Chair Force Engineer

Thursday, September 21, 2006

NASA ignores while Atlas shrugs

Lockheed Martin is truly on a roll in the manned spaceflight business. First they won the Orion contract, then they joined an industry team which is poised to win the Ares I upper stage. Now, a year after the ESAS report said that Atlas V couldn't be man-rated, Lockheed Martin makes a convincing case that the single-core Atlas V is well-suited for manned spaceflight. Finally, Lockheed is working with Bigelow Aerospace to use the Atlas V to launch passengers and cargo to a Bigelow space station in the 2009 time frame.

I've said before there is nothing inherently wrong with using a Delta or Atlas for manned spaceflight (just as the Atlas D was used in the early 60's.) I felt that the "highly lofted trajectory" was a convenient cop-out for NASA so they could justify an all-new development like Ares I rather than competing with DoD for launches. In light of recent developments, my suspicions take on some degree of credibility.

Admittedly, the Atlas V 401 can only launch a ~9 MT capsule, while Orion will weigh around ~25 MT once the escape tower and service module are included. That's why many people have argued that NASA should use a smaller capsule. Back in summer 2003, Jeff Bell argued for a 4-man capsule that could be carried on a single-core Delta or Atlas. Bell's line of reasoning was that one engine on the first stage was more reliable than three, although structural factors of safety also play a role in LockMart's logic.

Unfrazzled by the throw-weight issue, LockMart is aggressively promoting the "Phase I" and "Phase II" evolutions of the Atlas V. Phase I would widen the upper stage to match the 5.4 meter payload fairing, while Phase II would combine the new upper stage with a 5.4 meter first stage, using one or two RD-180 engines. The evolved Atlas V would essentially be a new rocket, but it's necessary for launching an Orion-sized capsule.

A commenter on the NASA Spaceflight forums made the point that with an established price of $20 mil per flight and an Atlas V costing ~$138 mil per launch, it will be hard to turn a profit. The price per launch will certainly drop if Lockheed Martin launches 14 manned Atlases per year versus the paltry few they've launched since 2002. (Admittedly, 14 launches per year is probably close to the manufacturing capacity of LockMart's plant.) Also, Bigelow is proposing an 8-man capsule. I don't know how feasible this is, as Gemini came in at 3.85 MT and Apollo's command module alone was 5.8 MT. Can Bigelow cram 8 space adventurers into a 9 MT capsule?

It's exciting that an industrial monster like LockMart, once thought to be trapped in the old space paradigm of infrequent and expensive missions, would be seriously considering space tourism. It will be nostalgic if humans fly into space on an Atlas again. If the venture is a commercial success, we may even see the evolution of the Atlas V into a wider rocket designed for launching Orion-sized spacecraft.

I get the feeling that NASA should have put all its eggs in the COTS basket, but baselined the Atlas and Delta as boosters for COTS (here, I assume that the single-core Delta IV can also be man-rated.) NASA could have then evolved to a larger booster and a larger capsule for a moon mission, while leaving frequent, commercially-viable manned spaceflight as a legacy. This commercial route might take longer to return to the moon than the VSE approach, but it would have been the right way forward.