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.