Chair Force Engineer

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Atlas of LC-39

Sir Sydney Camm famously observed that “All modern aircraft have four dimensions: span, length, height and politics. TSR-2 simply got the first three right.” He was referring to Britain’s stillborn attempt to design a medium jet bomber during the 1960’s, but the same could be said about using Atlas or Delta for space launch during the post-shuttle era. If we accept that NASA must retain government jobs, Atlas & Delta will not be acceptable solutions to the problem of manned space launch after the shuttle retires.

An option I have thought about (and I certainly was not the first) is whether the shuttle’s launch complex could be converted to launch Atlas or Delta rockets while retaining much of the shuttle workforce. Such an option is not economical, from the perspective that it’s not leveraging the infrastructure & personnel investments that United Launch Alliance has already made. But the idea of a NASA-run space launch program is inherently un-economical already.

From a technical perspective, it would not be too difficult to convert the shuttle launch facilities over for Atlas or Delta operations. It was already accomplished once, when the mothballed SLC-6 at Vandenberg was rebuilt from a Titan IIIM pad to a Shuttle pad and to a Delta IV pad. Prior to the conversion for Delta IV, Athena rockets were launched from a specially-designed stand placed over the flame trench for the shuttle SRB. It’s not hard to imagine a single-core Atlas or Delta being supported over an SRB flame-trench at Kennedy Space Center, using a modified version of the current pad’s crew elevator and access tunnel supported from the umbilical tower.

The Atlas V launch pad is designed with the umbilical tower already mounted to the transporter. One would conceivably need to be added to the Mobile Launch Platform if Atlas is flown from LC-39. Delta IV is transported horizontally, so the MLP would need some mechanism to erect the rocket at the launch site. Neither issue is non-trivial. But the alternative of modifying the MLP’s for Ares I also involves significant work.

I can see the Defense Department supporting the idea of establishing separate EELV pads at LC-39. It is always nice to have a backup launch pad in the event that an exploding rocket damages one of the existing launch pads on the east coast (LC-37B or LC-41.) Assuming that Ares V survives the anticipated cuts to Project Constellation, one of the pads at LC-39 will likely be reserved for the new super-rocket. The other launch complex could conceivably be designed for both Atlas and Delta operations, but the Mobile Launch Pads would be drastically different. I would anticipate that only one of the EELV’s will make the cut. My preferred configuration would be a wide-body Atlas with two RD-180 engines on the first stage, but a three-core Heavy EELV would be cheaper from a development perspective.

Recent rumors have indicated that the Obama Administration plans to euthanize Ares I in favor of Atlas, Delta or both. If the rumblings are true, the space community should be warned that the substitution will not be a simple slam-dunk. NASA will have to re-examine its workplace retention issues and its relations with United Launch Alliance. Ultimately NASA will find a way to retain as many existing jobs as possible through re-use of LC-39, regardless of how expensive and unnecessary it may be.