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Boldly going ... where exactly again?
April 6, 2010 10:28 PM   Subscribe

Compromise emerging for NASA's spaceflight future Since the announcement was made last month of the cancellation of Constellation (NASA's plan for returning to the Moon and Mars), the punditsphere has been ablaze with condemnation, support, and outright confusion over the future of American manned spaceflight. Keith Cowling, editor of the Nasawatch.com blog, has posted an interesting new development that if proven right, could prove to be a compromise between those wanting NASA to get out of manned spaceflight altogether and those seeking to keep the administration in the spaceflight business.

According to Cowling's sources (which are usually very spot-on), the main points of the consensus are starting to emerge:

  • Ares 1 and 5 (the parts of Constellation that involved building new rockets to lift a capsule and cargo into orbit) stay canceled.

  • Orion (the capsule-like CEV or Crew Exploration Vehicle) is built, but in a "Lite" configuration whose primary function will be to ferry people to and from the International Space Station.

  • Funding and R&D for the development of a commercial space infrastructure (e.g., SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Bigelow, etc.) would remain unchanged.

  • The planned retirement of the space shuttle fleet will be delayed and stretched out to about two flights per year while

  • Stretched-out shuttle operations will allow a rapid implementation and development of a so-called Shuttle-C ("Sidemount") heavy-lift vechicle. This is basically the same system as the current shuttle stack (orbiter, external tank, solid rocket boosters) only with the orbiter replaced by a cargo carrier. Shuttle-C will carry cargo to the space station, but no crew.

    Watch for announcements and developments at a NASA Summit scheduled to be held April 15.
  • posted by zooropa (40 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

     
    I think you missed highlighting one of the most interesting aspects of the proposals:
    NASA will also seek to develop a human-rated exploration spacecraft that only operates in space. The initial version will likely use unused ISS modules (enhanced MPLMs, Node X, Hab Module, ISS ECLSS) and Constellation systems. Its component parts would be launched by the Shuttle/Shuttle-C. The exploration vehicle will be assembled on-orbit at the ISS. This exploration spacecraft will be a pathfinder for more complex systems that will be able to traverse cis-lunar space on a regular basis.
    posted by woodblock100 at 10:45 PM on April 6, 2010


    Yes, but according to MeFi sources from within the Administration, the James Coney Island hot dogs that were catered for the Apollo 13 40th Anniversary celebration were "very very meh." This doesn't bode well, folks.
    posted by greekphilosophy at 11:02 PM on April 6, 2010


    Destination Phobos
    posted by Artw at 11:11 PM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


    We need this. To give up on our manned space program would be a disaster on so many levels.
    posted by codswallop at 11:15 PM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


    Ares I was, as far as I could tell, a debacle. I can't believe a lot of very smart people felt that it was an acceptable risk to put people on a completely non-throttleable booster.

    The Ares V cancellation, though, is a real shame. We could use a serious no-shit Heavy Heavy lifter, and Ares V fit the bill.

    Ideally, I would have loved to have seen what looks like a Shuttle-C for cargo, an EELV (like the Delta IV or Atlas V) get man-rated to get people into orbit, and the Ares V be the big monster lifter. That would cover all the bases (and would be different from what looks like the upcoming compromise only in that they'd keep the Ares V in the plan.
    posted by chimaera at 11:21 PM on April 6, 2010


    When I hear NASA and compromise, I think of the all-over-the-map requirements that led to the Shuttle design. I hope that this time the compromise is more focused.
    posted by zippy at 11:26 PM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


    Shuttle C would keep more of the current shuttle workforce employed, which is helpful politically in districts with shuttle program contractors. The Shuttle is a very capable heavy lift rocket system. The Orbiter just happens to be somewhat delicate, with no effective escape systems in event of an emergency. Shuttle C eliminates that problem fairly inexpensively by forgoing the passengers, and NASA retains its heavy lift advantage over other spaceflight programs.

    That part of the plan I can get behind, but what I don't understand is how "Orion Lite" is going to get anywhere. Which "human-rated EELVs" will serve as its launch vehicles? Some kind of "Ares I Lite" might suffice, but then why cancel Ares I in the first place? Orion Lite could be privately launched, but I imagine the private contractors won't be ready for that any time soon.

    Is the idea to extend the shuttle program until private contractors figure something out? Launch it on a human rated Delta, Ariane or Proton variant? That's the big hole in this 'compromise', and requires a lot more detail in order for it to gain support.
    posted by striatic at 11:30 PM on April 6, 2010


    NASA is just 17.3 billion a year, and it's one of the smartest expenditures we have, if we'd just get the hell out of the way and let them make genuinely useful things. How about we ask NASA what they should be doing, instead of telling them from outside? Maybe robotic spaceflight really is a better idea. But I'd rather hear that from them, from the guys who've spent their whole lives studying the problem, not just from the latest politician du jour, pandering for votes.

    The sheer, titanic amounts of money we waste each and every year dwarf this program.... we were willing to cough up $900 billion, and take on over $10 trillion in liabilities, to bail out a bunch of crooks, but we can't spend $20 billion on fundamental research?

    It really hurts me, sometimes, to watch us spiraling into the drain like this. We want everything now, now, now, with no concept of the future, no understanding of doing with a little less to make things better for the generations that come after. Basic research like this rarely pays off directly, and results in what looks like boondoggle after boondoggle... and then every once in awhile, you get something like integrated circuits, that change the world completely, and pay for all the "wasted" research ten or a hundred times over. Knowledge is wealth, and we always must build on what came before. Building knowledge is building the future.

    We seem to have no concept of the future anymore. It's all about now, or next week, never next generation. We don't solve problems, we just defer them, while simultaneously crippling our future ability to deal with the deferred and, therefore, much larger problems.
    posted by Malor at 11:34 PM on April 6, 2010 [27 favorites]


    "Ares V be the big monster lifter"

    I think the plan is not to have a big monster lifter, and use Earth Orbit Rendezvous tricks in order to build large systems in space. the "human-rated exploration spacecraft that only operates in space." stuff.

    I'm all for a big monster lifter, if there were obvious applications for it that couldn't be accomplished better by sending pieces of things into orbit and do assembly up there, which is something we have a lot more experience with now than in the Apollo days, when EOR was unworkable under the time constraints.
    posted by striatic at 11:41 PM on April 6, 2010


    What Malor so eloquently said.
    posted by orthogonality at 11:46 PM on April 6, 2010


    I'm all for a big monster lifter, if there were obvious applications for it that couldn't be accomplished better by sending pieces of things into orbit and do assembly up there

    I'm thinking telescopes, bigger chunks of things like the ISS (had a lifter of equal capability of the Saturn V been still in use, the assembly cost of the ISS would have been a fraction of what it was, done in a small fraction of the launches), and things like the (sadly also cancelled) JIMO/Prometheus program.
    posted by chimaera at 11:58 PM on April 6, 2010


    If Haliburton supplied space components we'd have a Starbucks on Mars by now.
    posted by RavinDave at 1:07 AM on April 7, 2010


    Orion "Lite" makes no sense, if there really is an American private space industry. If NASA has to spend dollars on Orion "Lite," it's only because private enterprise can't reliably get humans to the ISS, on a combination of NASA subsidies and greater future profit opportunities, from an expanding private space business sector. Personally, I think that's really the case (that the future private market for space tourism is nil, given the costs and associated risks), and I think, therefore, that NASA has little choice but to press ahead with Orion, "Lite," or not-so-Lite. But, unfortunately, I think this Administration, and many others to follow, don't have either the political clout, or budget room, to continue NASA funding on realistic grounds.

    As for American heavy lift capability, if you don't have it, and can't buy or rent it, Americans won't be able to go on human exploration missions, to anywhere interesting. I think, in the greater march of human history, it's worth more of my tax dollars to see that there will be an American capability to send tons of assembled, tested stuff to orbit, in large containers, through the rest of my lifetime, than there is to subsidize health care for people who can't plan or execute their own means of doing so, and I say this as the primary caretaker of an adult schizophrenic man. Public dollars spent on my brother's care are buying unreliable pharmacological surcease from imagined terrors, until and unless some cure for his disease is in sight. Public dollars spent boosting carefully designed mass into orbit, and thenceforth into deeper space, with better imagined plans, might actually get us somewhere we all will want, or need to be, on some distant day.
    posted by paulsc at 1:22 AM on April 7, 2010 [3 favorites]


    Thank goodness. NASA, you had me worried there!
    posted by psycho-alchemy at 1:29 AM on April 7, 2010


    How about we ask NASA what they should be doing, instead of telling them from outside? Maybe robotic spaceflight really is a better idea. But I'd rather hear that from them, from the guys who've spent their whole lives studying the problem, not just from the latest politician du jour, pandering for votes. -Malor
    Malor, Which NASA do you propose asking? SMD wants robots, MSFC wants Ares/Constellation, JSC loves Shuttle-C, etc. etc., and they all are jealous of every single dollar that goes to fund someone else's idea. Inside NASA and out, the space community is one of the worst circular firing squads I've ever seen.
    posted by dotdotdotdotdot at 3:02 AM on April 7, 2010 [3 favorites]


    The Ares V cancellation, though, is a real shame. We could use a serious no-shit Heavy Heavy lifter, and Ares V fit the bill.

    Really, for what? How many shots of the Delta IV and Atlas V heavy have there been?

    Shuttle C is pretty easy, though it's far from ideal -- you still need to build the main stage that you strap to the external tank. And, of course, there's the problem that STS is *expensive*, and thus, Shuttle C isn't going to be nearly as cheap.

    There are things you can do -- build simpler SRBs, you don't have the orbiter costs, use RS-68s rather than SSMEs, but, hmm....you're changing a lot of components now, which is expensive.

    Worse, you have to keep the Shuttle flying for several years more, which is expensive.

    The big problems, though, is that there aren't any parts being made, thanks to the attempted switch to Ares, so you not only have to pay the costs to cancel Ares and STS, you need to pay the costs to *restart* STS, and develop Shuttle C.

    In other words, this will be really expensive.
    posted by eriko at 4:34 AM on April 7, 2010


    chimaera: "Ares I was, as far as I could tell, a debacle. I can't believe a lot of very smart people felt that it was an acceptable risk to put people on a completely non-throttleable booster.

    The Ares V cancellation, though, is a real shame. We could use a serious no-shit Heavy Heavy lifter, and Ares V fit the bill.
    "

    The whole Ares plan was idiotic to begin with. Too much development time to develop something not really that revolutionary. When I finally heard about it, I started telling everyone within shouting distance about DIRECT. Check out the intro video.
    posted by Plutor at 6:17 AM on April 7, 2010


    The US should have held on to Saturn, the way the USSR/Russia keeps using the same basic functional rocket design they cooked up in the 1950's.

    Had they done so, the ISS would have been skylab-based, and done for a fraction of the cost. And many (most? all?) of these present consternations wouldn't be around. In 2005, NASA administrator Michael Griffin asserted the space shuttle development was a mistake.

    Billions went into Apollo, then billions into the shuttle. And now since Saturn is gone, and the shuttle is kaput, they need billions more. And they're trying to develop a new launch system on the cheap, reusing existing hardware that ultimately compromises every objective.

    On the other hand, Russia and China have functional, focused and well-funded space programs that are free from petty politics.

    In the same way that most of the space race was won by the USSR (first man in space, first man to orbit the earth, first woman in space, first spacecraft to reach the moon, first spacecraft to return lunar soil from the moon, first remote lunar rover, first spacecraft to land on venus) - save the all-important manned lunar landing - China and Russia will forge forward while the U.S. flounders.
    posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 6:41 AM on April 7, 2010


    Yeah I don't know why they ditched Saturn, it was a kick-ass rocket.
    posted by Mister_A at 6:54 AM on April 7, 2010


    thermonuclear.jive.turkey: "Billions went into Apollo, then billions into the shuttle. And now since Saturn is gone, and the shuttle is kaput, they need billions more. And they're trying to develop a new launch system on the cheap, reusing existing hardware that ultimately compromises every objective."

    So instead of reusing existing 1970s/80s hardware, what they should have done is stuck with reusing existing 1950s hardware? That would have been an improvement?
    posted by Plutor at 6:56 AM on April 7, 2010


    Warren Ellis on the state of space travel.
    posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:08 AM on April 7, 2010


    On the other hand, Russia and China have functional, focused and well-funded space programs that are free from petty politics.

    That sounds pretty impossible just reading it. Any supporting links to back up those statements?
    posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:14 AM on April 7, 2010


    "I'm thinking telescopes, bigger chunks of things like the ISS (had a lifter of equal capability of the Saturn V been still in use, the assembly cost of the ISS would have been a fraction of what it was, done in a small fraction of the launches), and things like the (sadly also cancelled) JIMO/Prometheus program."

    Shuttle C may be a better option for that. I suspect the advantage behind funding Shuttle C when Delta IV heavy has comparable lift capacity is that Shuttle C [as a sidemount system] will have great volume capacity. It might even have greater volume capacity than Ares V.

    Lift capacity without volume capacity is great for sending bags of hammers into orbit, but human spaceflight could use more large, lighter payloads. Habitable volume. I need more information about the volume capacity of Shuttle C, but intuitively it sounds like it would work better than the Shuttle in this regard, and perhaps even better than Ares V.
    posted by striatic at 7:49 AM on April 7, 2010


    I doubt someone sneezes at the CNSA without there being political considerations.
    posted by Artw at 7:51 AM on April 7, 2010


    This "compromise" looks like an attempt to keep the defense contractor feeding trough filled a bit longer. Hopefully one day we will outgrow our Captain Nemo romanticism and bathysphere technological phase and get on with the important work of exploring space. Given finite resources, I believe I would rather be the world leader in intelligent robotics and discovery than the techniques for keeping squishy-soft bodies alive in an irradiated vacuum. I remain firmly convinced that the only part of a human being that belongs in space is the mind...
    posted by jim in austin at 8:24 AM on April 7, 2010


    Cool! Brains in space!
    posted by Mister_A at 8:28 AM on April 7, 2010


    The exploration vehicle will be assembled on-orbit at the ISS.

    Cue complaining that this vehicle has no place to go and is just a waste of money.
    posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:30 AM on April 7, 2010


    How can the Saturn be "ditched"? Did they lose the blueprints? Why can't we just build new ones?
    posted by kirkaracha at 9:23 AM on April 7, 2010


    How can the Saturn be "ditched"?

    They stopped building them, in favor of building the shuttle, i.e. ditched.
    posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:42 AM on April 7, 2010


    How can the Saturn be "ditched"? Did they lose the blueprints? Why can't we just build new ones?

    You could rebuild Saturn V's if you really wanted to. The blueprints are around. It just wouldn't be a smart thing to do.

    To rebuild Saturn V's, you'd have to back-engineer lots of the 1950s aero tech it used that was obsolete a long time ago, which would cost $lots.

    Or you'd have to re-engineer the Saturn V to use modern equivalent parts, which I'm told would be so extensive that you might as well design a new launcher around modern materials.
    posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:52 AM on April 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


    So instead of reusing existing 1970s/80s hardware, what they should have done is stuck with reusing existing 1950s hardware? That would have been an improvement?

    Sure. For example, the U-2 and the B-52 aircraft are 1950's technology. The US military seems to feel they work fine, and continue to deploy them. In terms of Saturn, the rockets themselves are mechanical engineeering and chemical engineering, the basics of which haven't gone through revolutions in the decades since Apollo. Yes we now have Ipods that have more computational power than a 1950's mainframe, but "new" doesn't automatically mean "better". At least not in this case.

    >On the other hand, Russia and China have functional, focused and well-funded space programs that are free from petty politics.

    That sounds pretty impossible just reading it. Any supporting links to back up those statements?


    I've read a lot about the space programs, so I don't have a single link. I'll summarize my understanding:

    For instance, President Nixon hated JFK. He even at one point was planning on terminating Apollo right after the very first moon landing, just because he didn't like the notion of Apollo being Kennedy's legacy. Indeed the Apollo missions themselves were cut short by a few missions, and the extra rockets were used for Skylab, basically another version of the MOL. And of course Nixon sponsored the space shuttle development in the first place, abandoning Apollo. I think if Eisenhower had started Apollo, for instance, I think Nixon might have been less willing to ditch the Saturn hardware in favor of the shuttle.

    And FWIW I don't currently see Russian figures for example debating whether or not to scrap their booster that works just fine, or how much money ought to be doled out to aerospace contractors for yet another launch vehicle design, with lobbyists, senators and congressman alternately salivating over new jobs and profits, or anxious about losing existing ones.

    China IMHO has a very focused goal. They want to put astronauts in space and on the moon. It's been decided, it's a national priority, and that's it.

    In the US people still aren't sure what they want or how they want it.

    How can the Saturn be "ditched"? Did they lose the blueprints? Why can't we just build new ones?

    This was answered but to Nth it, the tooling for all the hardware and components is gone. Indeed you'd have to reconstruct everything from scratch. Remember when NASA had to buy 8088 processors on Ebay for the shuttle? Same thing, but far, far worse...

    So yes - rebuilding Saturn could be done, but basically (a) NASA et al wants a cheaper way, and (b) it would be too humiliating to the US space community to take such a giant leap backwards.
    posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 10:14 AM on April 7, 2010


    Plus Saturn was built by Nazis. Do you think todays Nazis know how to build something so good? They'd end up trying to launch a meth lab into space and it would just blow up everywhere.
    posted by Artw at 10:23 AM on April 7, 2010 [5 favorites]


    Had they done so, the ISS would have been skylab-based, and done for a fraction of the cost.

    And the Skylab was big! You could bop around in there.
    posted by smackfu at 10:24 AM on April 7, 2010


    The big problems, though, is that there aren't any parts being made

    The shuttle program manager said "said concerns about the shuttle's supply chain of parts for the vehicle are also a bit overblown". He estimated a two year gap between being asked to fly again and being ready for launch. Stretching out the 3 remaining flights doesn't leave much of a gap.

    Orion Lite seems like a waste of money though. France just placed a $1bn order for 16 Soyuzes from Russia to launch from Kourou. There's no reason the US can't do the same and launch from KSC with their own crews.
    posted by IanMorr at 10:28 AM on April 7, 2010


    Plus Saturn was built by Nazis.

    But Nazis that surrendered to the US and its bibles!
    posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:36 AM on April 7, 2010


    The bibles were gun-shaped.
    posted by Mister_A at 11:50 AM on April 7, 2010


    NASA will also seek to develop a human-rated exploration spacecraft that only operates in space.

    This is great news to me. I have been saying for a long time that we need to combine our ISS experience and advanced propulsion research into building a real, live spaceship. The habitation modules and (probably nuclear) drive unit would form the core of the ship and be reused indefinitely, while additional modules—such as landers—could be added for different missions. This is the way forward, and something NASA can do that no one else could.
    posted by vibrotronica at 1:09 PM on April 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


    President Barack Obama will outline plans on Thursday to increase NASA's budget by $6 billion over five years and create 2,500 new jobs in Florida as part of a space policy aimed at ultimately going to Mars.
    posted by homunculus at 4:43 PM on April 13, 2010


    "Get your ass to Mars!"
    posted by Artw at 5:11 PM on April 13, 2010


    We need a new space race and two less wars.
    posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:14 PM on April 13, 2010


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