Chair Force Engineer

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Bark at the Moon

Based on the blogs I've read, it looks like the space enthusiasts are generally disappointed with NASA's plan to go back to the moon. My general reaction is that they should stop whining, lest Congress decide that we won't be going back to the moon at all. Either we have a space program that does something exciting, or we lose the space program entirely. Congress and the American people are loathe to repeat the shuttle mistake again.

My disagreement with Michael Griffin's moon plan comes not from the mission architecture, as it's probably the best way we have of getting to the moon with the current technology. My disagreement lies with the economics of the Griffin plan.

When the military wants a new system, great efforts are made to avoid dictating the design of the new system to the contractors. Instead, the contractors are given a set of specifications and have great latitude in meeting them through various design choices. This method allows for more innovation and efficiency.

NASA's approach is completely different. Instead, NASA has studied the options and has arrived at the conceptual designs for its two launchers, which I call "Stick" and "Heavy." While NASA will probably put these designs out to bid, the contractors will only have to do the detail design work, with the concept already fed to them by NASA.

By relying on the infrastructure and propulsion technology developed for the Space Shuttle, NASA has made a deal with the devil. Development costs will be low, but the operating costs (which comprise the majority of the lifetime costs in aircraft, but not necessarily for rockets) will likely be higher. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to tell you that this method isn't sustainable over the long term unless new rockets are developed later in the program, or if economies of scale develop.

An alternative to Heavy and Stick is to launch the moon ship in 20-ton pieces with Delta and Atlas rockets. I favored this approach, because Delta and Atlas could be replaced in the future with a reusable launcher in the 20-ton payload class. Alas, it is not to be.