Chair Force Engineer

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Call me a rocket archaeologist

Burt Rutan has earned the disappointment and even anger of the space cadet community for calling the ESAS plan "rocket archaeology." Frankly, I'm a bit surprised by Burt's comments myself, as they don't reflect the record of safety that Burt is known for.

The secret to success in the lunar return is to rely on technologies that are mature and well-understood. If the lunar return plan looks a lot like Apollo, it's because we haven't developed the new technologies to a sufficient level of technical readiness. The aerodynamics of the capsule haven't changed, even though the materials and the avionics are all new. The physics behind the rocket haven't changed, either.

One area where I think we have been let down is nuclear propulsion technology. A major letdown of the early 70's was the cancellation of Project NERVA by the Nixon administration. If we had a mature nuclear-thermal rocket, astronauts could get to the moon and back in 1/3 the time it currently takes with chemical rockets (check out the LANTR proposal for details.)

ESAS must start with well-understood technologies. At the same time, there must be a balance between utilizing old technologies and developing new ones. If the correct balance is struck, new technologies can be matured and incrementally added to the human lunar program.

For instance, we currently face the dilemma of storing cryogenic hydrogen and oxygen in the Earth Departure Stage while it waits for the CEV to dock with it. Now imagine that after a few moon missions, the chemical EDS is replaced by a nuclear-thermal EDS. The propellant boil-off problem isn't as severe, because the specific impulse is twice the value for a LOX-Hydrogen rocket.

Reusability is another good example. If propellant depots can be built on the moon, the landers can be refueled and reused, acting as shuttles between the lunar surface and lunar orbit (or L1.) Nothing in the current ESAS plan precludes this. It requires a new development of a single-stage lander, but that lander can be subbed in for the old, two-stage expendable lander.

There's nothing wrong with being a rocket archaeologist, as long as you learn to evolve. In the battle of budget politics, the principle of "survival of the fittest" still applies. We will initially use what we know to return to the moon, but we will learn along the way and learn how to do things better. If we fail on this count, we will stagnate, and ESAS will die Apollo's death.