Chair Force Engineer

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Flags, Footprints, and Splashdowns

In order to fit the lunar-capable Orion spacecraft on the Ares I booster, NASA and Lockheed Martin are cutting a lot of weight. The most recent deletion is the set of airbags that would have enabled Orion landings on terra firma.

So the mismatch between Orion mass and Ares I performance is solved. But what's the price to be paid for this solution? For one thing, an entire carrier battle group will have to be put on notice for each mission, and NASA will have to foot the bill that the US Navy will send its way. If the capsule has to come down in the event of an emergency, the crew had better hope that they don't end up on land by accident; the capsule's lack of airbags and structure will ensure that the astronauts inside will have a very bad day indeed.

Speaking of safety, the change to splashdowns is also allowing NASA and LockMart to bring back storable (but carcinogenic) propellants for the capsule's reaction control system. Hopefully we won't see a repeat of Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, where the Apollo capsule's cabin filled with toxic fumes from the thrusters upon splashdown.

With the costs and operational complexities associated with splashdowns, I think this will be the nail in the coffin for any plans of a moonbase in the 2020 timeframe. I can't foresee launching more than four Orions per year (two to ISS, two to the moon initially) over a sustained period of time if it takes a carrier battle group to retrieve each capsule. Constellation will become just like Apollo: flags and footprints, with little hope of building an infrastructure after the initial sortie missions.

I don't understand why NASA would sacrifice operational flexibility and assume increased operating costs, just so they can avoid admitting that Ares I is a mistake. While the booster may be "safe, simple, and soon," the capsule is sacrificing whatever safety gains are achieved by the booster. I'd prefer that NASA make the capsule as heavy as need be to ensure the safety of the crew, and only then select a booster that can do the job. God forbid that should drive NASA to choose Atlas V Heavy or Jupiter-120.

The Soviets have been landing capsules since 1964, with Voskhod-1. While the US initially chose splashdowns because of the limited capabilities of our early boosters, we should be able to do better by now. Let's leave the splashdowns for turds. Spacecraft should make landings.

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