shuttle’s huge External Tank. Unmanned and heavy lift missions are being planned with the same concept, with the ability to use extended-length SRBs for more thrust as needed. The general interchangeability of systems is expected to reduce costs, as is the fact that the systems are familiar and already in production.
Fairly early in the analysis, planners determined that a new hybrid booster had no particular benefit over a launcher developed from either EELV or shuttle-derived designs. They also determined that cost effectiveness could be achieved if the launch vehicles chosen for CEV systems could yield a higher flight rate by multiple government users, such as the national security community.
According to sources familiar with the launcher section of the so-called 60 Day Study, the future U.S. manned and heavy lift launch vehicle architecture will be based on two configurations of shuttle-derived vehicles.
Cargo vehicle studies using Space Shuttle ET and SRB hardware focused on two major variants: so-called "side-mounted" and "in-line". Side-mount designs hang cargo and/or crew off the side of a large external fuel tank as is currently done with the space shuttle. In-line designs place the cargo (or crew) directly atop a lower first stage as did Saturn launch vehicles.
Manned missions to the moon or to Mars would essentially make use of shuttle components with an Apollo Saturn-style module on top. The interchangeability scenarios shown in the image here
practically scream “toy”, but are looking more and more realistic.
In the end, the two ET-derivatives; a side-mount vs. a stacked in-line produced better safety margins for the CEV aboard the in-line mold line.
One of the more interesting developments (read about it at (another article from Space.com
is the fact that NASA is planning to use engines
fueled by a mixture of liquid oxygen and methane...
While methane is a less efficient propellant than liquid hydrogen, it is easier to store for long stretches and is readily available on Mars, making it possible for NASA to meet future propellant needs by taking advantage of martian resources.
The use of an Apollo-style module is also desirable with regard to escape options for the crew.
For the CEV crew to escape a launch abort, only the part of the CEV containing the flight crew would be explosively detached from the remainder of the CEV/launcher. This approximates, by comparison, the Apollo launch escape philosophy wherein the Command Module was separated from the remaining Service Module part of the Apollo spacecraft.
Of course, all of this is based on the assumption that it is the function of the United States government to involve itself with missions to the moon and Mars, or even to the ISS. There is renewed interest and even excitement in spaceflight these days, but much of it is in the private sector, with plans to begin space tourism within the next two years.
Within the next two years, billionaire businessman Richard Branson promises to begin suborbital flights from a planned launch pad in New Mexico… Branson has reportedly already sold tickets for future space trips – for $200,000 each – despite the fact he does not yet have a spaceship to market.
The commercial space race kicked off last year when a small company based in the Mojave Desert successfully flew the first privately built aircraft – SpaceShipOne –70 miles above Earth to the edge of space twice in less than a week. The company, Scaled Composites LLC, collected the $10 million Ansari X Prize and captured the imaginations of those who dream of space travel. The company is building SpaceShipTwo and has an agreement with Branson’s company to design a commercial space vehicle for as many as nine passengers.
Congress has decided not to regulate such flights until the industry matures. For the X Prize flights, Scaled Composites received a commercial launch license, the same one a defense contractor needs to launch a rocket.
(Virginia Pilot story here
But what is the point of going to space? Other than, of course, because it is there. Should this be the interest of the government, or of private agencies? What is the legitimate function of the government, anyway? There are certainly good arguments for government involvment in spaceflight, but they aren't often made... probably because the right questions aren't often asked. (follow-up coming soon...)