Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Is NASA wrong on the Moon/Mars Launch Vehicle?

NASA Director, Mike Griffin, is the father of the next moon vehicle. A design concept aimed at piecing apart the US Space Shuttle components into a series of launch vehicles aimed at returning the US to space after the retirement of the shuttle, and eventually back to the moon.

However, Griffin’s focus on the Ares I and Ares V launch vehicles may be the wrong path for the future of US space travel.

The Ares V, when complete, will dwarf the Saturn V in sheer size, yet will not allow for a single launch to aim for the moon. The Ares I will need to launch the crew in the Orion Capsule, which will dock with the Ares V upper stage (complete with lander), and the two will aim toward the moon. A complex ballet in space, made further more complicated by the Ares I development issues – most notably an acoustic envelope that exists in the early part of flight, causing vibrations that would kill the astronauts – a problem that NASA admits is part of dealing with new launch systems. The solution, says NASA, is reverse thrusters firing during launch… kind of the anti-booster. Leave it to the government to proceed with building a new launch vehicle that cannot launch without retro rockets used during launch – like building a new plane that cannot fly without anchors on it’s wings.

Since it’s inception, NASA has spent over $7 Billion on developing this new technology.

But is NASA wrong in scrapping the entire shuttle program? The shuttle itself is flawed, but the launch technology is proven, and perfected since the Columbia disaster. In fact, the changes made to the External Tank have improved flight safety and performance – for a program that has roughly ten flights left – sounds like a government fumble to me.

Enter the Jupiter DIRECT 2.0. When the Constellation Program was being conceived, there were a number of proposals to replace the shuttle. All incorporated shuttle technology, but none more so than the Jupiter Direct. The initial design proposal was questionable, and was cast to the side… however, a rogue group of NASA engineers (some of whom, no doubt, are working on Ares and see the unsolvable problems) may have fixed the issues with the DIRECT launcher.

The design uses the shuttle launch structure, minus the shuttle, placing a small engine pod attached below the tank and placing the payload above the tank. There is no vibration issue, no new configuration issue, and no expensive and time consuming development cost – it is the launch vehicle already in use.

However, NASA officials refuse to take a second look at the cost/schedule saving plan. They simply discredit the idea by citing the shortcomings of the DIRECT 1.0, claiming that there is no possible way that this design could be superior to the design which was chosen… sort of staying the course.

As an Aerospace Engineer (and employee of the Orion Program), I have had my doubts with the Ares-I launch vehicle from the beginning, and these problems/solutions are reason enough to build doubt in the success of this vehicle. We will find ourselves with an inefficient launch vehicle with questionable safety, and a price tag nearing $50 Billion and 5 years of development. It was my opinion from the start that the Ares be scrapped in favor of an Atlas V or Delta V launcher, slightly modified for human rating. NASA would not bite, as some components (notably engine parts) are Russian in origin and they demand an all-American design. The Jupiter DIRECT 2.0 solves this problem and has minimal development cost.

Perhaps we, the grassroots activists of the net, take some action on an issue that is less a “limelight” issue, and more a Taxpayer Friendly obligation – write your Congressmen, write NASA, and write the candidates – ask them if NASA is on the right track with Ares. Ask them if it is prudent that we are scrapping the Shuttle launch system in favor of an unproven and unsafe launch system. Ask them if they should consider an alternative that keeps the current manufacturing jobs and processes in place, keeps our launch infrastructure in place, and requires less time and money for development overall. Ask them about Jupiter DIRECT 2.0.

Public Communications Office
NASA Headquarters
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Washington, DC 20546-0001
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1 comment:

  1. I've only recently read anything about this "skunk works" alternative to the Aries. I too find it quite curious that it will take so much time and money to develop a manned lunar transportation system that is in most ways inferior to the Saturn/Apollo project that went from the design table to the Moon in less than ten years.
    The first question to ask is which Congressional districts benefit most from the Aries program and which ones would benefit from the shuttle recycling proposal. This is not a snarky question - jobs are at stake and it is the labor component that uses the vast majority of the budget.
    That said, I agree that the Jupiter program should be given another intensive look.
    However, we must be careful that such a review does not create an opportunity for opponents of manned space flight to kill the entire endeavor.
    I was so looking forward to a nice retirement home on Luna - but let's make sure we make that a possibility for our kids and their kids.