When the Shuttle fleet is retired in 2010, what other mode of transport could be used to take NASA astronauts into space? After all, we routinely launch satellites into orbit, why can’t the same technology be adapted and used for human spaceflight? Well, the US Senate committee on space and aeronautics was told by a retired US Air Force general on Wednesday that this option should be considered. Rather than injecting billions to accelerate development of the Orion space vehicle or becoming dependent on the Russian Soyuz, the reliable workhorses of satellite launches, the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, could be “human rated”…
Concern is growing for the gap in the US ability to get astronauts into space between 2010 (when the Shuttle fleet is retired) and 2015 (the scheduled completion of Orion spacecraft and Ares rocket). As voiced on Tuesday by record breaking astronaut John Glenn, to depend on the Russian Soyuz system could prove problematic. This concern has been echoed by former US Air Force general Robert S. Dickman and has outlined a possible solution to the five-year gap. For a modest $500 million to $1 billion, the Atlas V and Delta IV launch systems (more accustomed to blasting communication satellites and military payloads into orbit) could be adapted to carry astronauts into space, and supplying the International Space Station. The only other way to reduce the gap would be to accelerate the Constellation Program, or (as voiced by Glenn on Tuesday) extend the Shuttle program. Unfortunately, both of these options would be disproportionately expensive.
So, converting satellite rockets might be a nice compromise; reduce the dependence on other space agencies, keep costs low and keep space open to manned space flight for NASA. Sounds like the perfect solution…
However, a top NASA official who worked on the Gemini and Apollo programs had a sobering reply for this possibility. Eugene Kranz told the US Senate committee that human rating existing rockets is no easy task. Kranz was involved in converting Titan and early Atlas rockets so they could be used for the manned Mercury an Apollo missions. Unfortunately, although this option looks attractive on paper, in reality, much more investment is required – often larger, unforeseen modifications are needed.
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In the case of the Titan and Atlas modifications, the human rating took several years to complete. Unfortunately, 2010 is only two years away, modifying existing rockets sufficiently simply will not be completed on time.
Where NASA may not convert the rockets, private space corporations might. The company SpaceDev is looking into converting the Atlas V rocket, incorporating its Dreamchaser capsule as part of the plan to offer commercial ferrying of NASA astronauts to the ISS. Bigalow Aerospace and Lockheed Martin are hot on their tails, proposing human rating the Atlas V for trips to future Bigalow space hotels.
Source: New Scientist Blog