Chair Force Engineer

Sunday, February 17, 2008

A Solid Prediction

NASA will make an announcement this Tuesday, Feb 19, on which company or companies will be selected to receive the COTS funds vacated by RocketPlane-Kistler.

I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that the PlanetSpace-LockMart-ATK team is going to get COTS money out of Tuesday's announcement. I'm not going on any insider info, but on very sound guesswork.

You see, ATK is smart, and they know the Ares solid rocket boosters are going to need a heck of a lot of development beyond what currently exists on the Space Shuttle. So they've designed a rocket, informally called Athena III, which uses an expendable "2.5-segment SRB" first stage.

Let's assume for a minute that ATK develops a new casing for their SRB using the COTS money received from NASA. A composite or filament-wound casing would probably not be reusable, but it would offer improved performance margins over the existing SRB casing. It would also help in damping the vibrations created when the SRB burns (which is currently the biggest technical risk facing the Ares I program.) So even if COTS never delivers a single kilo of payload to the space station, NASA is still going to see some benefit if ATK's team gets a COTS contract.

That's not to say that all will be rosy in Ares-land if ATK creates an expendible SRB casing. By throwing the casings away, the inherent safety that comes from retrieving the SRB's and analyzing their performance will be lost. Perhaps composite or filament-wound casings could be fished back from the ocean, but it's likely they will be damaged beyond repair (and probably be mangled beyond recognition.)

That's just my interpretation on NASA's reasoning going into the COTS selection. I've been burned in many of my predictions before, so don't be surprised if I get burned again.