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Paper models, photos and musings of a Paper Kosmonaut

12 May 2012

America, why don't you fix your little space gap and light that candle?

These attempts trying to fill the "Great American Space Gap" is getting kind of silly.

Just the other day, ATK, previously known as Morton Thiokol, announced their plans for - hold on to your seats - building a man-rated launch vehicle, ready in 2015, based on - hold on tighter - the Ares I-X.

Their plans for this rocket were already out in the open a year ago but they were just plans, drawings and, in my opinion, plain stupid. Now that they really plan to build it, I think someone at ATK has lost his marbles.
The idea is to take the Solid Rocket Motor which boosted the shuttle stack to orbit in a previous appearance, add a fifth segment to it, and add an upper stage. This combination once was called Ares I, it flew once unmanned and it thereafter was abandoned by NASA.
ATK then took the plans back, discarded the designed upper stage and added a new one. This time they chose ESA's  Ariane V core stage. As crew capsule ATK took an old early  version of the Orion spacecraft made of composite materials and wahey! Frankenstein's monster is created!

image © ATK


Okay, I just am a space enthusiast, I am definitely not a rocket scientist or an engineer but I just cannot look at this project without seeing the word "WRONG" spelled out in big red letters all over it. You want reasons?

First of all, I am personally very opposed to launch people on solid rockets as a single stage. SRM's nowadays are quite controllable but they're still just a big blunt firecracker. They're okay to launch unmanned carrying cargo or satellites but please, refrain from launching people on a SRM. I prefer Hydrolox fueled rockets over all. (other story)

Secondly, to revive this abandoned plan is also plain stupid. More so because  the plan was abandoned for good reasons, one of which I just named. Others were the high costs of launching the rocket, the stack being seriously underpowered and the rumour initiated by - then NASA administrator - Mike Griffin that the two other competitors for launching the U.S.'s next manned spacecraft, the Atlas V and Delta 4, were not able to be man-rated. To put it short, because of that false statement NASA got an initial 'go' for Ares I.
I am quite curious how ATK have powered up their flying candlestick. I think there are great limits on how much stress and pressure the hull and the nozzle of the SRM can handle. By using their proven SRM, they cannot claim these lifting capabilities they say it will have. By redesigning the SRM, they have to test it and this means it won't be ready anywhere before 2015. Besides, Astrium, the manufacturer of the Ariane rockets, have to redisign their booster to adapt it for launch on this SRM. They have to turn the fuel tanks of the rocket upside down to get the right centre of gravity. This is also not something you do in a week's time. It means the new configuration needs to be tested. First on its own, then on top of the SRM. This takes years. Not before 2015. No way. 

Next, how can ATK expect to be a serious contender in this race? ATK has built these SRM's a long time now and their knowledge on this terrain is good, of course. But they never have built an actual launcher, let alone a spacecraft. Borrowing technology can be helpful but creating a yet to be build and proven Frankenstein monster, claiming it will be ready in three years is utter nonsense and kind of scares me.
Remember that ATK also was a very negligible factor in the STS-51-L launch, saying the SRM's were good to go while they absolutely were not. The rubber sealant rings between the segments were frostbitten and brittle, causing the left booster to breach and cause the external tank to rupture, killing all seven astronauts of Challenger.
I think ATK saw a major part of its business go to pieces when NASA retired the STS and cancelled Ares I. This almost looks like some kind of panicky way to keep their beloved rocket flying, I guess.

Image © ATK

So why in sanity's name would someone want to make - let alone ride - such an oddly composed vehicle? There are more than enough competitors now for getting people into orbit from American soil. We have SpaceX with their Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule, Boeing with their CST-100 capsule, SNC's Dream Chaser, United Launch Alliance's Atlas V and Delta 4 boosters to get most of these vehicles aloft and lastly NASA's Orion capsule which will be launched on a to be developed rocket system called SLS. These are in my opinion the contenders with the best chances of getting the job done. Four spacecraft, three rockets and one on the drawing boards. More than enough if you ask me. The only part left is to get them flying. And as we speak, the only one close to actual prove of success is SpaceX. Later this month the first Dragon capsule will dock to the ISS and will prove their system. A crew-carrying version of the capsule is already in the making.

What's next? I think I would very much enjoy seeing Chrysler revive their Redstone booster with, let's say, a Mercury kind of capsule on top. And give the stack some super chauvinist name like "Freedom", or "America" or "Star Spangled Banner". Great idea! 
In the meantime, Russia just launches a couple more of their old, reliable R-7 derivatives, a design still going strong after 55 years, carrying people to the ISS.

Photo ©NASA/ Bill Ingalls

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