Chinese Heavy-Lift Moon Rocket DesignsJuly 18, 2012
According to this article at AmericaSpace.org, the Chinese are considering two possible super-heavy launch vehicles. Both are considered to have first stages in the 11 million pound thrust class, considerably higher than the 7.5 million pounds of thrust of the Saturn V. They are in the same size class as the ill-fated Soviet N-1 moon rocket, which suffered four spectacular failures – the last destroying not just the rocket but the launch pad as well – before the Soviets abandoned their quest for the moon in 1972.
“Option A” uses LOX/kerosene engines in the first stage, with liquid-fueled strap on boosters. “Option B” uses LOX/liquid hydrogen to power the first stage, but with solid rocket strap on boosters. China has very little experience with man-rated solid boosters, unlike the US, which has used them for decades.
While the thrust of the first stage is higher than the planned US SLS, the payload is not that much greater. The US rocket will burn LOX/hydrogen, with solid or possibly liquid-fueled boosters.
What I don’t get about both the US and Chinese designs is that Russia has shown us that mass production produces increased reliability, and probably, reduced cost. (Why do we need a demonstration of what should be basic American manufacturing principles, anyway?) Is it really worth the huge development cost to build monster rockets when we could accomplish the same goals with multiple launches of smaller rockets?
This was the fundamental flaw with the Apollo program. It was designed to be a dash to the moon, not a foundation upon which long-term space exploration infrastructure could be built. We’ve spent many billions of dollars and man-hours building the ISS, and we now even have reliable software and hardware that makes autonomous rendezvous and docking possible. Since the 1940s there have been designs – hundreds, probably – that showed how to build a moon mission from components in space. Granted, launching larger pieces of hardware translates into fewer launches, but we don’t ship auto parts across the country using behemoth car carriers…we put ’em in boxes and crates and ship ’em by rail or truck.
Granted, it would be messier than the way it was depicted in Colliers Magazine or the Disney “Man in Space” specials in the 1950s, but we have thousands of man-hours of assembly and work outside of a spaceship now. We didn’t have that experience in the 1960s, and to meet the Kennedy deadline, von Braun and NASA chose the “fast track” moon mission. Today, we could build real moon ships – that could travel from low Earth orbit to the lunar surface, multiple times, and dock at the ISS or a facility nearby. In fact, we could use a Bigelow habitat for the LEO staging area, and maybe even one in lunar orbit and multiples on the lunar surface.
Well, we can dream. can’t we? (Oh, wait, there is that agreement between Bigelow and SpaceX…hmm. Elon Musk wants to go to Mars, eventually. He’s building an entire launch infrastructure so he can do just that.)