Will the Space Launch System kill commercial space?

September 20, 2011

The really boringly-named Space Launch System, or Extreme Saturn

If you are one of those few folks who read these musings on a regular basis – and why by the Nine Billion Names of God don’t you have something better to do? – you know I have been a big advocate of commercial space endeavors. Well, most of ’em, anyway. I don’t like how it seems the recent NASA actions smack of crony capitalism to me, but I may be completely wrong about that. I’d love to have someone set me straight if that’s not the fact. But that’s a topic for another day.

Mark Whittington, of whom I have referred on numerous occasions, has a piece on Yahoo about the Space Launch System – the most boring name evah – and how it will most likely be competing for commercial space dollars. I think it would be easier to sell if it was called Son of Saturn, or better yet, Extreme Saturn, or maybe Zeus. Anyway, Mr. Whittington’s point is that every new NASA space initiative is attacked by the anti-space crowd, in Congress and outside of it, but in this case, the pro-commercial space interests may join with them. Strange bedfellows indeed!

See, NASA only gets so much money, especially now, when budget-cutting is the name of the game in Washington. (Whether it is for show or for real is another thing.) NASA retired the aging and expensive-to-fly Shuttle fleet and wants to turn ISS supply of passengers and cargo over to commercial space vendors. To help facilitate that, the COTS program provided some seed money to some companies that showed promise in getting hardware to fly soonest.

OK. So we have Dreamchaser, we have Blue Origin, we have Dragon, and some others. Then there’s this LockMart deal I referred to last week, Boeing is building their own vehicle, and even the Russians are dusting off an old design and trying to update it. NASA kind of cut some of these folks off at the knees by promoting ATK/Alligiant with the Liberty booster, but technically it’s still a commercial launcher, and is intended to be able to launch practically any of the abovementioned vehicles into LEO.

But NASA is still about exploration, or wants to be. Manned exploration. Originally as part of the Constellation program, there was the Ares I, the “Stick” launcher that was very much like the Liberty, and a larger, heavy-lift launch vehicle derived from Shuttle main engines and external tank technology. As we know, President Obama killed that and said we didn’t have to go back to the Moon because Buzz had already been there.

Ares V - which will never be...

So the SLS is a super-size version of the Ares V. Look at the image at the top of the post and the one above. Don’t worry about colors, I think the “artist’s conception” of the SLS is painted that way to suggest a Saturn V lineage (which it really doesn’t have). What’s the major difference?

Yes, Sparky, you win the biscuit! The SLS is depicted with some kind of manned Apollo-style capsule on top! Now things are getting sticky. The implication is sort of that we would use the SLS, with its 9 million pounds of thrust, to put a mission to Mars on its way. Problem is, you really can’t all the way to Mars cooped up in a Dragon, or any of the capsule-type vehicles currently being produced, prototyped, or on the drawing boards. For a number of reasons, not the least of which is it would drive you nuts! Oh, and solar flares.

It might be used once in a while with a manned vehicle on top of a stack of other cargo, but better to lift humans with a Liberty Stick (I think I like that name) and lift cargo with the SLS. Lifting cargo and humans on the same vehicle is problematic, as we’ve learned with the Shuttle. Besides, if we don’t have to man-rate the thing right away, we can start throwing lots of stuff into orbit with it in the meantime.

But the artist was most likely told to make the top look very Saturn V-like, so people would feel comfortable with the similarity, like with the color scheme. Remember that the Saturn was conceived from the ground up for one purpose only: to make a dash to the moon in one shot, all the hardware, supplies and personnel on top of one stack. In the early 1960s when the Paperclip Germans were working on the Saturn V, we didn’t know if we could even turn the Apollo around and dock successfully with the Lunar Module, let alone assemble things in space by going outside and putting them together. Now we have thousands of hours of experience working outside the Shuttle and the ISS, connecting stuff and doing repairs and maintenance. Robots are being tested to do the same kinds of things. We can build a pretty big ship from parts send up by only a few Saturn Extreme launches, including enough fuel to get us to Mars and back. (Although I’d rather get there and find a full tank waiting, Zubrin-style.)

The logical way to keep the commercial space folks from going to the Dark Side is to assure them they will still have contracts, but that’s tough for NASA to do: in two years the new Congress and probably a new Presidential Administration could decide anything. That’s why NASA has such a long timeline on the SLS. They know they will have limited funds for it. I just wish there was a way for the companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX to know there will be a market for their hardware once it is built. There will always be communications satellites and the like, but they need the NASA work, too. Those companies have a lot riding on a lot of fickle politicians. Oh, wait – don’t we all?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: