Chair Force Engineer

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Chariot of the Sun-God

Project Apollo was a major milestone in human history. To all who have ever tried to achieve the impossible, in the face of overwhelming adversity, Apollo represented the pinnacle of mankind's achievement in all endeavors, both political, technical, and even military.

With that being said, Project Apollo is still the meterstick by which we measure great achievements. As long as we have this mentality, we will probably never be able to surpass the greatness of Project Apollo. Even though the Vision for Space Exploration has an even more ambitious goal than Apollo did (four astronauts on the lunar south pole for seven days, vs. two astronauts near the lunar equator for three days,) it's still referred to as "Apollo on Steroids."

At the same time, it should be remembered that Project Apollo was a crash program that was meant to put an American on the moon before the end of the sixties, and preferably before the Soviets did. Project Apollo was not conducted with the goal of sustainability in mind. Thus, while there are plenty of lessons to be learned from Project Apollo, we are wise to avoid a too-literal recreation of that admittedly-stupendous feat.

I am reminded of the landing mode debate from 1961-62, in which Lunar Orbit Rendezvous eventually won. At one point, von Braun and his supporters favored Earth Orbit Rendezvous. One EOR scenario would have used two rockets smaller than the Saturn V (such as the Saturn C-3) and involved propellant transfer between the two spacecraft that would be launched into earth orbit.

At the time, EOR was rejected because NASA didn't want to attempt propellant transfer while on-orbit. Given the schedule concerns of 1961-2, this was the correct decision. Today, the rejection of propellant transfer can't be justified. Using President Bush's 2020 lunar landing date as a goal, we have thirteen years to develop the systems that will take us there. That is plenty of time for us to pioneer on-orbit propellant transfer. It's already been done on Orbital Express. It can be taken a step further by modifying two Centaur stages to perform the first-ever cryogenic propellant transfer in earth orbit, then launching them on two Atlas V's.

Project Apollo had the development budget to create two very different launch vehicles: Saturn IB and Saturn V. NASA has followed suit by developing the Ares I and Ares V. However, the NASA of the 60's could not sustain production and operations for their two launchers. I believe that today's NASA is naive to think that they can succeed in sustaining two separate launchers when Apollo failed in the same arena. Had Project Apollo embraced a single launcher, the Saturn C-3, the outcome might have been different, and we might still see Saturns flying today.

The TeamVision plan for exploring the moon, Mars & beyond embraces propellant transfer. It also embraces a launcher that can be configured for both space station and lunar (EOR w/ propellant transfer) missions. Saturn C-3 could have served the same function, launching manned craft and propellant tanks for an EOR lunar mission in its three-stage version, or by launching Apollo capsules on earth orbit missions in a two-stage version.

The question NASA must address is whether it will continue to worship the sun-god Apollo, or whether it will blaze a new trail that learns from both the successes and failings of the sun-god. I do not believe that NASA has critically examined all of the factors that made Apollo unsustainable after achieving the initial goal of beating the Soviets to the moon.