The Unified Space Vision

On this 40th anniversary of his launch to the Moon, Buzz Aldrin wrote an excellent opinion piece in today’s Washington post. (Speaking of the anniversary, check out the HD restored videos of the landing on NASA’s web site!) Reading it motivated me to go to the Augustine Commission‘s web site and leave them the following comment:

I have had dreams of space ever since I can remember, and grew up watching documentaries about the space program of the 1960’s. Now, I am pursuing a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering – and am working at NASA JSC this summer. I just turned 25 years old.

In my opinion, my generation has lost the focus on science and exploration – but we have more of a fixation on the latest and greatest high-tech gadgetry than anyone before us. We line up to get new smartphones and mp3 players, and then line up again to get the very latest model when it’s released. We are focused on the “new.” To us, who grew up with the Space Shuttle, the International Space Station, and the legacy of Apollo, the Constellation program does not look “new.” We look at the plans for Orion, Altair, and Ares, and think, “If the mission of NASA is to go to the Moon, why don’t we just dust off the old blueprints for the Saturn V and Apollo CM/LM and get there in just as long as it takes to build those things, instead of by 2020?” My generation has grown up seeing an ever-shorter development cycle on high-tech products. This leads us to wonder how getting *back* to the Moon from our current Shuttle/ISS position is going to take more than a decade, when in the social tumult and limited technology of the 1960’s America went from no human spaceflight to landing men on the Moon in less than a decade. We want to see something NEW, and we want to see if SOON. Something that looks like technology has evolved from the Apollo, Space Shuttle, and ISS stepping-stones rather than backpedaling from Shuttle and ISS. To us, that evolution looks like it is much more like SpaceShipOne than Orion.

If I may be so bold as to offer a suggested solution, I would say that, first, NASA needs a strategic focus on doing something obviously new, something that obviously leverages the latest technologies, something with obvious returns to our lives on Earth. NASA should be pioneering new technologies and actively exploring the Solar System. To me, this means human colonization of Mars, with all the development for a self-sustaining habitat and all the spinoffs to green high tech that entails. My generation is ever more concerned about social justice, energy policy, efficiency, and climate change; and given the similar challenges facing manned spacecraft, this is a perfect opportunity for NASA. In today’s Washington Post, Buzz Aldrin articulates a case for Martian exploration under a Unified Space Vision far better than I could: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/15/AR2009071502940.html

Second, NASA needs to look to new technologies and techniques in accomplishing its goals. Something experimental, something with a high rate of return. It would be fine if it requires a higher up-front investment if it lowers costs in the long term, unlike the Constellation architecture. To that end, I think funding should be restored to NASA programs developing next-generation lifting-body reusable spacecraft rather than capsule spacecraft. NASA needs to show that it can do more than what Scaled Composites did with a $20 million budget. The next-generation spacecraft could even leverage existing Constellation development by using Ares rockets and Shuttle boosters to achieve orbit. The focus should be on correcting the expenses and inefficiencies of the Space Shuttle, not entirely abandoning the architecture of that highly capable spacecraft.

Thank you.

If you are similarly motivated to support the space program and get ourselves kicked up out of low-Earth orbit, leave a comment yourself.

It is definitely beyond the scope of the Commission to designate a specific technical solution, but I had to throw in a plug for my favorite next-gen spacecraft idea. The concept comes from, again, Buzz Aldrin, and I first read about it in his novel The Return, which I picked up at a recent Ithaca library book sale. The basic idea is this:

Take two or three Space Shuttle solid rocket boosters. Modify the SRBs into lifting bodies, put little wings on them, or change the parachutes to paragliders. Then leverage existing UAV technology for all its worth to turn the SRBs into “flyback boosters” that return automatically to their launch site, where they can immediately go into refurbishment between flights. Voila: no ocean recovery means instant savings.

Now take those two or three flyback boosters and put them on something like an existing Atlas V/Centaur booster. (I favor using the Ares design here.) This liquid-fueled booster would be expendable, and provide sustained thrust through the second stage to get the payload into orbit. Of course, the payload could be much bigger than a typical Atlas V payload, such as MRO, thanks to the additional SRB-derived boosters.

Finally, what goes on top of this 2 1/2 stage booster? A manned spaceraft that’s half Space Shuttle and half SpaceShipOne. It would be a craft purely for orbital and reentry operations, so it needn’t be as large as the Shuttle, which incudes powerful main engines for the ascent to orbit. This craft could probably fit a small crew compartment and cargo bay along with an orbital maneuvering system; however, there’s a lot of sense to having a separate crewed version and cargo version. The key thing is that the aerodynamics of the spaceraft body need to be designed with a nice, smooth reentry in mind, and allow the craft to be piloted back to an airstrip. Leverage composites (a great new technology that matured mostly after the Shuttle was first designed) for all they are worth, and again, avoid the expensive water landing.

The result should be something with the range of capabilities of the Shuttle, lots of reusability, little expense compared to both STS and expendable systems, and a pretty big safety factor. I plan to run through some of the calculations when I get back to Ithaca, but I imagine that Space Shutle-sized crews or substantial cargo lifts should be possible.

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