03 April 2011
Launcher mayhem in the USA
Next week on april 5th SpaceX will officially announce the new rocket they're going to build. The Falcon 9 Heavy is a tripled first stage of the regular Falcon 9 with the middle one carrying the second (and third) stage. Such a rocket might overshadow the power of, say, a Proton or Ariane 5. Dragon, their capsule is almost about to be man rated. Boeing is working hard on their Commercial Crew Vehicle and is trying to get the Atlas V 500 version as its carrier. That's number two.
Then there is Lockheed Martin's Orion spacecraft. Might also be able to get a ride on an Atlas or maybe even one of those new Delta rockets. United Launch Alliance, the cooperation between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, offers both in the Atlas range as with the Delta series the possibility to launch a "heavy" version of the rockets. Three very well working launchers and three capable space crew carriers about to hit the market.
One might conclude that there is nothing wrong on the launcher market in the good old US of A. Big and bigger rockets are ready to launch whatever payload there is into low and high orbit and even further.
Still, something's smelling funny. It's NASA. The boys and girls at the National Space and Æronautics want to see their own rocket flying. They already got frustrated when Obama cancelled the Constellation project - which was a correct decision in my opinion. Constellation was not about innovation and it was not about logic. It was kind of a panic-induced plan to keep America aloft no matter what.
"Apollo on steroids", as one NASA spokesman once called it, and that was just what it was. Costs of development would have been sky high with little to none innovative aspects to the system. One clumsy testlaunch of a modified shuttle SRB showed all but convincing this would have been the next big thing. Of course they had to cancel it. They kept, however, the only thing that looked useful: Orion.
Orion looks like it is the fourth very capable space capsule with a compact service module. It could easily be launched by an Atlas V, a Delta IV and perhaps even with a Falcon 9. Heavy or not. Why would NASA not choose one of those options? All those launchers are already there, most of them well-proven and more or less safe. No, NASA wants to design their own new rocket. Again. And again it appears they ignore the NASA rogues division at Direct with their cheaper Jupiter 120 launch system option. There even are people suggesting de-mothballing the remaining F1 engines that were once meant to power Saturn V rockets. Come on NASA. Are you really off your rockers?
In the late 1950s and throughout the sixties of the last century NASA was booming. Everything seemed possible. Money wasn't important. Development of engines, rockets, space systems and electronics was an inventive, spontaneous and creative bunch of events. That's what got America to the moon besides funding. That's how they solved the nitrogen problem with Apollo 13. That's how the F-1 came to be. That's how Lunar Orbit rendez-vous was approved. That was why after the quite dangerous Gemini 8 mission and its successor Gemini 9A were just two months instead of years. It was about using what was there and taking it to a new level.
Now with all these new rockets available at a fraction of the cost that NASA would have to spend to develop a new launch system, why wouldn't NASA just choose to fly their missions with these boosters?
In the 1970s and 1980s the space administration slowly became a slow working bureaucratic machine. while in the era of the space race almost everyone at NASA seemed to work almost next to a barrel of LOX to sniff from or a spacecraft simulator to kick some serious ass during lunchbreak, today it looks like the white collar brigade hardly comes near a launch site. To me, it looks like NASA has lost its touch with what it was meant to be.
In my opinion NASA should stick to what they were meant to do: getting into space. There's plenty of well equipped hardware around which is developed without the bulk of the money coming from NASA. Some even are completely privately funded.
NASA doesn't have to design rockets like schools do not have to make those yellow buses.
There. I said it.
It kind of bothers me how many so-called space enthusiasts keep on ranting about how the shuttle should have been kept flying and that this might be the demise of the reign of US space superiority. They don't seem to grasp and/or understand the immense costs the shuttle fleet demands for maintenance and launch preparations. For thirty years the shuttles have been used and that's enough waste of money in my opinion.
Sure, it is a beautiful and impressive spaceship to see, it has some incredible stories to tell, but you have to keep in mind that there have been made only five of them. That got an upgrade halfway through the nineties. Sure, the Russians are flying their Soyuz now for more than forty years but every Soyuz is a new one. If you should compare the Soyuz Komarov was launched with to the latest TMA version launched to the ISS yesterday the comparison is only superficial. Inside it is another spacecraft. The five shuttles were used, reused and reused. Wear and tear makes them slowly more and more dangerous and difficult to maintain healthy.
As said: the money to maintain them in flying condition is exceeding the profits of flying them. The fact the shuttles could be reused has been proven, allright, but if the overall costs of an expendable launch vehicle such as an Atlas or Falcon 9 are less than one whole turnaround of a shuttle, the decision to retire the shuttle fleet is logical.
Space is not especially the domain of the United States. They're just one of the nations that explore. That doesn't mean they have to claim space as theirs, as some of aforementioned space enthusiasts seem to think they should, nor should it mean the US must do all of it by themselves. Working together gets us to where we want to go much easier and earlier.
There. I said some more.