Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Maybe Not Done Yet...

Caption: A space shuttle readies for launch. Before long, the only thing this one will be launching is museum souvenir shop sales.

Image credit: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

A couple of spaceflight-related articles caught my eye today. The first is this one via NASA Satellite Report:
After 30 years of spaceflight, more than 130 missions, and numerous science and technology firsts, NASA's space shuttle fleet will retire and be on display at institutions across the country to inspire the next generation of explorers and engineers.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on Tuesday announced the facilities where four shuttle orbiters will be displayed permanently at the conclusion of the Space Shuttle Program.

NASA Announces New Homes for Space Shuttle Orbiters After Retirement
One will be stationed in New York, one in Los Angeles, one at the Smithsonian, and one, perhaps not surprisingly at the Kennedy Space Center. It's a pretty good distribution, I'd say.

Of course, it would be a lot more inspiring to future engineers and scientists if the U.S. was spending money on developing new rockets to replace the Shuttle. That's not happening, at least not if you consider the logical replacement for the Shuttle to be another space plane. It was looking last year, with the cancellation of the Constellation Program like the Obama Administration was going to abandon any plans for follow-on rocket development. It now appears that fear may be unfounded. This language is from the NASA Authorization Act (NAA), which was passed last October:
The Space Launch System shall be designed from inception as a fully-integrated vehicle capable of carrying a total payload of 130 tons or more into low-Earth orbit in preparation for transit for missions beyond low-Earth orbit. The Space Launch System shall, to the extent practicable, incorporate capabilities for evolutionary growth to carry heavier payloads. Developmental work and testing of the core elements and the upper stage should proceed in parallel subject to appropriations. Priority should be placed on the core elements with the goal for operational capability for the core elements not later than December 31, 2016.

NASA Authorization Act, 2010 (PDF)
Over at Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait notes:
A few weeks ago, NASA announced the White House NASA budget request for FY 2012 (PDF), stating that $1.8 billion dollars be spent on designing a new rocket system to replace the Shuttle (and the canceled Constellation program).

Rocket Envy
I'm a bit skeptical that present-day NASA, with its DoD-like development methods, can bring a project like this to operational status in less than five years. What's worse, the Administration is already cutting back - that $1.8 billion Phil Plait mentioned is $850 million less than the NAA called for just seven months ago. There's also no guarantee that the next President will support this development, should Obama lose in 2012. Apparently, I'm not the only one who is skeptical, as Spaceflight Now reports:
[A]n interim report delivered to Congress in January said NASA would be unable to meet the legislative deadline under current budget projections, even if the rocket and capsule used hardware recycled from the retired space shuttle and cancelled Constellation programs.

That report was released before the Obama administration unveiled its fiscal year 2012 budget request in February, which cut more than $1 billion from the heavy-lift rocket and crew capsule next year compared to the funding blueprint authorized by Congress last fall.

NASA To Set Exploration Architecture This Summer
Caption: A retouched photo comparing the current Space Shuttle with the proposed Space Launch System. The main tank and the solid rocket boosters of the Shuttle will be reused, with a new main engine and upper stage. At least, that's the plan. There's no actual design yet.

Image credit: NASA

As long as the funding is available, though, they should be able to do it eventually. The concept of the Space Launch System is to reuse the Shuttle's main fuel tank and solid rocket boosters (SRBs), with a new engine and upper stage. There's an artist's conception, but as yet there's no real design. That's another reason I'm skeptical it will only take five years.

The "rocket envy" Plait refers to is the recent announcement by the Chinese government that they, too, would be developing a heavy-lift rocket similar in payload capacity to the new NASA Space Launch System:
China is studying the feasibility of designing a powerful carrier rocket for making a manned moon landing and exploring deep space, Liang Xiaohong, vice head of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, told Xinhua Thursday.

The rocket is envisaged to have a payload of 130 tonnes, five times larger than that of China's current largest rocket, said Liang, who is attending the annual session of National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), China's top political advisory body.

China Planning Powerful Carrier Rocket For Manned Moon Landing
Note the article title - China is planning on putting people on the Moon. If the schedule in that article is to be believed, they may be trying to do it in a decade or so. There's a lot of distance between here and there, though, and not just the literal 250,000 mile round trip. A rocket five times the size of the ones China has built so far is likely to be a big engineering project - new engines, new guidance systems, and probably some rethinking of the structure are going to be required. We did a similar thing when building the Saturn V rockets for our Moon landings back in the 1970s, but we had our own rocket engineers as well as some of the former German rocket designers. In contrast, the new Space Launch System looks to be more closely based on existing technology.

Caption: Back when America was serious about its space program, the Apollo 11 Saturn V rocket inches toward the launch pad on its crawler platform. May 20,1969.

Image credit: NASA

If there's one thing that is likely to keep funding for the NASA rocket program going, it's the possibility that the Chinese will have a heavy lift rocket of their own first. One thing you can count on with our government is that they don't want to be seen "losing" space to some foreign country. Think of China as the new Soviet Union. Fear of the Soviet Union's space technology was what got us to the Moon. Maybe fear of the Chinese will get us back there someday.

Whatever works, I guess.

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