Chair Force Engineer

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Don't piss on my leg and tell me it's raining

NASA's "shuttle derived" fraud is slowly revealing itself for what it is: an expensive make-work program that isn't really shuttle derived at all. It's a mostly-new SRB, mostly-new J-2 engine, new launch pads and support structures, and three all-new rocket stages: the 5m upper stage for Ares I and both liquid-fueled stages of Ares V.

Now there are a maverick group of NASA engineers who are advocating something I pushed for a few months ago; something that maximizes commonality with the shuttle program. The plan is being referred to as "Direct Launcher." The 8.38 meter tank, SRB's, pads and service towers are all being reused from the shuttle program under the "direct launcher" proposal. And because the crew and cargo launchers are so similar to each other, the program's operational cost is expected to be under $2 bil per year. The current baseline of Ares I and V will be similar to the shuttle program's current $3 bil per year.

Normally I do not condone a group of mavericks starting their own website and undermining their agency. In this case, I support the direct launcher team because I feel that NASA's Ares strategy is poorly-thought-out and headed for a budgetary trainwreck that will likely kill any chance we have of sending humans to the moon during my lifetime. After all, Ares I's predecessor, "SRB-X," was described as "the single worst shuttle-derived launcher ever proposed."

The pessimist in me thinks that NASA was never serious about having two Ares launchers. As part of NASA's development spirals, the Ares I will be developed first and provide a humans-to-orbit capability. It will not be for another decade or so that Ares V will enable a humans-to-moon capability. With elections looming, it's easy to see a changing of the guard in Congress that will scuttle a manned lunar program, but will keep a humans-to-orbit capability (if for no other reason than to appease traditional allies who helped build the space station.)

Of course, the problem here is that we are sticking with "shuttle derived" instead of pushing technologies that have been developed since the early 70's when the shuttle was finalized. The EELV programs have taught the industry how to reduce the marginal costs of added launches and how to streamline the processing of the Delta & Atlas rockets. And it's also clear that the shuttle hardware was never capable of meeting ambitious flight rates, which are the only way to make spaceflight more cost-effective.

If Congress insists that NASA retain the shuttle workforce to the maximum extent in its moon launcher planning, the "Direct Launch" proposal is the smartest way of launching human missions to the moon. It avoids much of the new development costs (both monetary and time) required under the current Ares plan. If Congress relents in its desire to keep constituents employed at Cape Canaveral, an evolved Atlas V can create the economy of scale that will be needed to sustain the moon landing program.