Friday, August 05, 2005

One step forward, two steps back

I'm both encouraged and discouraged after the announcement of NASA's new manned spaceflight strategy. I'm encouraged, because NASA appears committed to a next-generation version of the Shuttle-C heavy lifter I've discussed previously. It appears the new cargo lifter improves on the old Shuttle-C design by mounting the cargo atop the rocket, rather piggy-back style, thus eliminating many of the hazards that doomed the shuttles Columbia and Challenger. That's good. It also uses existing technology, giving us heavy-lift capabilities sooner rather than later, and keeps shuttle contractors in business, which keeps those congressional representatives and senators happy. Which is pragmatic.

So I'm happy with NASA's plans for the heavy lifter, even if production of the thing comes 20 years later than it should have come. The Crew Exploration Vehicle, on the other hand, inspires considerably less adulation.
The Crew Exploration Vehicle, which NASA hopes to field around 2011, is expected to cost another $5 billion to develop and would be designed both to service the space station and to carry astronauts to lunar orbit. A heavy-lift launcher capable of delivering 125 metric tons of cargo to low Earth orbit would be finished after the smaller crew launch vehicle, according to NASA's plan, and would also cost in the neighborhood of $5 billion to develop.

The Crew Exploration Vehicle, according to NASA's plan, will be a capsule capable of accommodating three people and a limited amount of cargo for space station missions, a crew of four for a lunar mission and up to six people to dock with an awaiting Mars-bound vehicle.

What we have here is an Apollo retread, plain and simple. Granted, the Apollo capsules were robust and focused on one goal--crew transport. This is good. But you'd think that in the 30 years that have passed since the last Apollo flew, we could come up with something a little better than Buzz Aldrin's "Pigeon" concept. Rather than ride the cutting edge of aerospace technology, NASA is instead backpedaling--they're even using the same basic engine, the J-2--that powered the moon missions. The spacecraft are disposable. Essentially, the U.S. has turned its back on everything learned from the admittedly-flawed shuttle program, and instead falling back on what the previous generation of NASA engineers accomplished. It's particularly disappointing in light of the fact that development of the true next generation CEV had already been well under way (and no, I don't mean the VentureStar boondoggle).

The X-38 project was under development by Scaled Composites (remember those guys?) using a lifting-body design for a crew return vehicle to be used with the International Space Station. The design could carry as many as seven astronauts. Not a bad trick.

The lifting body design used the shape of the fuselage itself to create lift (hence the name) and eliminate the need for significant wings. The ship landed on skids, like the X-15, and used a steerable parafoil for controlled landings. All in all, it was and incredibly elegant and simple design, that performed well in flight tests. So successful, in fact, that plans were begun for a scaled-up version capable of carrying a crew into orbit in addition to reentry. At leas, until funding for the entire project was yanked because of space station cost overruns.

But that didn't stop others from noticing the promise of the design. Lockheed Martin entered the CEV sweepstakes with a design that was--at least visually--based wholly on Scaled Composites' X-38. Like the shuttle, the lifting body design is reusable, but unlike the shuttle, this one would be launched via an in-line design, perched atop the booster to avoid the hazards of falling debris. Even Russia got into the act, announcing in February they would begin production of a next-generation spacecraft called "Kliper" to replace the aging Soyuz vehicle. What form would this new ship take? A lifting body design. That Russia probably won't have the funding available to get this ship into production by their announced 2010 launch date is beside the point. Whereas the rest of the world is leaving the '60s behind and embracing spacecraft technology and design innovations that NASA itself pioneered, NASA instead is turning conservative in its old age, shunning innovation in favor of misplaced nostalgia. The irony of this is that back in 1961, Lockheed Martin's predecessor (then known as Martin) scored the highest evaluation for the Apollo command module contract, only to lose the bid to North American Aviation. Now, 44 years later, it loses to Boeing against the same spacecraft that beat it the first time. Man, that's gotta suck.

Is this "Pigeon"-style CEV better than the current shuttle? Yeah. Is it as good as we could've had? Not by a longshot. I suppose we can take solace in the fact that since it took 25 years for the Shuttle-C heavy lifter to move into formal production (albeit in a significantly modified form) we can expect to see an X-38 descendant enter service.

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1 comment:

  1. I am not sure it's fair to say that NASA is looking back and the rest is looking forward. NASA, ESA and RSA all realize that what they currently need is a taxi to take people from and to the ISS. NASA cannot develop such a thing for cost reasons, so must piggy-back it on the manned Mars missions' budget.

    Space planes, whether they are powered or gliders, are far from new. Even the earliest proposals for manned space flight focussed on space planes. The choice for rockets with capsules on top was a straightforward one: rockets were already available in the form of ICBMs.

    I would love to see the X-38 developed further, especially since the entire design phase was intended to be low cost. Developing safe space craft on a shoestring budget, now that would be truly revolutionary.

    What I would also like to see is space craft that brake in the atmosphere, so that today's
    silly heat shields are no longer required (and thus no longer pose a threat to the people on board).