Chair Force Engineer

Thursday, January 04, 2007

5 + 1 = 4

About six months ago I realized (as many wiser observers had recognized even longer ago) that NASA could never afford to develop two all-new rockets for its return to the moon. Now NASA is slowly coming to the same conclusion by quietly studying the "Ares IV" rocket.

In the alternative plan, two Ares IV rockets would launch the Orion capsule and lander on separate flights to the moon. The two would rendezvous in lunar orbit, separate, carry out their missions, dock again, and either return to earth (capsule) or crash into the moon (lander.) I;m glad that NASA is re-opening the mission mode trade-space, but I hope they will give serious thought to an L1 rendezvous. If a lunar base is to be sustained, an L1 complex is almost a necessity. L1 would require less fuel in the earth departure stage (in the Ares IV case, the 5.5-meter upper stage) but more fuel for the lander.

The Ares IV rocket combines the first stage of the Ares V heavy lifter with the upper stage of the Ares I. While the idea of a single booster with a capability between the Ares I and Ares V makes a lot of fiscal sense, other elements don't add up. Why do we need new 10m tankage when we already have 8.38m tankage? Why develop the essentially-new J-2X when we have the RL-10 and RS-68? Why develop 5-segment boosters when we already have 4-segment boosters? Why create a 5.5m upper stage when Lockheed Martin is willing to build a wide-body Centaur?

Ares IV is a small step in the right direction. Unfortunately, NASA needs a giant leap in its thinking if it seeks to win Congressional funding for a moon mission. Direct Launcher or evolved Atlases would be more elegant and cost-effective solutions for the problem at hand.