More on heavy-lift launch vehicles

March 16, 2011

The Ares I and Ares V planned launch vehicles

A couple of posts back I was growling about how NASA, according to Director Charles Bolden, can no longer build a heavy-lift launch vehicle. This is, of course. complete nonsense. We did it before, with 1960s technology, in 7 years, including all research and development, and  built a rocket with a 100 per cent success rate.

Above are the Ares V (left) and Ares I (the “Stick,” right) as they were designed as part of the Constellation program.A  sort-of boilerplate version of the Ares I was launched some months ago using a 4-segment solid rocket first stage, using components from one of the shuttle SRBs, to validate some of the original calculations.

The Ares V is based on the shuttle external tank and the shuttle main engines. This version shows three SSMEs (space shuttle main engines), although there were some discussions about building one with five. This is essentially the heavy-lift design that was killed off by Obama.

Heavy-lift, loosely defined as something around the payload of the Saturn V and above, has been investigated since just about the time the Saturn V was being designed. There are several early designs from the 1960s that were pretty bold. Here’s one from Martin Marietta:

Nova designs

Some of these are freaking gigantic…where do you launch from? It might be that a Nova would have to be launched from a remote island someplace.

The Chrysler SERV

This squat, ugly thing was a heavy-lift design from Chrysler that was also single-stage-to-orbit. It had jet engines as well as rocket engines! It would take off and land vertically. Actually, in the 1960s there were several similar designs from other companies. It would have been interesting if any had even gotten to the the prototype stage.

Saturn V follow-on designs

Wernher von Braun, considered the “father” of the Saturn V, was a great believer in upgrading anything that was already proven. The Jupiter-C, which put the first US satellite in to orbit, was really a modified Redstone missile von Braun’s design team built for the Army. The Saturn IB, used in Earth-orbit tests for Apollo and later for Skylab, had a first stage that was really a Jupiter missile in the center with a cluster of Redstones around it. It was therefore no no surprise that there were studies done to upscale the Saturn V.

Shuttle-derived launcher

In the 80s there were a number of studies tossed around using shuttle components. Some looked like a cargo version of the shuttle with no wings (above), some had the SSMEs on the bottom of the external tank and none on the cargo pod. The idea popped up again a few years ago. The problem with the design is that it’s pretty much completely a throwaway – three SSMEs are left in orbit with the cargo pod. The pod is much lighter than a shuttle (no heat-resistant structure, no wings, no life support system, etc.) so it can carry a lot of cargo, and it can probably bring the external tank into orbit with it. The ET would be an asset as well if it can be turned into living space.

An early external tank habitat concept

A model of a two-tank habitat:

Two-tank habitat model

Now we’ve thrown away over a hundred of these tanks…that’s a lot of heavy-lift that we could have been using, virtually for free. Think of the size of the ISS if even a half-dozen of those tanks were used for living space!


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