Faster, Cheaper (and Better?) Way to the Moon

Article written: 1 Jul , 2009
Updated: 25 Mar , 2012
by


The word this morning from several NASA Twitterers is that the stacking of the new Ares I-X rocket for its upcoming test flight is temporarily on hold. Everyone is waiting for word from a NASA executive session reconsidering the plan. And perhaps it might have something to do with an alternative plan to return to the Moon, submitted by shuttle program manager John Shannon to the Augustine Commission, the independent panel that is reviewing NASA’s current vision, including the Constellation program. Interestingly, Shannon says he was strongly encouraged by a top NASA administrator to present his idea to the panel. Shannon’s option would be faster – perhaps eliminating at least a year of the projected 5-year gap between the shuttle and Constellation. It would be cheaper: $6.6 billion vs. $35 billion for Constellation. But would it be better? Take a look at this video that Shannon presented to the Augustine Commission.

Shannon’s alternative plan uses the current space shuttle fuel tank and solid-rocket boosters. The rocket would be carrying two new vehicles — a generic cargo container and the Orion capsule for astronauts currently being developed for Constellation. The new vehicles would have the capability to go to both the moon and the international space station.

This less expensive option would likely not be as powerful as Ares I and V, but would be simpler.

The cargo container would have to be developed. It, and the Orion capsule would sit on the external fuel tank like the shuttle does now. When the crew capsule flies, it would be inside the cargo carrier at the top, with an emergency escape system.

Another advantage of using the old shuttle system is that NASA could use many current shuttle control systems and wouldn’t have to restructure the launch pads at Kennedy Space Center, which would save billions of dollars, time and headaches, according to Shannon. The new system would also be able to launch a year earlier, meaning less space workers would be laid off.

Shannon says that his plan, called the Shuttle-Derived Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle, would only carry two astronauts at a time rather than three or four. He added that this might mean less of a moon base.

Shannon claims to like the Constellation plan, but said, “I think the cost numbers are going to give us problems.”

Over the past three years, Shannon and a handful of others have tossed around ideas of using the shuttle architecture without the shuttle, an idea that has been around NASA for decades. So with the NASA’s blessing, Shannon and his colleagues went forward with the plan. They are not connected to another alternative plan, the Direct 2.0 plan, designed by a group of anonymous NASA workers.

Shannon said that regardless of what the final plan ends up being, it all comes down to this: “I would like us to be in the lunar business.”

The Augustine panel’s initial reaction to Shannon’s presentation was very positive.

“Terrific, very well done,” said panel chairman Norman Augustine, a longtime aerospace executive who noted he liked a similar proposal around 20 years ago.

The reaction of the panel coupled with the approval of the upper-level management hints to space experts that NASA management may be changing its mind, or at least entertaining doubts about the much more expensive plan.

NASA spokesman Michael Curie said Shannon was urged to make the presentation “in the spirit of sharing the options we’ve studied in the past.”

He also added, “NASA believes the best plan is to fully fund the current architecture… This does not indicate a lack of confidence in or support for the current program.”

Shannon said his numbers are not perfect and could change. The system would utilize hardware that has already been built in order to save time and money. Eventually new engines would be built but from the old model.

So, are the winds of change blowing at NASA? Stay tuned.

NASA’s Human Spaceflight Review webpage.
Future public public hearings of the Augustine Commission are planned for July 28 in Huntsville, Alabama; July 30 at Cape Canaveral in Florida; and August 5 in Washington, DC. There is also a closed “fact finding meeting” July 29 in Houston, TX.

Watch several videos of different presentations to the Augustine Commission.

Source: RedOrbit



12 Responses

  1. tacitus says

    Say what? The need is to have a launch capability succeeding the Shuttle, and one that’s capable of reaching the Moon, as soon as possible. None of those other options fulfills that requirement.

    I’m all for long term investments, and I am sure that NASA is investing in new programs where they believe they could bear fruit.

    As for internal competition — it happens all the time, and is very healthy, as long as it is managed properly from the top. (It does lead to a good number of bruised egos though, when one side ultimately loses, which I can attest to personally on more than one occasion!).

  2. Jorge says

    I actually like this approach. In fact if there’s something the russians do a whole lot better than the americans is keeping old but reliable designs in use, even if and when they develop new ones. This approach reuses a reliable launch system, instead of simply scrapping it, while at the same time pretty much nullifying the problems it has when used together with the shuttle, since this time there’s no protruding wings to be hit by infalling debris, and the thermal shield is protected inside the casing.

    I think something along these lines should have been developped as soon as the decision to scrap the shuttle was made, allowing more time to work on more advanced launch systems and at the same time keeping intact the american capacity to put heavy stuff (incl. people, of course) in orbit and beyond.

  3. Sili says

    It’s ridiculous that the decision has to be made. 6600 million is pocket money – or should be. Why not have both.

    Of course old technology may shave off a year, but we will need new tech eventually.

    Fact is that there’s just not any political will to go to the Moon.

  4. Torbjorn Larsson OM says

    Well, if you keep the main risks with the Shuttle launch system (once on solids, segmented solids, personnel close to fuel and in the falling ice stream), it would be a natural way forward. You could as well keep the beautiful Shuttles for current LEO purposes while considering how to enhance and cheapen up the systems.

    I’m all for it!

  5. Torbjorn Larsson OM says

    Jorge, yes, and think of the lifetime of the clever segmented capsule design. It is still used to great advantage when launching new manned programs (China).

    Besides system level choices russians also tend to make stuff technologically better, like the Buran safe and flexible jet landing, more capable and robust thermal protective systems, and the automatic piloting. (When they similarly ripped off the Concorde, they also made some good system level simplifying choices, such as the non-fold cockpit.)

    It’s both funny and sad that “not invented here” prevented US from gradually bettering the Shuttle with adopting known superior fixes or even using original suppliers.

  6. tacitus says

    When someone presents you with a plausible launcher program proposal that has a potential price savings of 80% *and* shaves 20% of the time frame it would be criminal not to take a good long look at it.

    A $30 billion savings isn’t chickenfeed, even for NASA, and I would hope that they put in the hours to study the proposal — just like any good company or organization (especially one that’s spending our tax dollars) should do.

  7. Maxwell says

    Seems silly for NASA to be competing with itself like this.
    You’re already building two new rockets: One of which will trump it in payload, the other will out do it in safety. Why keep a third launcher around that fits neither role?
    I doubt it will suddenly become cheaper to fly shuttle hardware with the same staff and technology when the main change is dumping hundreds of millions worth of reusable SSME’s in the pacific.

    If they want cheaper launches they should either invest the money in hypersonic tech, RLV’s, or with one of the up and coming COTS members to do the most good.
    At least its a step forward.

  8. Maxwell says

    Problem with replacing the shuttle is that program did several things we now know to cause hidden expenses and greater difficulty. The lack of an escape system, the stacking of crew with cargo, the fiddly arrangement with its boosters that’s caused so much trouble.

    We could make new kinds of orbiters and fix several of these issues of course… but for that cost you could also make a down payment on something far more powerful.

    Internal competition over what would be the next step had its place about four years ago when Constellation was chosen. Now the fuss should be over internal systems (capsule seating, mlas vs las, second stage engines, etc)… not for throwing the whole thing out and starting over.

    With the shuttles retirement looming and people expecting progress on Ares and related systems, I’m sure there are more productive things NASA staff could be doing right now.

  9. cartmancakes says

    Maxwell, great points. It’s very true that we need a larger rocket for our lunar plans. Going down to 2 astronauts to the moon? I think that’s a terrible idea, and a huge loss. How many rocks can we bring back? Will we lose some of that ability as well? How much cargo can we bring to the moon for the base? How much do we lose there.

    At some point, you have to think of how we’ll feel about this in 30 years. In the year 2040, will you look back and think, “I wish we had more lifting capability…”

    I know I would…

    And really, is one year of savings enough of a difference to scrap this thing? The money is definately enough to make a very strong case. However, I don’t like losing the HLV like that… It’s WAY too valuable. We’ve been saying that we miss the Saturn V, and we shouldn’t have scrapped it. Now we’re looking at scrapping Ares V.

    Ah well, I’m sure we’ll figure it out…

  10. Maxwell says

    “When someone presents you with a plausible launcher program proposal that has a potential price savings of 80% *and* shaves 20% of the time frame it would be criminal not to take a good long look at it.”

    Normally it might be.

    Here’s the problem tho:
    When Kennedy stood up and said “We choose to go to the moon”, everyone who understood how we might do this realized they needed the biggest rocket that was technologically possible at the time.

    Going to other planets is a tonnage game. If you want to have a meaningful payload after landing on the surface, you need a large lander and the related earth escape stage.

    Yes a smaller rocket might be cheaper and your saving jobs, but cutting out 2/3’rds of your payload has a serious effect on the mission. If we cant accomplish anything new, exactly why are we going?

    If the hidden idea is that we shouldn’t go, that argument was tried and lost out four years ago.

  11. Marsium says

    Shuttle Derived (SD) is the way to go. Much cheaper then Ares 1 and Ares V. However, keep the Shuttles also as they can use the same pads as SD. For those concerned about mass to orbit consider this – for the price of Ares 5 we could launch 100 shuttle missions and put about 4.5 million lbs of payload into orbit. The real problem with the shuttles is that they have never had enough missions to make them cost effective. The same will be true for SD if we don’t have an effective plan to actually go to the Moon, Mars and Beyond. This means having a REAL PLAN for development of a lunar base. With out such a plan SD, Ares 1, Ares V, EELV Derived, etc. would all be a wait of time and effort. Does NASA have such a plan – me thinks not.

  12. Maxwell says

    Its taken us decades to accomplish the last 100 shuttle missions when we should have flown 300+ according to its final design spects. The complication and accidents have kept us from flying them often enough to reduce cost per flight.

    When you add the cost of orbital assembly to the loss in payload (the parts won’t shove themselves into place) the costs come back into line of where we were. Now with more troubles from safety issues.

    I believe if it was ever feasible to make the shuttle and shuttle derived vehicles part of our deep space exploration plans, they would have done it a long time ago
    The fact is this machinery iss too much trouble for what it accomplishes, despite the sales pitch. Throwing SSME’s in the pacific doesn’t make them cheaper or more reliable.

    The money saved on the development of a true heavy lift system comes at a cost to the mission.

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