Saturday, 9 June 2012

Notes on the New Space Age

In 1969, I watched the first footstep on the moon on the family black-and-white TV. I was thrilled. Here was a milestone in the space age, I thought. I did not suspect that it was the climax of that age. Three years later, the Apollo program ended, and man has not returned to the moon for forty-three years and counting.

Well before Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, science fiction author Robert Heinlein mapped out a future history  in which space flight was achieved in a period he called the "False Dawn" because it was then abandoned. As much as I admired him, I would not have credited that he was right. He also predicted that space travel would be achieved through private enterprise, not government spending. In this, he was clearly wrong.

Or was he? Private enterprise is working up a glow that may indicate the true dawn of space travel, the one that will last. Several companies are developing hardware to push into space: suborbital vehicles, man-rated rockets, heavy-lift rockets, and space capsules to go into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and higher. In this post, I'd like to introduce some of the people and companies working to make the New Space Age happen, and the hardware they are making. I will do it from the point of view of NASA.

In 2004, President George W. Bush announced his “Vision for Space Exploration.” In terms of goals, this meant that NASA would return to the moon and move men to Mars.

Then, in 2005, Michael Griffin became the head of NASA. He ordered a study, the "Exploration Systems Architecture Study," which recommended putting the "Vision" into effect through the "Constellation Program." Constellation would complete work on two rockets, the Ares I (to launch crews into orbit) and Ares V (to launch heavy hardware into space), as well as creating the Orion space capsule to hold the crew and the Altair lunar lander to get them down to an interesting place.

 The Orion Space Capsule

In 2006, Congress granted Dr. Griffin less money for Constellation than he had wished from Congress, so he shifted money from other projects to keep Constellation on track. Some important projects were "deferred indefinitely" (cancelled), but he had his moment of triumph when the Ares I rocket successfully lifted off on October 28, 2009.

I assume there was some sense of urgency to the development of the Ares I, in particular, because the U.S. Space Shuttle program would end soon. Nevertheless, Constellation was controversial, even within NASA, for its cost. From 2006, an unofficial, volunteer, group called DIRECT, involving many NASA engineers, proposed the Jupiter Program, a set of other rockets which, like the Ares, re-used parts of the Space Shuttle to save cost. The biggest differences in the Jupiter Program are that it provides one flexible rocket instead of two specialized ones, it keeps safety systems in Orion that were stripped to save mass, and it uses a shuttle-derived upper stage instead of a clean-sheet upper stage. It was designed for faster development and less cost.

Dr. Griffin saw his plans shatter when the Augustine Report of October 2009 suggested to President Obama that NASA's money could be better spent. It reported that, even if NASA received the $3 billion increase to its budget that it sought, and even if it saved money by retiring the International Space Station early, in 2015, the Ares V would not be ready till the mid-2020s. As a result, Ares I and V were cancelled in 2010 due to cost and time problems.

Instead, the “NASA Authorization Act of 2010” that President Obama signed ordered NASA to develop a single rocket along the lines suggested by the DIRECT Team, which would lift either cargo or crew. NASA would continue its work on the Orion capsule and, most interestingly, fund private companies, through fixed-price contracts, to supply the ISS. In effect, NASA is passing some of the work of going to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) to the private sector.

 The Space Launch System
(Brown areas are derived from the Space Shuttle launch system)

The Space Launch System (SLS) now being developed will initially take 70 tonnes to LEO. With one other stage added, it will take 130 tonnes. By comparison, today's biggest commercial launch vehicles, such as the Ariane 5 or the Delta IV Heavy, can put just over 20 tonnes in LEO.

The SLS is also intended to mount an Orion capsule to go to the moon, asteroids, or Mars. Orion will be completed first, so a Delta IV Heavy rocket will launch an unmanned Orion in July 2013. The SLS design will be completed in 2015. Current plans call for an SLS to send an Orion on an unmanned trip around the moon in 2017.

This posting focuses only on NASA's plans, but there is an amazing bubbling of new activity among people interested in space. Russia is building new rockets and plans a new space station; China has a new space station and is planning a trip to the moon; India and Japan have plans for the moon; space tourism will turn large-scale when Virgin Galactic begins its flights; and SpaceX is developing plans for trips to Mars. All this will go in later posts.

This is an exciting time.

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