Simple and direct.
December 19, 2006 6:00 PM   Subscribe

The Stick and the Stack may be stuck. NASA's Project Constellation is the effort to rebuild the manned spacecraft program after nearly thirty years of flying the Shuttle. While the mighty Ares V, the big brother of the pair, seems to be working out on paper, the stick, Ares 1 is running into real trouble, as even with a longer first stage booster, it may not be able to loft the new Orion Crew Vehicle. Now, a group of NASA engineers, with one private person acting as the public face, say that there's a simpler, more DIRECT way.
posted by eriko (50 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
sheez, one would hope "they" can figure this s-t out without public outcry and whatnot.

This ain't rocket science and all. oh wait
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 6:18 PM on December 19, 2006


direct looks like a quick, cheap, and relatively reliable way to go. this might actually fly.
posted by waxboy at 6:40 PM on December 19, 2006


The fact that NASA has to struggle to figure out a problem they 'solved' 40 years ago proves that whole moon landing was a big hoax.
posted by mullingitover at 6:54 PM on December 19, 2006 [1 favorite]


What ever gets me on my Martian hunting safari the quickest...
posted by Science! at 7:07 PM on December 19, 2006


Considering that the next administration is going to be looking at a $1-$2 Trillion dollar war debt, I'm beginning to wonder if NASA is better off using COTS for getting astronauts to LEO, and concentrating development on Ares V and space habitats.
posted by smoothvirus at 7:15 PM on December 19, 2006


mullingitover, I'm waiting for Buzz Aldrin to come to this thread and punch you in the face. :)
posted by anthill at 7:17 PM on December 19, 2006


I understand (as much as a non-rocket scientist can) why the current plan is to move away from a reusable shuttle, but damnit, the solutions that the boffins are coming up with are not sexy. The shuttle? Sexy. It was like a solid, visible stepping stone to our science fiction future when it was first rolled out. It has control surfaces, it can be flown in the atmosphere. Now we're going back to rockets? Unguided landings, fer chrissakes? Lame.
posted by lekvar at 7:24 PM on December 19, 2006


Obligatory. Aldrin speaks, ends controversy: the Moon really does exist.
posted by mullingitover at 7:37 PM on December 19, 2006


Shuttle was a magnificent achievement but I have to agree with Homer Hickam that it is fatally flawed. Absolutely everyone in the space business agrees with this.
posted by smoothvirus at 7:41 PM on December 19, 2006


The shuttle was sexy when I was 8, then I saw girls and the shuttle became a lot less attractive. It's huge, bigger than most realize, ungainly, and not really sleek at all. To say it can be flown in the atmosphere doesn't really capture the truth, it falls. It falls in a controlled fashion, but to even say it glides is pushing it.

At least with capsules and unguided re-entry the badass factor goes way up. You're going into space? On top of a giant bomb? Then to get back you just sit in a little metal container and hope your parachutes open? Tiny little window? No flight controls? Get the hell outta the way space shuttle pilot, I'm buying this guy a beer!

SpaceShipOne is sexy, a cool little rocket carried aloft. Then it drops from a mothership, fires a rocket (how freakin' cool is that?) and shoots away from the planet. Then when about to re-enter it TRANSFORMS to increase surface area to generate friction.
posted by Science! at 7:47 PM on December 19, 2006


I thought it was cool back in the early 80s, when we got to watch it launch on TV in school.

Now it's just a bit embarassing, a stubby compromise with no real purpose. Who was it that said that the ISS was dreamt up with purely to give the shuttle somewhere to go to?
posted by Artw at 7:49 PM on December 19, 2006


SpaceShipOne is kind of cool, as high altitude rocket propelled airplanes that are in no way actually spaceships go.
posted by Artw at 7:50 PM on December 19, 2006


I understand (as much as a non-rocket scientist can) why the current plan is to move away from a reusable shuttle, but damnit, the solutions that the boffins are coming up with are not sexy. The shuttle? Sexy.

It looked butt ugly to me. Everything about it was ugly and inefficient.

anyway, what we clearly need is a giant space cannon.
posted by delmoi at 7:58 PM on December 19, 2006


That fires down at the Earth? That would rock!
posted by Science! at 8:01 PM on December 19, 2006


The shuttle as it is now is an embarrassment, yes. It was a first step, and a hell of a first step at that. NASA has sat on the shuttle program rather than developing the program further. I remember reading somewhere that we should have been on our fourth shuttle generation by now. Yes, the shuttle falls in a controlled way rather than flying, but it can be steered at a runway. The ORION crew module is designed to fall like the old Apollo modules and the newer Soyuz command modules. It's only partially reusable.

But Homer Hickam says, "...let's close the program down in a controlled fashion and replace it with proven expendable launchers and a shiny new spaceplane."

SpaceShipOne is the direction NASA should be looking.
posted by lekvar at 8:02 PM on December 19, 2006


It may seem to be a step backwards to go from the Shuttle to a capsule, but consider the following:
  • The Shuttle never had even a plausible launch-escape system
  • Both lost Shuttles can trace their accidents directly to the "strapped on the side" approach rather than having been atop the rocket
  • The Shuttle was designed to "be everything for everybody" and never did all those things well
  • The control surfaces give the Shuttle some ability to move, but a well designed capsule (like the soyuz) stabilizes itself as it falls through the atmosphere
  • The fiscal conditions under which the Shuttle was designed rendered it overcomplicated in many ways, eventually taking too long to cycle back into action

I think it's clear that people are always expecting something grander, and more complex-looking with each new generation of any transportation system, but many of the older designs were adopted not because they were necessarily simple, but because they were the most elegant solution to the people-in-space problem.

I believe there's no more elegant solution to the people-in-space problem than a capsule that stabilizes itself during re-entry and requires no human intervention to operate safely.
posted by chimaera at 8:07 PM on December 19, 2006


NASA refuted this story about lift problems day or so later....
posted by liquid54 at 8:13 PM on December 19, 2006


The fact that NASA has to struggle to figure out a problem they 'solved' 40 years ago

40 Years ago Nasa had an unlimited budget. Today they're trying to do the same thing with a fraction of the money. That's a much harder problem.
posted by Popular Ethics at 8:22 PM on December 19, 2006


Plus back then they had Germans to do all the thinking.
posted by Artw at 8:33 PM on December 19, 2006 [2 favorites]


Ares? They're calling these things Ares?

I mean, the freaking Greek god of berserk savagery fer cryin' out loud? Who's the classical scholar at NASA responsible for that? Jeez, even Zeus thought the dude was over the top (and that's saying a lot.)

From the Wikipedia (yeah, I know):
Though Ares' half-sister Athena was also considered to be a war deity, Athena's stance was that of strategic warfare while Ares' tended to be the unpredictable violence of war with all its potential outcomes.
Call me supersitious, but you couldn't pay me enough to sit on top of a tube of explosives with his name stenciled on the side.

It all really does look neat, though...


posted by Opposite George at 8:56 PM on December 19, 2006


Or superstitious, even.
posted by Opposite George at 9:07 PM on December 19, 2006


Who's the classical scholar at NASA responsible for that?

Robert Zubrin. It's no coincidence that Mike Griffin is a member of the Mars Society.
posted by smoothvirus at 9:09 PM on December 19, 2006


SpaceShipOne is the direction NASA should be looking.

No no no... SS1 is ballistic only. It has no TPS and it would need to be strapped to a booster the size of an Ariane V to get into orbit.

Instead, NASA should be talking to Elon Musk. Instead of going with the Cadillac, aka Orion, they need the Honda Accord, aka Dragon.
posted by smoothvirus at 9:15 PM on December 19, 2006


eriko, on a related topic, previously

I have to say that I disagree with the fundamental concept behind all of these - the notion of a crew exploration vehicle.

I really do understand the desire and the dream to human exploration of space, but I also recognize that this comes from the the same magical thinking part of the brain behind santa claus and a lot of people's view of God as a kindly old man in the sky. It's borne of childhood fantasies of escape and fed by science fiction that for the most part had very little to do with science.

You put a human in orbit, and you also need to put his air food and water in orbit with him. You waste so much mass and fuel just keeping the human alive that there's often not much room for anything else. And any space journey with a human on board at best travels only half the distance as an unmanned mission, because you have to bring the human back.

It's hard to blame Nasa for this, because all along Nasa has been about the astronauts and their tools, the rockets, etc., not so much about the science.

The most successful space mission, at least in my humble opinion, is not the Apollo 11 moon landing. Though that was of great historical importance and is certainly an achievement, in my opinion the Voyager program, and Voyager 2 in particular, gets the prize.

Until very recently we were still getting scientific data back from a 30 year old probe that in its prime visited four planets, discovered dozens of moons, discovered that some of them were volcanically active, and suggested for the first time that life is more likely to be found in orbit around jupiter and saturn before it's found on mars.

Chimaera talked about an elegant solution. Take a look at the Voyager 2 platform. It is the embodiment of elegance in engineering.

By the time Voyager 2 passed Neptune, the entire Voyager program, both probes, beginning with design and including launch, cost $875 million. If we assume that all of that $875 million is 1977 dollars (which it isn't), then that's still about $110 million per craft per year, adjusting for inflation. NASA's current annual budget is over $17 billion. The best estimates put each shuttle launch at $60 million. And I don't care what the projections are for the Ares system, it will end up costing more than the shuttle for the simple reason that this is a government program.

Nasa's problem is that is has its objectives completely backwards. The purpose of a space program should be space, not the program, not the personalities, not the top gun, bigger, louder, shinier ethos of the current system.

You want a space program? Mass produce 20 Voyagers with hardened modern components, and set them loose on the 20 most interesting objects in the solar system. No more pushing the technology envelope with each mission. Stop focusing on the tools, and start focusing on what the tools are supposed to do.

Great post, eriko.
posted by Pastabagel at 9:15 PM on December 19, 2006 [3 favorites]


Pastabagel for the win.
posted by b1tr0t at 9:39 PM on December 19, 2006


eriko's post is one of the best space-topical posts I've ever read on MeFi.

As for Voyager being an elegant platform, it is a nice and excitingly chunky flight system, bristling with booms and instruments. There's a full-size mockup in the auditorium at work, and I always linger a couple minutes after each meeting there.

But the basic premise of Voyager - a box containing the smarts with instruments and telecom hardware tacked on - is pretty standard for space missions.

Your idea of mass producing 20 Voyagers isn't a new one. The Voyager program itself was basically an outgrowth of the Mariner program (the missions were originally called Mariner 11 and 12), and the follow-on to that concept was "Mariner Mark 2" the first ones being Cassini and CRAF, with proposals for Uranus and Neptune orbiters, all of which Congress using their incredible talent for foresight basically crippled from the new "standard" deep space mission to a one-off Saturn Orbiter (which is also incredibly successful, as successful as the Voyagers were so far).

We should've made 20 Cassinis, and there were plenty of people who worked on doing just that until Congress decided that they didn't want to foot the bill.
posted by chimaera at 9:40 PM on December 19, 2006


I don't 100% agree with Pastabagel or eriko's linked comment, but they make excellent points.

DIRECT is an interesting retread of the old Shuttle-Derived Vehicle concept, where engineers tried to leverage the development costs to have a suite of different launchers. Imagine one space station launched by one vehicle, for example.

I think Ares is a basically sound approach, though, and Hickam is spot on. (These criticisms of the Shuttle go back to the nineteen sixties concepts.) It's going to be new, so it will kinda be sexy. The Shuttle is no way sexy. ("Drives like a truck.") I can imagine a slimmed-down Shuttle that's more like the NASA-only designs before they folded in the USAF/DOD requirements. But what really looks sexy to me, today, is the Crew Return Vehicle. Flying wing, man! Steve Austin, man!

I remember reading somewhere that we should have been on our fourth shuttle generation by now.

If you aren't picky, the Shuttle is at least on its third generation. That is, the control systems, a number of the safety systems, and literally tons of the wiring have been ripped out, redesigned, upgraded since the program began. Each flying Shuttle had been through an Orbiter Upgrade in the 1990s. There were major changes after both accidents, as well, that have been slipstreamed into the maintenance process.

Anyway. Ares is a decent name. At least it indicates our realistic expectations of future targets, unlike Saturn... and it's an homage to this classic American engineering.
posted by dhartung at 12:08 AM on December 20, 2006


To say it can be flown in the atmosphere doesn't really capture the truth, it falls. It falls in a controlled fashion, but to even say it glides is pushing it.

The Shuttle Training Aircraft is a Gulfstream IV jet -- a very aerodynamic bird. To make it "glide" like the Shuttle, they drop the landing gear, open the spoilers, drop the flaps, put the engines on about 35% power -- and deploy the thrust reversers.

That's the two mods they make -- one to make the cockpit match the shuttle in enough ways to make it useful, and the second is to allow the thrust reversers to deploy in flight.

NASA refuted this story about lift problems day or so later....

Oh, they did a lousy job there -- they didn't refute anything.

Here's the problem. The original Ares I spec -- using the 4 segment SRB and the SSME for the 2nd stage, boosted into a 100x160nm orbit, then fired the SSME one more time to circularize into a 160x160nm orbit. Total mass boosted was 22mT. So, this would leave a 22mT CEV in a useful docking orbit, or it could boost slightly to reach a higher orbit (say, 190.5x191nm θ51N, the ISS orbit.)

Note the boost spec now. First, the latest set of analyses indicate that the Ares I can lift 58 klbm (that's thousand pounds mass -- 1lbm weights 1lb in a 1g field --EVO) to the program-specified injection point of -30x100 nm

Note that minus sign. At burnout of the Ares I as now specified the orbit has an apogee of 100nm and a perigee of -30nm. That's *minus* thirty. IOW, the spec now says that Ares I cannot put 29mT payload into even LEO -- and that's assuming that there's no mass slippage. There's *always* mass slippage.

So, how is this useful? Well, now the Ares I spec is that the CEV will burn twice after boost to orbit - first to raise perigee to 100nm, then to 160nm.

When I saw this, my support for the Ares I design evaporated. The current spec means that if, for some reason, the Orion CEV engine fails, the crew dies unless they make the world's fastest reconfiguration to reentry (and the angle isn't too steep.) It also means that the CEV must carry the fuel to make these two boost burns, just to reach LEO -- and 160x160nm is a very low earth orbit.

Thus, we have to reduce the payload mass of the Orion CEV, because part of the fuel load is *required* to make orbit. Without at least one burn, you're suborbital. Without two, you're not staying in orbit very long -- as few as ten orbits before drag at 100nm brings you down.

This is a bad call. The guys working on the CEV are pissed -- they were counting on 22mt payload, now they're told that 2.5mt of that is going to be boost fuel.

The three things that are wrecking the Ares I:

1) The SRBs are built to tow, not push. When you stack stuff on top of them, the joints leak. This means you need to reinforce them. This is mass. Mass in booster is mass not in payload. This is part of the mass leakage I mentioned. If DIRECT is built, it will leak mass in the same way. Unlike the Ares I, it has plenty to give.

2) The SSME call. The SSME gives 2.1MN thrust in vacuum, with an nigh-on miraculous Isp of 450 seconds. The J2-S, the closest engine we have to a J2-X, has 1.17MN thrust and an Isp of 418 seconds. This is a huge loss of performance.

(For comparison, the RS-68 now has 3.9MN and Isp of 410 sec, both in vacuum.)

However, to defend NASA here, the SSME call is probably the right one -- air start isn't easy, restart is harder, and the SSME was never built to do either. It's a highly optimized design, ideal for the role of a long-burn, first stage, reusable engine, but that makes it a specialist. Don't teach it new tricks.

3) The interstage. The stick is backwards -- center of pressure is on the wrong side of the center of mass, which means the Stick wants to flip around. We can control this with thrust (an F-16 spends most of the flying time trying to do the same thing. This is one reason the F-16 is so maneuverable.) But this is putting a bunch of stress on the booster, in particular, the interstage that connects the two stages. Each design iteration has had an increase in interstage structure, which means an increase of interstage mass. This doesn't hurt 2nd stage perfomance (the interstage is dropped) but it does hurt the first stage performance, and they were counting on the extra segment of the SRB to make up for the J2-X performance loss.

Thus, each revision is showing increasing mass in the booster, esp. in the first stage and interstage. The original design is unflyable with a J2-X. The current design is only flyable using the CEV as a third stage.

Bad. One of things they're talking about for the Ares I now is strap-on boosters. Wait, I thought the whole point of the stick was that there was no side mounted engines? And now, you need to man-rate the strap-on boosters as well. So, new SRB, new J2-X, new strap on, new 2nd stage (which, at 10m diameter, doesn't fit in any current facility) and so forth.

If we're really going clean-sheet, that's fine. Start over. But this is sounding like the Shuttle design evolution -- keep shaving mass and bolting on power until you get something that vaguely works. As long as you assume an air-startable SSME, the Ares I is workable, but the moment you gave up 30+ second of ISP and nearly a meganewton of thrust, you've lost.

No no no... SS1 is ballistic only

No, SS1 boosts up and glides down. SS1, however, is forever suborbital. It wasn't built to be a stepping stone to space, it was built to win a prize. Period.

I knew the moment Scaled Composites started playing that A) They would win and B) We'd get not one step closer to man-in-space, which was the goal of the X Prize. Both were exactly correct.

Or another way to put it -- SS1 does exactly what the X-15 does, but with three people.

Instead of going with the Cadillac, aka Orion, they need the Honda Accord, aka Dragon.

Orion isn't built just to get people into orbit. Orion is built for long-duration missions to the moon, and as an interim craft to Mars.

The ISS could use a Honda. But there are no roads to the Moon, and you carry everything with you or die. You don't need a Honda, you need a HMMWV. Not an H2, not a Hummer, the real thing.

I think Elon has the right idea with the Falcon, but he's a long way from being able to think about the Dragon. Until they prove that he's right about his design posits for the Falcon 9, SpaceX isn't even in the game.

No more pushing the technology envelope with each mission. Stop focusing on the tools, and start focusing on what the tools are supposed to do.

The problem with boosters is you almost have to. You need so much energy to get out of the atmosphere that fighting for kilograms is worth doing.

But I agree with your general thrust. That's part of the reason I like DIRECT. Since Challenger, the SRBs have been perfect in (if I'm counting correctly) 188 uses. The only failure of an RS-68 launch was in the Delta IV Heavy test, and that failure wasn't an engine fault, that was a sensor fault that shut down the engines. DIRECT uses the SRBs exactly as they are now, which means we know they work, and exactly what they can carry. We don't have to build a booster to man-rate the RS-68, we can use Delta IVs to do that.

Basically, DIRECT is, in many ways, a Shuttle launcher without the mass penalty of the Shuttle. The Ares V is also, mod the new SRBs. The Ares I, however, is at this point in the hell of being a Shuttle Derived Launcher that has nothing left from the Shuttle. It's neither a derived booster (saving money in proving costs) or a clean sheet (which is leaving it compromised.)

In other words, it's really starting to look like STS circa 1975.
posted by eriko at 5:12 AM on December 20, 2006 [2 favorites]


Thomas Hockenberry, PhD

Who's the classical scholar at NASA responsible for that?
posted by Captaintripps at 5:24 AM on December 20, 2006


As an actual (non-practicing) rocket scientist lemme say this: design problems with a new platform like the Ares I are one thing; going back and re-using the freaking Shuttle SRBs is another. The SRBs: a) were the cause of the Challenger disaster, b) have all the safety issues associated with big-ass Roman candles strapped on to your spaceship, c) produce highly toxic exhaust.

I respect the instinct of sticking with something that you know and works, but that something is at this point over 30 years old, has a bad track record and it was a bad idea to begin with. About the only reasons left not to redesign the platform and bring it upto-date are: a) that the best modern rocket engine designs are actually Russian/Soviet in origin and there is a certain element of pride at stake, b) that various consituencies are trying very hard to hang on to what they can from that massive pork-barrel-in-space that was the Shuttle program.

If you care about space exploration (and I do), you should be fighting to put the Shuttle, its technology, and the bureaucratic mentality that it spawned (pork over efficiency, politics over technology) to rest, once and for all.
posted by costas at 5:25 AM on December 20, 2006


After reading eriko's post above, I'll take back some of my judgements above re: Ares I --I haven't been keeping up with it that well. But I am sticking with the motivation: the Shuttle has to be retired. Also, previously.
posted by costas at 5:30 AM on December 20, 2006


I am sticking with the motivation: the Shuttle has to be retired.

Not arguing that at all -- if I had my druthers, there would have been exactly one mission on Return to Flight, the Hubble Service Mission.

politics over technology

Unless and until you can get private industry willing to drop the billions needed, fighting politics is a losing bet. That's one of the things that led to STS, and hint -- in a market, where stock price counts, the company that drops $20 billion on manned space flight is getting hammered. And, of course, $20 billion probably won't be enough.

Space is currently extremely unprofitable, mod relay satellites in GSO. Men in space are even less profitable, by orders of magnitude.

Hell, basic spaceflight doesn't sell anymore. We've built heavy-lift versions of the Atlas and Delta boosters. Sales: 0. USAF paid for a test flight, just to make sure at least one of the heavy boosters would work. (It didn't, but we know why, so it probably will next lift.)

Even then, those programs are effectively government. There's exactly three launches on the Delta IV manifest right now. One is a DSP, the other two are NRO. Nobody commercial is buying flights on the Delta. I think Boeing has even withdrawn the booster from commercial sale, given that of the ten flights made so far, one was commercial.

The Atlas V is just as bad. No HLV launches, current manifest is three military payloads, two research, and zero commercial. At least the Atlas V has made five commercial launches, but now, none are on the manifest. Even the Ariane V is sitting on one flight with commercial payloads on the manifest.

There is no private market. So, if you want to take politics out of spaceflight? Easy. Stop flying.

If you think vastly cheaper boosters can change that, build them. Elon Musk is trying just that. Except, of course, he's getting most of his flights from DARPA, OSD and DOD -- in other words, government. Yes, SpaceX got a COTS contract. government.

On a spherical world with uniform density, politics wouldn't be a factor. The world isn't spherical or uniform, and it is. Play the game as it is played, not as you'd like it to be played, and maybe you can win.

It's a case if "It sucks, but we have to deal with it." Politics is, in this regard, just like gravity -- you can't fake m0 over m1. You either have the ΔV, or you fail.

Nobody -- not NASA, not ESA, certainly not the Ukranians -- is getting the money to clean-sheet a man rated booster, period. The only chance we have of replacing the shuttle is Shuttle Derived. There is good hardware there -- it is often misused, but the SSMEs and SRBs have proven themselves over time as excellent, reliable engines -- and both would have a perfect safety record if it wasn't for other design decisions.

That's why I'm now against the Ares I in the current form. In the original form, it met the "use parts we have, since making new ones may not happen" and it met the mission targets. The current design looks like it's SLDV, but it really is an all new booster, and the comprimises they're making to get it to fly are going to cripple it. Once that becomes obvious on flight, the Ares V -- which at least stands as a workable design -- will not be built.

For now, and for at least the next twenty years, human spaceflight in the US is going to be NASA. We need to make sure that the program can do *more* than planned, not less. We can't make the "evolve the design into uselessness" mistake with made with STS, but that's exactly where Ares I is going.

We've got to get this right, and the Ares I five-seg/J2-X isn't going to work in the long run. It can't grow, it can't go.
posted by eriko at 6:23 AM on December 20, 2006 [1 favorite]


I'm with Pastabagel on this one; it is sheer hubris to invest gigadollars in manned/womanned space "exploration" at this point. The robots are kicking ass, and should be encouraged to continue doing so for the foreseeable future. There is no way a personned exploration can do what Cassini/Huygens has accomplished; all we can do, given current spacecraft technology, is gamble a large portion of our GNP, and the lives and health of several people, on a risky mission to Mars that may produce results nearly as interesting as Spirit and Opportunity.
posted by Mister_A at 6:52 AM on December 20, 2006


I have been following the development of the DIRECT project for many months now and the more I look at it, the more sense it makes.

The problem with everything going on right now is that the space program is inherently politicized. Decisions are not being made based on engineering requirements or science, but by which program will guarantee the most number of jobs to the correct congressional districts.

There are over 2,000 people that support the shuttle orbiters at Kennedy and many more thousands involved in the preparation of solid rockets, external tanks and other miscellaneous components. Those jobs "must" be protected.

I think that NASA is finding itself in a really bad position these days: the desires and needs of the scientists and engineers are being completely overlooked today as they were in the early and mid-1970s when the STS program was being developed.

DIRECT has some excellent benefits - key being core, shared components.

If you take a peek over at Nasa Watch, you'll find some interesting, passive-aggressive responses from the Constellation program folks in response to 'net sponsored projects such as DIRECT. It's becoming very clear to me that NASA still has a very negative view of anything not produced in-house. It's also becoming very clear that Mike Griffin has his orders and is marching with them - regardless of where they take us, positively or not.

My biggest fear is that NASA is going to consume its' entire budget on Ares I development and that Ares V will never get anywhere. My second gripe is that we're re-inventing the wheel here with these two vehicles, and again, this is where DIRECT will shine.

Going back to what someone else said about the shuttle being 'stagnant', I have to agree 10x over. There have been repeated plans since the late 1970s to develop a series of vehicles based on the fundamental STS program, that would share a lot of the same components, but truly make it faster, cheaper, and safer. The only major component to get 'upgraded' over the years has been the SSME (space shuttle main engines), which are just in the last 7 years or so finally reaching the level of reliability, thrust and lower cost that were planned for in 1975.

There have been serious studies and initial development most famously of the Shuttle-C, which was basically a crew-less orbiter. There were even plans to convert Columbia into a cargo-only vehicle as recently as 1998. There were plans to develop the advanced liquid solid rocket booster, to develop non-returnable cargo carriers, etc. If you want a good book on the 'what could have beens' of the program, take a look at Development of the Space Shuttle

There were many great opportunities to expand the STS program and to make it an excellent heavy-lift, cargo-only system along with a man-rated system. But as has been the history of the program since the beginning, funding has always been tight and the costs of running the STS program leave little for R&D and improvement.
posted by tgrundke at 6:56 AM on December 20, 2006


eriko -

Very good last post discussing politics, economics and spaceflight.

The fact is, lobbing objects into outer space is expensive, and God bless the private industry for taking up the challenge, but it will remain expensive for the foreseeable future.

Ares I is an inherently crippled design that takes us right back where we were 30 years ago: developing a low-earth orbit vehicle that will suck up so many resources (dollars) that we won't be able to go much further than that. Sure, we'll have better safety by nature of a vastly simpler design, but that's only part of the equation.

For all its faults, the shuttle program, as eriko has pointed out, does have some excellent components to it. Especially if we were to remove the manned-orbiter, it would make an excellent heavy-lift vehicle with vastly reduced complexity. For all their faults, the SRBs are not an inherently 'bad' design - they are extremely powerful and since 1989 have performed virtually flawlessly. The SSMEs are extremely powerful as well, an incredible feat of engineering. They, too, have improved to the point where they are virtually flawless in operation. Caveat: they require lots and lots of maintenance.
posted by tgrundke at 7:27 AM on December 20, 2006


eriko, I think we're pretty much in agreement, my ignorance re: the Ares program notwithstanding. My reference to politics above was about the intra-US politics that drove NASA to some counter-productive decisions: the whole USAF factor (building the Shuttle for an amazing flight envelope that was never used or justfied), parceling out the program to keep everybody happy (Boeing, Lockheed, the various Senators with local jobs on the line), that kind of politics. NASA should be in the space game, and (to an extent) space exploration should be subsidized.

But since it is just that, i.e. a public subsidy, the money should be spent efficiently, not just to keep the various political balances.

NASA has some serious structural problems and needs a shake-up: I think a recent Economist article put it best: the Hubble was named after an astronomer; its successor, the Webb telescope, is named after a NASA administrator. That says all you need to know about today's NASA.
posted by costas at 7:34 AM on December 20, 2006


If you take a peek over at Nasa Watch, you'll find some interesting, passive-aggressive responses from the Constellation program folks in response to 'net sponsored projects such as DIRECT. It's becoming very clear to me that NASA still has a very negative view of anything not produced in-house.


This reminds me of a completely different government run science project - the Human Genome Project. That project started in 1990 and was budgeted at about $3 billion. It's purpose was to sequence the Human Genome. They never finished it. Why?

Because private industry beat them to the punch. Celera Genomics launched in 1998 with a $300 million budget (VC seed investment before going public) to do the same thing except using a different approach. In February 2001, it had sequenced 90% of the genome. American taxpayers spent $3 billion to fail to accomplish what private industry was happy to achieve for a tenth of that. But the Wall Street approach doesn't build careers and budgetary fiefdoms.

Nasa is the same story. All this talk of reusing shuttle parts and know how translates to "keep the jobs in my district or else you get nothing". You don't build a 2000 Honda with blueprints and tooling from a 1979 Honda.
posted by Pastabagel at 7:36 AM on December 20, 2006


On eriko's point : Space is currently extremely unprofitable, mod relay satellites in GSO. Men in space are even less profitable, by orders of magnitude.

Space is unprofitable because at that dark fiber on the internet is replacing a lot of what people used to use satellites for. Think about it. Do you really need hundred-ton rockets and launch pads and satellites in orbit to push around some ones and zeros?

At best a commercial space application would be something like radar and imaging for mapping, mining, etc. and then GPS. But guess what, those applications dovetail very nicely with the kinds of things you might want to do to the moons of Jupiter to learn more about them. Rumor has it that the Magellan probe to Venus was a repurposed twin of a spy satellite. There is synergy between government and industry that would probably justify a mass produced platform. Maybe it's a Cassini-type platform Maybe it's something new. Don't budget for one or two, budget for one or two hundred. My guess is that the marginal cost of each additional probe is realistically in the low millions if you've spent a billion to tool up for a hundred. Now you can decide waht rocket can launch it, and you get scale becasue you know you are going to need a hundred of those rockets.

Nasa is building the rocket and trying to figure out what to put atop it, and they settle on "astronauts" because Nasa is living in a 1959 Heinlein novel.

The robots love space - they don't corrode, there's no pesky water of humidity to contend with, there's plenty of solar energy to feed on, and very little out there to block signals to the home world. I say let them have it.

It really saddens me to know that humans won't conquer space in my lifetime, because that was pretty much the exclusive focus of my imagination when I was a kid. Such is life. If Nasa sends astronauts back to the moon, I'll be the first one to buy a new TV to watch it on. But just because I marvel at the pyramids of Egypt doesn't mean I think building a giant pile of rocks was that kingdom's best use of resources.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:28 AM on December 20, 2006


I'm not sure the HGP demonstrates that private industry will succeed where government projects fail. If not for the political and technological momentum created by the government HGP, Celera would never have existed. Celera finished the project more quickly, but it would not have existed without HGP.

The problem with manned space flight is that governments have been doing it since the '60s and it still hasn't caught on with private industry.

My feeling is that manned spaceflight is fundamentally a cold-war endeavor. Launching several people into orbit and recovering them safely demonstrates that you can safely deliver a fragile cargo to any spot on earth. The Soviets and the US used humans as wearhead-proxies because they knew that North Korea type launches could trigger the launch of live weapons.

Now that the cold war is over, there isn't any good reason to put a man in the sky.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:57 AM on December 20, 2006


The robots are kicking ass, and should be encouraged to continue doing so for the foreseeable future.

True -- but HST was basically a complete and utter failure until SM1. Mars Climate Observer proved that lithobraking doesn't really work for orbital insertion, and the Mars Polar Lander proved that it can be bad on landing.

Having snarked, I do agree that robot probes are very useful and incredibly important. Another reason I'm becoming more and more anti-Ares is that the costs of developing these two new boosters are going to be more than the costs of developing one, and I don't see the budget support two Shuttle replacements and Space Sciences.

NASA is going to try to keep doing manned flight. They've clearly been told this. Politically, the only real way to kill manned spaceflight now is to lose another Shuttle, and that might not be enough. But I think screwing up Ares I would kill the Ares V, which would for all intents make manned spaceflight useless, if the only booster we have is even more mission compromised than the Shuttle -- at least STS can take cargo up. If all we can do is Gemini with more people, there truly is no reason to go. If we're going to build something and go somewhere, that's another thing, but just to go into LEO and wave isn't enough, and that's all the Ares I alone can do.

If we're going to do manned spaceflight, I want a booster that lets us do more, not less. DIRECT looks like it would cost, at worst, as much as Ares I to fly, for vastly more capability. We wouldn't get the Ares V, but upgrades to the DIRECT LV would get us more than enough throw weight to do everything that an Ares I+V combo launch would do with two DIRECT launches.

Heck, the DIRECT booster makes the NGST/Webb telescope vastly simpler, and if the cost-per-flight is in the $200 million range, it could make service missions attractive, since you could fly five or six of them and still be cheaper than another telescope. It makes JIMO easy. It makes a Pluto orbiter possible -- really, really hard, but possible.

Smaller, Faster, Cheaper is a good thing, and we've done a great deal with it. But there are times that Big and Clever is, in fact, a better answer. Galileo fails without the large data recorder on board to allow it to take data then slowly stream it out via the LGA, after the failure of the HGA to deploy. New Horizons is getting exactly one chance to look at Pluto *and* Charon, because it took the largest Atlas V medium, with two extra stages, to get it there, and we really had to fly it RIGHT NOW to even make that trip in less than 10 years.

Sometimes, mass-in-orbit is the answer, even for probes.
posted by eriko at 9:37 AM on December 20, 2006


True -- but HST was basically a complete and utter failure until SM1. Mars Climate Observer proved that lithobraking doesn't really work for orbital insertion, and the Mars Polar Lander proved that it can be bad on landing.

HST was a failure because someone screwed up the mirror. The design was sound, the manufacturing wasn't. And your examples about the Mars probes are exhibits A and B why we aren't ready to put humans anywhere but LEO right now.

Your point about Galileo is interesting, because as we know things that record data get smaller, lighter, and more energy efficient with each passing year. My bet is that the "large data recorder" could be built today at half the size and mass. So why not rely on that? Data storage and processing power improvements are basically free, so why not throw it on as a backup in the design phase, knowing that what you are actually going to install is going to be better than what you anticipated?

My point about Voyager is not that it's small, it's that it worked so mind-bogglingly, phenomenally well, so why don't we just keep building them and just update the electronics? If heavier is sometimes better, fine. Over here is your Honda Civic platform, here is your Ford F-150 platform.

We are really talking about two different things though. I'll defer to you on the subject of whether the Ares platform is capable of sending humans anywhere beyond the ISS. I'm suggesting that humans don't belong anywhere up there full stop. Don't waste a single gram of fuel on it, because we will get nothing in return other than learning more about keeping humans alive in an environment that will kill them instantly if something goes slightly wrong.

I'd even entertain arguments that you can build a single platform for space exploration because the moment you do something other than taking pictures, you need specialized craft. Ok. So what kind of craft to we need to land on Europa and start drilling the ice to look for organic matter? What do we need to survive low altitude orbit around Io and do detailed mapping?
posted by Pastabagel at 10:49 AM on December 20, 2006


Science : To say it can be flown in the atmosphere doesn't really capture the truth, it falls. It falls in a controlled fashion, but to even say it glides is pushing it.

It's been said to have flight properties similar to a 'falling brick'.
posted by quin at 4:40 PM on December 20, 2006


"You put a human in orbit, and you also need to put his air food and water in orbit with him. You waste so much mass and fuel just keeping the human alive that there's often not much room for anything else. And any space journey with a human on board at best travels only half the distance as an unmanned mission, because you have to bring the human back."

This is exactly why I've been stumping for an effort to start building "real" space habitats - O'Neill Colony type things (though on the small side, 50-100 people maybe, not a 5-kilometer cylinder holding tens of thousands, sheesh) where people can live for very long periods of time without resupply using recycling etc. - so that we can create an ability to do manned exploration of the solar system at a more leisurely pace, with much greater safety and comfort (and some centrifugally-induced gravity!) for the explorers. Instead of sending 4 people in a cramped, radiation-susceptible capsule on a 2-year mission with 2 years of supplies, we send the whole damn habitat with landers and science labs and all the gear something that big can carry out to Mars or the Belt or Saturn, to hang out there for 5 or 6 years and really explore the place - and possibly even stay permanently.

It would take years to get good at living in space that way. It doesn't make that much difference if we do it close to home at first. I'm sure we're learning some things about such life from the ISS, and we could start out building something much larger in LEO, and then maybe strap a booster on it and take it up to a higher orbit, eventually to L-4 or L-5.

Meanwhile, we do just what Pastabagel says and build dozens more Voyagers, Cassinis, Galileos, rovers, drop probes, whatever, and send them out everywhere. By the time our intrepid explorers get out to Saturn, there should be a large constellation of science platforms out there for them to take command of.

"I'm suggesting that humans don't belong anywhere up there full stop. Don't waste a single gram of fuel on it, because we will get nothing in return other than learning more about keeping humans alive in an environment that will kill them instantly if something goes slightly wrong."

Well, obviously I disagree, as I think learning to live in that environment is a worthwhile goal for the long term. In fact I think it should be the primary goal of human spaceflight, almost completely divorced from the science and exploration angle - though of course, if you've got lot of humans living in a habitat up there, there's opportunity for space science, to be sure. However I think we should be concerned more with life science, construction of robust living systems that can effectively shield the occupants against solar, Van Allen and cosmic radiation, food production, supplies recycling, etc. We don't seem to be doing much of that at all right now, we're just sending people up with x weeks of supplies and bringing them back just as they run out. That's not sustainability.

We've got humans living in very inhospitable places right now; space is just the least hospitable place for humans to live in. If we really want to expand off this planet, we need to learn to live there first, just like any of our explorers need to learn to survive in unfamiliar places. Obviously space is several orders of magnitude more difficult, but it's not impossible.

So, I think that just plain learning to live up there as permanently as possible is a very, very worthwhile effort.

"I'd even entertain arguments that you can build a single platform for space exploration because the moment you do something other than taking pictures, you need specialized craft."

I'm assuming you mean "can't build," Pastabagel. I think we could mass-produce a basic space-based science platform ship similar to Cassini, but include provision to attach customized auxiliary probes/landers to it in some kind of standardized "hangar bay" package. As you say, a Honda Accord for some missions, an F-150 for others, with internal components designed as modularly as possible so as to allow easy upgrading. Decide on a basic spaceframe with a basic set of capabilities and data bus/communications system, with a modular cargo system for expanded platforms or separable probes, and build 50 of 'em.

"The SRBs: a) were the cause of the Challenger disaster,"

No they weren't, although it might seem so. The cause was the decision to launch the Shuttle at a temperature that was too cold for the O-ring seals between the SRB segments, which essentially guaranteed that the disaster would happen. The Shuttle had not previously been launched at ambient temp lower than about 40F; Challenger launched at an ambient temp of 28F, atThe engineers knew this and tried as hard as they could to get the launch cancelled, to no avail. The Challenger disaster was a tragedy of ineffective communication of a certain danger to NASA management. Google "Ed Tufte" with "Challenger" and "O-ring" and read up.

There was no unanticipated failure of flight systems on the Challenger launch. You simply can't fly these SRBs strapped to a Main Fuel Tank if the weather is colder than 40F because the O-rings will fail every time... we unfortunately had to learn that the hard way. This would apply to both Ares V and DIRECT, obviously, as well as to Ares I, since you don't want the SRB blowtorching itself apart from the inside even if your crew has an escape system. Any system using the SRBs will have this limitation.

Fortunately, Florida only rarely gets that cold.

eriko, I'm with you 100% on DIRECT. It just looks like a better solution. It doesn't seem very different from Ares V on the heavy-launch end, so I don't think it would be that big a deal to switch.
posted by zoogleplex at 5:58 PM on December 20, 2006


Well, obviously I disagree, as I think learning to live in that environment is a worthwhile goal for the long term. In fact I think it should be the primary goal of human spaceflight, almost completely divorced from the science and exploration angle

In the long term, perhaps. In the short term, we still have a lot of work left to do. Biosphere 2 only ran for two years, and needed external inputs. No large-scale attempts at space-based manufacturing have been attempted yet, nor have space-based mineral extraction or collection.

Before we try to send people into space for years at a time, we should be able to keep your team of 50-100 alive for 5 years in a sealed environment on earth.

Before we try to build really large structures in space, we should work on space-based mining, recycling, and fabrication. All of that should be doable with robots.

Humans shouldn't go into space unless

1. there is a good reason to put them there
2. we have a good chance of keeping them alive
posted by b1tr0t at 6:26 PM on December 20, 2006


"Before we try to send people into space for years at a time, we should be able to keep your team of 50-100 alive for 5 years in a sealed environment on earth."

Absolutely! And while they're in there, we go about designing the space habitats. I'm not talking about a 5-year plan here, more like 40-50.

"Before we try to build really large structures in space, we should work on space-based mining, recycling, and fabrication. All of that should be doable with robots."

Yep! I'm sure all the basic groundwork, including prospecting for various elements, can be done by robots. Actually, we've already done a bit of prospecting, we know where to find water up there now - ice rings of Saturn, for example. it's kinda far off, but we know some places where it is, and it is the absolute #1 priority resource for sustained life in space.

As far as large scale mining and manufacturing, I think that's pretty far off even if we try to do it with robots, but that's another thing we should be working hard at.
posted by zoogleplex at 6:39 PM on December 20, 2006


Given all that, the manned space prorgam should probably be shut down for 20-50 years.

While we try to run humans an a sealed tube on earth for 5 years, we should be trying to get a colony of cockroaches to survive in space, unsupplied, for 5 years.

From roaches, move up to rats. After rats, try some pigs. After 15 years of orbiting farms, we might be close to sending people up.
posted by b1tr0t at 6:48 PM on December 20, 2006


I would hope we could progress faster than that, but I don't disagree.
posted by zoogleplex at 7:42 PM on December 20, 2006


In fact, you know what? I think doing "mini colonies" with rats would be a great idea. We know a very great deal about rats, so they're wonderful test subjects for something like this, with their well-documented lifespans, diets, breeding patterns, etc. Build a mini version of the habitat with whatever methods of water and solids recycling, plants for oxygen and food, etc.

Wouldn't be too expensive to do experiments like that down here on earth, either, to get started. You should try to get that idea sold, b1tr0t! Get a grant writeup started!
posted by zoogleplex at 7:49 PM on December 20, 2006


Oh, and how does the Russian Kliper system figure into all this? Will there be any cross-pollination?

Reading that article, they've got some rather ambitious plans and include ion drives in their future exploration craft.
posted by zoogleplex at 11:58 AM on December 21, 2006


Firstly I am so very sorry I'm late to the conversation, just busy lately.
I think DIRECT is the best idea for manned spaceflight since anything I've seen since the Apollo days. I saw the first lunar landing when I was nine years old and for years after up to now I've maintained an interest in this topic. I wasn't excited about Project Constellation when I first heard about.
In the years since Apollo I realized the best and most efficient way to do extra-terrestrial exploration was remotely. Every year the orbiters, landers and now rovers become better, smarter at what they do.
Don't get me wrong, I hope to see a human on Mars before I pass on, but I also realize with all the wasteful spending that has been going on over many many years now that perhaps at this time it's best to take the more logical and intelligent approach which is to wade in the water a bit before going on a big swim to that island over there. I don't think we're ready for that swim just yet.
Really great commentary by all above by the way, hi-fives all around. (^_^)
posted by mk1gti at 8:32 PM on December 21, 2006


« Older *insert loon call here*   |   The Ultimate Christmas Video Collection Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments