Chair Force Engineer

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

AIAA Space 2007, Day 1

I wanted to encapsulate my impressions of the AIAA Space 2007 conference in a neat little package for the benefit of this blog's readership. I think the best approach is to offer daily summaries, so here I go again.

I spent the majority of the first day in the exhibitor's area. In the course of doing so, you get to meet all sorts of interesting people. Some of them are the movers and shakers within the industry, government and academia. Others are well-known names from websites and internet forums. Some of my visitors included Don Nelson and Dennis Wingo. We also entertained the president of AIAA and an Air Force Major General.

Plenty of people want to hear what you have to say about your organization. Others (like the schoolchildren who get to tour the conference) only care about the free swag that the exhibitors have to offer.

I sat in on a few presentations at the end of the day. One of the more interesting ones was given by a young engineer (I would say he's been out of school for a year or less) at JSC. He talked about a potential subscale demonstrator that would validate the Orion heatshield (an area of particular concern, in my view.) One test flight would examine a ballistic return at lunar mission velocities, while the other would demonstrate the skip-landing approach. The ability of the skip-entry technique to extend the downrange landing distance was discussed, but I still have questions about how skip-entry can be used to extend the crossrange capabilities of the spacecraft. Overall, the proposed heatshield test program could be accomplished for $165 million (including two Minotaur IV launches,) but the funding availability looks iffy at this point.

The last presentation of the day (and most eagerly-anticipated, in my view) came from Stephen Metschan of TeamVision. The topic was the DIRECT 2.0 launch vehicle plan and how it fits into TeamVision's five-spiral approach to exploring the moon, Mars and beyond. The paper that accompanied the lecture is over 130 pages long, but I'll summarize the key improvements (in my view) over the previous versions of the work done by the DIRECT team and TeamVision.
--The preferred lunar architecture uses two launches of the Jupiter-232 vehicle
--Propellant transfer between Earth Departure Stages is now completely embraced as a part of the architecture
--High launch rates for the DIRECT launchers are encouraged; even if manned spacecraft aren't ready to fly, the orbiting of fuel-laden EDS stages can be useful for upcoming missions.
--TeamVision/DIRECT forsees a speedy transition from initial sortie missions to the building of infrastructure at the Earth-Moon LaGrange points and use of reusable (up to eight missions) landers between the EML points and lunar surface.
--According to their studies, NASA's current architecture does not have adequate margins to launch the propellant required for access to all latitudes on the moon. DIRECT rectifies that problem through the use of two Jupiter-232's per mission. It should be noted that although NASA has specified a requirement for access to all latitudes, it has indicated that the lunar south pole is its preferred destination (requiring less propellant than the mid-latitudes.)
--The DIRECT launchers are adequate launch vehicles for a Mars mission based on the Design Reference Mission 3.0 architecture. The moon will serve as a testing ground for elements of the Mars hardware.

From this point on, it's hard to say what will happen to the work that's been accomplished by TeamVision and DIRECT towards making the Vision for Space Exploration more affordable and sustainable. Perhaps the issues they've identified with NASA's architecture can be surmounted, and NASA will charge ahead. It's just as likely that technical problems and shrinking budgets will put NASA on a collision course with Congress. Regardless of what happens, I think that fresh thinking on the topic should always be welcomed.