Thursday, 17 July 2008

Buy Jupiter

39 years ago today, 3 men rode an enormous great stack of rocketry, on their way to the moon.

Each time a stage burnt out, it was like being in car that had just been rear-ended. The astronauts themselves described it as like "being in a train wreck".

Now this method, while simple in concept, using one honking great rocket to get all the bits, the lunar lander, the command module (or "people locker"), and the service module, well, it's not the best way of doing things. Really.

You see, there's two different requirements: one is a "failure is not an option" mission, to get the crew into orbit safely, regardless of cost. That requires a relatively small payload, a simpler, easier to build, and so safer booster.

The other requires huge quantities of raw power, but if it has a 95% reliability, not a 99.99% one, that's acceptable. Losing $100 million of hardware 1 time in 20 is not comparable with losing a crew. You can always replace spacecraft, and if you've got working space program, you'll be building backup hardware anyway, for future missions.

Making a booster "crew-rated" probably causes the costs to go up by a factor of 10. Perhaps more. One way you can get around some - not all - of the cost is to assemble a new booster from existing man-rated components. This was the idea behind the ARES-1 booster, below right. The concept was to use a Shuttle expendable strap-on solid fuel booster as the base, then add the new spacecraft, borrowing heavily from Apollo technology, on top. Except they had to make a few minor changes, and then a few more, and soon the cost savings largely evaporated. You ended up with something not as efficient as a new, purpose-built booster, yet costing almost as much, and with all sorts of new problems with vibration and other issues.

The 117-page report, posted Wednesday at, shows an $80 million cost overrun this year for just one motor and a dozen different technical problems that the space agency put in the top risk zone, meaning the problems are considered severe. The report put the program's financial performance in that category.

Technical problems included software that may not be developed on time, the heat shield, a dangerous level of shaking during launch, and a hard-to-open hatch door. The report also said NASA's plans would shortchange astronauts' daily water needs, giving them only two liters a day when medical experts say they need at least 2.5 liters.

The report showed technical problems in operations for Orion nearly doubling from May to July, with 24 items now on the most worrisome list.

Outside experts say it's too early to be too worried, but they have some concerns.

"It doesn't surprise me that there are these kinds of pains given the early stage (of development) and the long time since we did anything like this," said John Logsdon, director of space policy at George Washington University. "NASA is trying to do this with inadequate and uncertain funding."

The problem is mostly the political system for not coming up with budgets that are passed and signed by the president so that NASA can go ahead with its financial plans, said W. Henry Lambright, a technology and public policy professor at Syracuse University. The budget for next year still has not been passed.
Given that a Democrat President may just effectively cancel the whole thing, there's little enthusiasm, and technical problems that could be cured given enough effort may not be.

The political problems are endemic. But there may be a solution to the technical issues. Again from :
By day, the engineers work on NASA's new Ares moon rockets. By night, some go undercover to work on a competing design. These dissenting scientists and their backers insist they have created an alternative rocket that would be safer, cheaper and easier to build than the two Ares spacecraft that will replace the space shuttle.

They call their project Jupiter, and like Ares, it's a brainchild of workers at the Marshall Space Flight Center and other NASA facilities. The engineers involved are doing the work on their own time and mostly anonymously, with the help of retirees and other space enthusiasts.

A key Ares project manager dismisses their design as little more than a sketch on a napkin that won't work.
He's half right: it's only on paper. But to say it won't work at this stage is nonsense. It may not, but we can't know that, and anyone spouting such drivel is doing so for political, not technical reasons. The concept is shown below on the left. Compare with the official ARES system (grey background) next to it. ARES V, the heavy lift booster, is now even bigger and heavier than the Saturn V used to get to the Moon nearly 40 years ago. And it's growing bigger an heavier every month. So big, it's outgrown the Saturn V sized infrastructure, the transport crawler and vehicle assembly building, that have been waiting so long for a return to the moon.

As you can see from the diagram below (click to enlarge), the re-use of existing components on the Jupiter is extensive, more extensive than on the ARES system.

The Jupiter booster is part of the Direct 2.0 program, as the ARES is part of the Constellation program. For those interested in the justification and safety calculations, the lastest report (PDF) makes interesting, and plausible, reading.

Reading the tea-leaves... the ARES program will continue for a while, growing more costly and with more delays, until it gets less and less high a priority in the budget, and finally fizzles out when the ARES V becomes so elephantine it needs mending with a new concept. Later, around 2020, after the US has had no manned space program for 10 years (apart from uncrewed ARES I shots to work out the bugs in the spacecraft, not the booster), there will be a re-start based on the Jupiter booster concept, and the Constellation spacecraft. The USA will eventually return to the moon at about the time the Chinese are starting to set up a permanent presence there, maybe around 2030.


Sara said...

I'm afraid I lost my childhood enthusiasm for the space program when as a young adult I discovered that it was nothing more than missile posturing. The ICBM's upon which the original moon shot program were built are now rusting away without purpose as is the entire manned space program. NASA itself is as overbuilt and wasteful as the ARES.

The real bright stars since the end of the Cold War have fallen under the categories 'Rutan' and 'Better, Faster, Cheaper'. Neither fits the normal NASA way of doing things. They fit the social, economic and technological world of this century, not the 1960's and 70's.

NASA needs to be gutted, or more specifically, pilfered of it's remaining engineering and management talent and a new organization created and funded. Leave a skeleton crew to complete long running projects that have proven themselves, near-Earth and atmospheric studies and to maintain the historical archives.

Start with the folks you mentioned; they are the ones that will get the job done. My guess is that they could do a lot with half of NASA's budget. Let California, Texas and Florida bid for the home office. Put the Space Station up for bid; perhaps the space tourism industry will rename it 'Virgin Freeside'.

justme said...

I agree with Sara, except that I fear relying on government funding decided by self-serving and fickle politicians to take us back to the moon and beyond is only going to lead to bitter disappointment, as it has over and over again since funding was cut for the Apollo program.

I was living in the SF Bay Area in 2004 and took my kids to Mojave to watch the June 21st launch of SpaceShipOne in person. Witnessing that removed any doubt from my mind that we don't have to rely on massive, wasteful, largely pork-barrel government programs to achieve our dreams. Private industry can do it better and cheaper, with the added benefit that once it's a money-making proposition it will snowball on its own.

Now, I have worked for companies funded by Paul Allen, and I have to say I don't have a lot of faith in his business acumen; my opinion is that he's the second-richest man in the world largely because he's been Bill Gates' best friend since childhood. But even if this venture doesn't turn a profit for him, we now know it can be done, and several other tech billionaires are funding similar private space programs. I'm confident one or more of them will eventually bear fruit and the real space age will begin.

For the record, a president can spout off on budget priorities all he wants, but funding is decided by congress. I haven't researched it but I personally haven't noticed much difference historically in how NASA has been funded under presidents or congresses of either party, since Apollo was canceled. And I don't see much likelihood that either current presidential candidate will give it much priority when push comes to shove. It's mostly a question of election politics and pork barrels, and when it comes to that the two parties are depressingly alike.

Sara said...

I agree with Justme, except that I fear relying on funding decided by maximizing corporate returns to shareholders to take us back to the moon and beyond is only going to lead to exploitation, as it has over and over again since the Bahamas were claimed in the name of Spain and a handful of investors.

In all seriousness, I don't trust either government nor private industry to fund science in the name of science. The solution may lie somewhere between, with both supplying funding but neither in direct control. Split the monetary and political profit but allow an independent space agency to follow a predetermined mandate of exploration.

Hey, I can dream, can't I?

jessie-c said...

Jupiter looks a great deal like Энергия with a different alphabet: /

And both Jupiter and Ares rely on throwing away your engines and fuel tankage with every flight. That's a lot like having to buy a new car every time you take a trip.

Space travel will only become economical when the entire spacecraft is reusable, not just a part of it, and certainly not something run by an entity as bloated and bureaucrat-ridden as NASA.

I liken the situation to the airlines of the 1920s, privately run but propped up by the Government because the services they provided were needed but not yet self-sustaining. Once the proper technology had been developed (the DC-3 in the case of the airlines), Government support was no longer needed. Space travel can repeat this model, if the political will exists.