Postcards from the Bleeding Edge
Saturday, October 01, 2005

  The political rocketship

Think about the thousands of people that produced the dynamic space program of the early 60s: about all the work, all the memos and all that data and design calculations that are lost to the sands of time now, aside from what little is in the official histories and personal biographies.

NASA should adopt more open source methods. Certainly, publishing on the web EVERY single paper study that they have ever paid for - starting now, but going all the way back to the 50s - would be a huge boon for the public, the engineering, and the science communities, that all want one thing - to be in space - a lot - and cheaply.

Also, publishing on the Net all the source code that controls the rockets would ensure, via Linus's law, that fewer semicolons - and targets - would be missed.

I can't think of a single SF writer who thought that the plan for humans exploring the solar system would look like this:

  • Step 1: Go the Moon


  • Step 2: Cut Budget, have your infrastructure dissolve for 34 years


  • Step 3: Wait for the global computer network infrastructure to develop


  • Step 4: Use a search engine to find all that data again


  • A lot of the hard specs are out there on sites like astronautix.com, but when I look at the pictures on the web of the foot thick briefing books for Apollo, I yearn for a closer look.

    Starting from the top of the Shuttle replacement's design - I like the return to a capsule. It works. The escape modes are appealing. It can't manuever worth a damn, but who cares.

    Yet Europe and Russia are now touting a lifting body based design, called Kliper, which kind of blows my mind. I don't want to think about it. The Russian/Europeans seem to really have some grand plans for spaceflight. Ours is now the more mundane program. OK. I am convinced the current plans for the stick and the heavy lifter will work better than the shuttle ever has - but are the right choices being made?

    Michael Griffin outclasses me by 7 degrees, but I can't help but question things like the choice of the 25 year old space shuttle main engines (SSME) for "the stick", rather than the less expensive, 80% lower part count, higher thrust (2.8 MN vs the SSME 1.8MN) RS-68.

    Admittedly, as best as I can tell, both the SSME and the RS-68 are being considered for the second stage of the stick, and the RS-68 has had some teething problems.


    Secondly, I like the use of a solid first stage but question the use of the existing shuttle part - I've never liked segmented solids and a rocket cast in one piece and floated to Canaveral makes more sense to me.

    It bugs me, a lot, that the Shuttle SRBs are the width they are because that's the maximum width a railroad car could take. Why didn't we build the solid rocket boosters in central florida? Politics.

    The extra segment for the heavy lifter seems like a big risk.

    That said, the existing SRBs do already have a manufacturing base, and it costs money to change that.

    Thirdly, I wish that NASA had published the technical data and financial analysis behind the choice of developing a new man rated vehicle, rather than man rating something like the Delta V Heavy and closing more of the shuttle production lines.


    Proponents of reusables tend to forget - one good way to reduce costs and lower risk over the cost of the program is to manufacture a lot and fly a lot, making incremental improvements. That's why I'm leary of the heavy lifter and the 2 launches per year model. Our heavy lifter program, as proposed, already looks like the B2 bomber program as it ended up.

    And, if you're going to build a heavy lifter, why not build a REALLY HEAVY LIFTER? I'd like to see, from internal memos, etc, why a design like Sea Dragon isn't feasible.

    Still, looking at the two new designs, it's like some politician was given a bunch of parts and asked to re-assemble them without putting anyone on the unemployment line. All that said, it's all back seat carping for now, and damnit, probably, by reusing so many shuttle parts and production lines for both new designs, NASA really is saving time and money.

    I'm no longer an advocate for SSTO, reusable vehicles. The staging approach gets the mostest there, fastest - but what are the operational costs beyond that first moon landing using the stick and heavy lifter? No one knows.

    If it were up to me I'd outsource the manned program to the Russians and focus on building the heavy using tried and true Saturn V techniques. I'd also seriously think about just putting payloads on existing rockets wherever possible - stop inventing new rockets and just work on the spaceships and the asteroid bases. We're good at spaceships, and haven't tried for the asteroids yet.

    I know that there are those who think we should have our own manned program for national prestige. I feel for them. I'd like to have one too. But I want us to fly more missions and more spacecraft far more than I want to waste US time and money in developing new rockets for that purpose. Ramp up the Russian production line for the manned flights.



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