I rashly suggested that NASA is diminishing into a technology salvage yard. Clearly NASA retains the technology expertise to be the world leader in space. But we are witnessing mandates that come from congress that may not reflect the best available space technology. What do we see in the Space Launch System? We should look at the previous systems briefly.
The Saturn moon vehicles met a political crisis by putting us on the moon in a short time line. It did not survive the needs of the budget because it was an expensive program. We could not make a permanent place in space on expendable rockets that get thrown away. The next generation shuttle was to reduce costs with frequent flights. That shuttle developed a reusable orbiter, reusable rocket engines and a solid booster that could be recovered and reloaded. Safety issues slowed its flight rates and economy.
Placing the shuttle on top of the boosters and fuel tanks made the crew vulnerable to booster malfunctions. A flame leak from the solid rockets and foam breakage on the fuel tanks damaged two orbiters, resulting in crew and mission losses. The boosters did malfunction and the results damaged the orbiters. So it was decided to make a new vehicle using the best features of the old shuttle program.
The proposals now save the boosters and abandon the orbiter for an old Saturn type expendable rocket. The reusable rocket engines of the orbiter are to be redesigned as cheap throw away engines. We taxpayers paid to develop a magnificent reliable reusable shuttle main engine, and now we are paying again to dummy it down to a throw away engine. We witnessed a deadly solid booster failure and now we are paying to make it an even bigger threat. At least the crew has been positioned in front of the boosters with an escape rocket in case of booster malfunctions. The shuttle had been taking safety shortcuts that took us backwards from that capsule system that worked on the Saturn missions.
We see a lot of backwards steps in this new program too. These are not NASA inventions, but rather a product of congressional district job protection. Sadly some of our Republicans seem determined to hold progress back instead of opening the door to new and better solutions. But we can protect some old systems and the jobs they create if we work with the best possible solutions.
We are already protecting shuttle technology with the X-37 space plane which is already serving with the U.S. Air Force. This rides on top of a booster as the old Apollo capsules did. Sierra Nevada demonstrated private assumption of a NASA spaceplane by purchasing the rights to their Dreamchaser vehicle. This too will preserve horizontal landings from a vertical launcher. We still do not have a reusable booster, but Spacex is making the first development effort in that direction. However there is another path to reusable boosters by horizontal launch.
Stratolaunch, Xcor, Virgin Galactic, Triton Systems, Skylon, and Bristol Spaceplanes are pursuing this development. Orbital Sciences has been flying the Pegasus by horizontal launch for years. Horizontal launch faces expensive development and certification to become both reusable and reliable. Insurance companies see these more expensive vehicles as a challenge to cover. The winged vehicles face a loss of some payload if we view wings as a mass penalty. But this penalty may have a good payoff.
If one considers a booster and an orbiter to be fully reusable we recover a lot of investment with each safe flight. We already have a family of reusable engines from the shuttle if we don’t throw that investment away before we even get started. Winged vehicles may both launch and land with those wings. That means that the landings will not depend on a risky vertical landing development. Even if Spacex succeeds in that program, they acknowledge some “dead weight” in landing fuel mass and landing legs. But obviously even that weight is not “dead” if is salvages the expensive machinery of a space launch booster.
Another gain of horizontal launch is having a flexible choice of launch points in mid-flight. This allows a choice of optimum orbits. It also frees the backlog of launch scheduling on vertical launch facilities. In time of war those few vertical facilities may be vulnerable to attack or sabotage.
I see NASA as a dinosaur when they are operating under the less educated minds of congress. To be sure many of the little mammals of new space have been eaten by the government monster along the way. But a meteoric shake up of NASA may be coming in the new budget. There is a Tea Party in Space now. And the Democrats have at times pointed at a more commercial approach to space. Democrats may be hiding from the fallout of their own troubles, but they may be open to saving money in sensible ways to improve their posture. Compromise may be good for everyone.
We can preserve jobs for old systems if we preserve the right pieces. Those reusable engines should not be discarded. Perhaps the Space Launch System is needed for a season, and it can prolong some technologies until the cost factor can be bypassed by better systems. But we should be looking ahead to the “next generation” needs. At some point we will have to step away from a six man crew on long missions. We may need to consider larger crews for both work and recreational missions.
Space stations are proposed for tourism and orbital science. Others may serve to transfer work crews to lunar-landers or asteroid mining vehicles. Today we are in a phase not unlike the mail contracts of the golden age of aviation. Soon we will witness a transition to launch services more like the early airlines, with their metal monoplanes. Airlines need to justify investments with volume in passenger miles that mandate fleets of carriers with reasonable passenger capacity. Now is the time to harvest the best technologies to service the needs of more permanent space ventures.
Propellant stations and vehicle assembly in space may ease the deep space costs, but we still need to meet the big step to low earth orbit. A lunar base may provide a limited gravity and fabrication potential. Perhaps raw materials could enable foundry and composite fabrication so the starship future can be launched from a low gravity surface. All of this suggests an effort to anticipate some real growth needs in regular low earth launch services. We are still looking backwards when we need to look ahead.
New space is somewhat fragmented by geography. States are working to hoard the profit potential of new space commerce. In an age of distance learning and working, we should be working together more. We might suggest that our senators look for ways to collaborate so we can continue to be the United States of America. If we can tame our paranoia about China we might even work towards a United Federation of Planets? Oh but we won’t hear the notion of one world government…too Roddenberry!
I am encouraged by the efforts by NASA to support commercial development, often against efforts from congress. NASA people like Wayne Hale have provided insight to the culture of big organizations that can complicate decision making.
Most of our best commercial efforts have deep experience and access to the resources of NASA. We need these assets and the support of congress as well. It may not be possible to please everyone, and a few individuals may be able to contribute insight to guide our next steps. Courage will be needed to get the right answers identified and implemented.
We are seeing some examples of courage in our world today. A few people speak out for truth against opposition on every side. I would be afraid to see all of my Facebook friends in the same room. We are not always willing to agree to disagree. Christians are becoming less charitable, conservatives more combative, and liberals more fearful of the wealthy. When it is important though a few will still speak out when it will cost them dearly. We may need more of this.
Whistle blowers are revealing huge failures in our democratic process. We cannot allow fear to make us into a nation of compromised principles. I want to make a statement in a small way about this big need. Rocket science at one time was associated with Nazi Germany and some of the worst political decisions in history. That dark period makes a few points of light shine all that much brighter. As a Christian, I am both of German heritage and a Jew. I want to see the best of Germany honored, and we have some examples of great courage to turn to. I want to christen our vehicle proposal with a name that reflects true heroic commitment.
The notional vehicle presentation of Exodus Aerospace will be displayed as the White Rose vehicle. This is to reflect the incredible courage of two German students who opposed Adolph Hitler in the name of Jesus Christ. If ever there were true German heroes, these two shine as a high example. Real heroes are not muscle-men made of steel; they are weak mortals made of incredible faith.