Engineering, Budget Problems for NASA’s New Spacecraft

NASA has discovered a potentially dangerous problem with the first stage of the Ares 1 rocket that will launch the new Orion crew capsule to the space station and to the moon. Engineers are concerned that during the first few minutes of flight, the rocket could shake violently, possibly causing significant damage to the entire launch stack. Meanwhile, reports that a budget review of the Constellation program found a short term deficit of $700m that will likely delay test flights and development of the yet-to-be built rockets.

The shaking problem is called thrust oscillation, and is typical in solid rocket motors. The phenomenon is characterized by increased acceleration pulses during the latter part of first-stage flight. Depending on the amplitude of these pulses, the impact on the vehicle structure and astronauts may be quite significant.

The Associated Press reported that NASA discovered the problem in the fall of 2007, but did not discuss the problem publicly until January 18, 2008 after the AP filed a Freedom of Information Act request and Keith Cowing of submitted detailed engineering questions regarding the oscillations.

In the response given to both NASAWatch and AP, NASA said they are working to understand how the thrust oscillation may impact the entire stack – the Ares first stage, upper stage and the Orion crew vehicle — and to determine how to minimize the impact. They have brought in experts from within NASA and outside industry to review the issues and to determine if lessons learned from previous launch vehicles will help solve the problems. NASA said they are studying multiple systems to identify all possible scenarios.

“This is a development project like Apollo. I hope no one was so ill-informed as to believe that we would be able to develop a system to replace the shuttle without facing any challenges in doing so,” NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said in a separate statement to the Associated press. “NASA has an excellent track record of resolving technical challenges. We’re confident we’ll solve this one as well.”

The first stage is a single, five-segment reusable solid rocket booster derived from the Space Shuttle solid rocket motors developed and produced by ATK Launch Systems.

The Ares I rocket is the core of the new space transportation system that will carry crewed missions back to the moon, and possibly on to Mars. The rocket may also use its 29-ton payload capacity to deliver resources and supplies to the International Space Station.

Concerning the problems of budget shortfalls, Ares program managers have offered a re-aligned development and test flight schedule in an attempt to protect Orion’s debut mission to the ISS in 2015.

The reason for the changes relates to additional costs associated with the challenges of Ares I’s development, creating a shortfall of funds for the financial year period 2008 to 2010.

Among numerous changes, a test flight of the Ares I originally scheduled for 2012 has been delayed by a year, while test flights with the Orion crew vehicle will possibly delayed between nine and three months. The Ares V’s lunar mission debut will now be an unmanned fly-by, according to

Original New Sources: Associated Press,

11 Replies to “Engineering, Budget Problems for NASA’s New Spacecraft”

  1. This sounds like the kind of thing that a whole lot of money might fix. That whole lot of money is going to depend on the next president.

    Mitt Romney has accepted the same invitation from the Florida EDC to attend the same type of event on Monday that Giuliani made this statement of support for funding manned missions to Mars and the Moon at. If we push hard, we can expect a similar statement from Romney. Huckabee has not yet accepted, but it is a strong possibility. Especially since we will all contact Huckabee and tell him that he needs to. explains in detail the most effective way to exploit this situation to promote spaceflight in the debates and in the next president.

    Romney is the next domino to fall in the chain reaction to get humans on their way to Mars and the Moon.

    go to and do your part!

  2. Hmm . . . I wonder what was wrong with the old proven heavy lifting launch vehicles? Maybe there was some unspent budget money laying around. Something is expensively wrong with NASA’s thinking.

  3. The Americans, Russians, Chinese, and I don’t know who else, have been launching rockets for a while now (over 50 years since Sputnik!)

    You would think that instead of coming up with something new, they could use the best ideas from over those 50 years (and some new ideas if they’re brilliant) and make something “safe”, efficient, and not any more complicated than it needs to be.

    (The word safe is in quotation marks because I don’t consider space travel to be safe in general.)

  4. The public doesn’t want to SEE Buck Rogers in space; they want to BE Buck Rogers. If there is ever a massive emergency budget cut, NASA stands to be a big part of that cut (as witnessed in 1993 when nearly 2000 people were lain off from KSC alone; to which I was one).

    NASA should take on the role of facilitator to develop a commercial launch vehicle that achieves cost-effective access to space via purchasing launch service from 2 or more providers.
    NASA must not design the launch vehicle and then ask for bids to manufacture the components.

    There is only one method of achieving cost effective access to space and that is via an Air-Launch, Single-Rocket-Stage-to-Orbit system. Unfortunately, the C-17 commercial air cargo with its miniscule 24 ton payload capacity is about the only air cargo vehicle that is available for air launch operations. {There is only one AN-225 and the C-5 is a high maintenance military aircraft.}
    NASA should have a competition for a very large commercial cargo aircraft (such as the Boeing Pelican) that could be utilized by multiple air-launch companies as well as the air cargo industry.
    The most important things that NASA can do right now are to provide seed capital and provide low-risk missions (such as taking low-value commodities to the ISS. This would establish a vehicle flight reliability record without risking high-cost payloads or passengers).

    In other words – put me in charge. 😉

  5. Can we please put engineers and scientists in charge of NASA instead of bureaucrats and administrators. Remember, no-one would be a bureaucrat if they actually had marketable skills or knowledge.

  6. Nobody would be in the government, period, if they had any marketable skills.

    NASA is a strange exception because there are brilliant scientists and engineers there. NASA as a research organization is fantastic. NASA as a pioneer is hopelessly self-defeating.

    Was there an agency planning exploration and settlement of the New World? Absolutely not. Government (Spain) got it started but profit motive carried the rest of the way.

    We’d all be dead of the plague or inquisitions while NASA studied the potential impact of the Gulf Stream against wooden hulls or lived in perpetual denial of studies on infants born on the ocean.

    In all seriousness, NASA must die. Become the division of space vehicles, issue licenses and get the f*ck out of the way.

  7. Curious article. The problems with ‘oscillations/resonance’ have always existed in all rocket motors: Any time you have a chamber filled with energetic gas, there will be a potential for resonance – ask any clarinet player.

    This is not new, and not significantly different from resonant effects that had to be understood in the four segment shuttle boosters.

  8. “Can we please put engineers and scientists in charge of NASA instead of bureaucrats and administrators. Remember, no-one would be a bureaucrat if they actually had marketable skills or knowledge.”

    Can we put in Mechanics? Because “Engineers and scientists” are always busy thinking about theoretical issues. I wouldnt trust the smartest scientist or engineer to fix my car… There has to be a good reason for that.

    We had better rockets planned in the 1970s than this.

    However the Orion seems like a solid idea for a man-rated craft.

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