A fleet to realize the new vision

I think that President Obama’s vision for NASA holds a great deal of promise. However, I seem to be in the minority – with people from Senators with NASA-associated districts to Stephen Colbert to Jesus Diaz on Gizmodo talking about the “end” of the human space program. I often wonder why they don’t see what I see. Obama has both increased the NASA budget and explicitly stated that he wants more astronauts flying in the coming decade than ever before, so he clearly is not trying to “cancel the human spaceflight program.” Given that, it seems straightforward to me that the NASA centers will still need to train astronauts, build vehicles, and conduct mission operations; NASA vehicles will still push the boundaries of capability, and NASA astronauts will explore the Solar System beyond Earth space. The only difference is just that astronauts won’t get to those new vehicles atop Ares launchers, but rather perched on something like the Falcon 9 – which is much, much closer to operation – and our targets are more ambitious. So why the enormous gap in opinion among space exploration proponents? And what might NASA administrator Charlie Bolden do to consolidate support?

I think the problem is that, without a NASA launch vehicle, critics have a hard time envisioning how the new generation of NASA astronauts will get around and what they will do. There won’t be any dramatic Space Shuttle or Saturn V launches – instead, the astronauts will be…”taxiing.” And they will taxi up to…what, exactly?

President Obama wants humans to leave the Earth-Moon system by 2025, get to Mars orbit by 2030, and develop the capability to live and work in space indefinitely. Here’s where Administrator Bolden could step in. NASA systems engineers and artists could crank away and produce concept studies to suggest a new fleet of NASA crewed vehicles. By starting right in on the design of new vehicle concepts, and setting explicit deadlines for their launch and operation, the new NASA vision could become more clear and exciting. The public will start to see what I see – a NASA program that develops dedicated space exploration vehicles, which carry astronauts for months at a time on journeys to deep space, asteroids, and other planets. Clearly, that is no end of the human spaceflight program. It’s the next step.

Below the break, I’ll outline such a possible concept vehicle fleet.

(DISCLAIMER: these vehicles are speculative concepts only. For now.)

With the freedom to just buy commercial crew taxi services, I imagine NASA developing a fleet of exploration vehicles designed to operate entirely in the space environment. And because space presents so many different challenges, these vehicles will be very application-specific. That is, there would be one vehicle for carrying astronauts around in the vacuum of space, one vehicle for landing on asteroids, one vehicle for landing on the Moon if we so choose, one vehicle for landing on Mars, et cetera. This would be a very new way for NASA to operate – take the examples of the Apollo Command Module, Space Shuttle, and Orion CEV, each of which must meet the challenges of launch, space operations, and re-entry. However, it’s not entirely unprecedented for NASA: the Apollo Lunar Module fits nicely into this paradigm.

Meet the first vehicle of my fleet, the mainstay workhorse for space operations, the Crew Operations Vehicle.


Crew Operations Vehicle (COV, click to enlarge)

The COV would be about the size of the Hubble Telescope or an ISS module, it would be launched into space on something like an Atlas V HLV, Arianne 5, or Falcon 9 Heavy, and it would be built to stay in space and in operation for 5-10 years. It would support a crew of about 4 astronauts for several weeks to (perhaps) a few months of in-space operations. It would not be capable of reentering the Earth’s atmosphere, nor would astronauts be inside the vehicle during launch. They would come up to the COV, and down from the COV, in a Dragon taxi (or something similar).

Picture the COV as a Space Shuttle without the main engines, heat shield, cargo bay, or airplane shape. It would retain such features as maneuvering engines, robot arm, air lock with space suits, and ISS docking adapter, allowing it to become a sort of all-purpose assembly vehicle for larger spacecraft as well as astronauts’ main way of getting from place to place in space. On its own, a COV could conduct science missions, grapple with satellites, help modify or repair the International Space Station, and allow astronauts to practice the techniques they will need for exploration further afield than low Earth orbit. The compatibility with ISS is especially important because, with the station lifetime now extended to 2020 “and beyond,” it can potentially become the staging area for lunar, asteroid, and Mars missions.

The main engine on a COV would be at least the scale of the engine on an Apollo CSM, but ideally would be more powerful. If the VASIMR engine lives up to expectations in its upcoming shakedown on the International Space Station, then that might be a good candidate, as it would let the COV break Earth orbit. The COV engine would get its propellant from replenishable or replaceable containers, so that it can refuel in space. Like the Orion CEV, the COV would get its electrical power from solar cells; however, it would also have fittings for radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTG’s), which are one of the few options for efficiently powering spacecraft beyond the orbit of Mars.

The COV, however, is not designed to support a crew on months-long missions. For that, we’ll add what I dub the Deep Space Habitation Module.


Deep Space Habitation Module (DSHM)

The new technologies developed under President Obama’s new NASA paradigm will really come into play here. Administrator Bolden, in his speech rolling out the new NASA budget, specifically asked for centrifuges to give crews artificial gravity and inflatable structures to give crews more living space, and that’s what I bank on here. After launch by a heavy-lift rocket, the DSHM would deploy and inflate to many times its size. A COV would then dock to the module, and the composite COV/DSHM vehicle would be able to support a crew of about 6 for many months – on a roundtrip journey to a distant asteroid, or to Mars orbit and back, for instance. For longer missions, NASA might even string together several DSHM’s, adding crew capacity and supplies to extend mission lifetime.

I suggest here an inflatable dual-layer construction, with an envelope of water between the inner and outer shells. This water layer would act as radiation shielding for the crew inside, and might even be integrated into the DSHM’s life-support and filtration systems. Obviously, extensive studies would need to be done to determine the best way to effectively shield astronauts on long missions from radiation. Water is a pretty good absorber, but perhaps this isn’t the best idea. Maybe it would have to be a solution of some kind, or be laced with polymers that have radiation-shielding properties, or maybe the intershell space could be filled with some kind of exotic foam. As I said before, this is where NASA could get new technologies going!

I have also placed a centrifuge chamber in the DSHM, so that astronauts can get in some time exercising in pseudogravity. (That’s supposed to be an astronaut doing crunches in the drawing!) That innovation would really allow for long-duration missions. Perhaps, if the DSHM is big enough and robust enough, the entire module could even be spun up to give the crew fractional g‘s in which to conduct their work.

With asteroids as an exploration target, we will need a way to “land” on small bodies and get astronauts outside their spacecraft. So, as the next vehicle in the fleet, I offer the Small Body Exploration Vehicle.


Small Body Exploration Vehicle (SBEV)

This vehicle is a direct descendant of the Apollo Lunar Module, but adapted to asteroid exploration. It would be capable of landing on, moving around on, and lifting off from asteroids. Since asteroid gravity fields are very small, the vehicle’s ascent engine (not shown) need not be very large, and it need not be subject to as stringent a mass restriction as the LM. So, the crew cabin might be only slightly smaller than the COV.

I have given the SBEV concept eight landing legs instead of the LM’s four. Each of these legs is a long truss, capped by a robotic, gimbal-mounted climbing piton. When the SBEV legs make contact with an asteroid, the robotic pitons would grapple onto the surface to anchor the legs. The gimbals then allow the SBEV to swing its body around those anchors, so that the next set of legs makes contact and can grapple. By repeating this process, the SBEV can “roll” itself along an asteroid surface. This process should be relatively straightforward, since asteroid gravity fields are small. The astronauts will remain largely in microgravity the entire time; they wouldn’t really feel like they’re rolling around as this happens.

I have also given the SBEV a suitport like those on the Chariot Lunar Electric Rover Concept. Rather than going out an airlock in suits, astronauts climb into the suit from the rear and then detach the suit from the outside of the spacecraft. This saves time, effort, and greatly reduces air loss. Once in a suit, astronauts can clamber over the SBEV surface, along handholds, to the landing legs and then down to the asteroid surface.

With those three vehicles, NASA could launch a weeks-long journey to one of the Earth-Moon Lagrange points, a months-long mission to an asteroid, even a many-months-long trip to fly by Mars and back or stage a landing on Phobos. The vehicles will all remain in space, ready for the astronaut crews who come up from Earth and return home aboard Dragon capsules. Here’s where the great paradigm shift of the “Flexible Path” could come in, too: If NASA decides to go back to the Moon, then all they have to do is build a Lunar Module mark II to couple with a COV. If NASA decides to put people down on Mars, then they build a Mars Descent Vehicle. If NASA decides to “land” a crewed, balloon-supported vehicle in Jupiter’s atmosphere, then they build a Jupiter Descent and Suspension Vehicle.

In this manner, NASA can start to build a deep-space exploration infrastructure, and that’s what I’m excited about!

Imagine ten or fifteen years from now, when NASA has a fleet of several COV’s in orbit, along with a few DSHM’s, a couple SBEV’s, and some fuel depots where the COV’s can replenish their propellant tanks. NASA could, at that point, actually have more than one active mission at a time. While the COV Columbia is on its shakedown cruise around the far side of the Moon, COV Challenger and a SBEV could be well on their way to an asteroid rendezvous. New space achievements would rack up rapidly, every couple months or faster. Astronauts from all over the inner Solar System – Earth orbit, Lunar orbit, Lagrange points, asteroids, Mars, going further than any human being has gone before, with more astronauts in space than ever before, could be sending back blogs and videos and tweets on an accelerating basis.

And, of course, these vehicles have to be designed somewhere. Perhaps Goddard Space Flight Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. They have to be built somewhere. That would likely be Marshall Space Flight Center. They have to be launched – aboard a commercial vehicle, yes, but that is still going to happen on the Space Coast of Florida. And the missions will still be operated out of Johnson Space Center, where the astronauts trained in COV and SBEV mock-ups. The loss of jobs from Shuttle and Constellation ending plus the gain of jobs to support the new manned space programs ought to be a wash.

That’s the new NASA that I see. So far as I can tell, it’s perfectly consistent with the goals and strategies outlined by President Obama and Administrator Bolden. Now, if we could see some actual, concrete concepts for the new NASA fleet from inside the agency, I think the critics of the new NASA paradigm will have much less reason for anxiety.

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13 Responses to A fleet to realize the new vision

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