Sunday, 11 January 2009

Greek vs Latin Rocketry

Popular Mechanics has a somewhat sensationalist story on the current US manned space programme. You see, a group of engineers share my view that the Ares (Greek God of War - equivalent of Roman Mars) programme is foundering. So they're proposing an alternative that should be less risky, the Jupiter (Roman Ruler of the Gods - equivalent of Greek Zeus) project. It's similar, but the devil is in the details. Popular Mechanics describes this group as "NASA Renegades". And they got their hearing today.
A group of renegade space vehicle designers, including NASA engineers bucking their bosses, today got their chance to make their case to the next presidential administration. During a morning meeting at NASA headquarters in Washington D.C. with Obama administration transition team members, a handful of advocates today pitched an idea to scrap NASA's existing post-shuttle plan.

Instead, they want to create a different launch vehicle from space shuttle parts that could reach the International Space Station and, eventually, be used for a return to the moon. According to the current plan, NASA's launchers are slated to fly in 2015, five years after the shuttle is retired. The alternative plan, called Jupiter Direct, promises to trim that date by two years and tens of millions of dollars.

"We were received well, but they were very clear they are offering no opinions at this point," says Ross Tierney, a collectible space model kit designer from Florida who presented the alternative plan. "To get what is essentially a presidential level meeting is an honor and privilege for us. We hope something comes of it."
Breath-Holding is contra-indicated.

The differences between the two projects may seem subtle, but they're quite extensive. They represent two different implementations of the same basic vision, one that I believe is a good one, though in the case of the Ares, badly executed due to unknowns that came and bit them on the posterior.

I've blogged about the battle before, in the posts Buy Jupiter and What She Said. That was before the economic meltdown though, and it could be the financial rules have changed. Instead of saving money, it now appears the new fashion is to spend, spend, spend in the manner of a drunken sailor just hitting port. The money allocated to keeping just one of the US Carmakers afloat could pay for a space programme ten times over, with change to spare.
Critics charge that the (Ares) design, which was supposed to draw heavily on converted parts from the space shuttle, now relies on too many made-to-order parts, driving up development costs and lengthening the time to launch. Defenders of the Ares program say that the changes became necessary, as happens during many complex engineering projects, and that restarting a man-rated launcher program would likely cause more delays and invite a redistribution of NASA's budget.
Thereby dodging the fact that the whole idea of this configuration was to use existing parts unchanged. They cut things too fine, didn't allow for inevitable weight-creep, and now are in deep doo-doo. The Jupiter concept uses the same philosophy, but makes use of the fact that we know more about it now. It's a "do-over" in light of bitter experience.

But all this could be ultimately irrelevant.
With the inauguration less than two weeks away, many are hoping that Obama will present a new space exploration plan soon. The current NASA administrator, Michael Griffin, is not expected to stay; the announcement of his replacement may come next week. Changing the hardware blueprint for the organization presents a deeper problem: A wrong step now could cost jobs, waste multiple millions of dollars and increase the gap during which the nation will have no way of launching people into space.

Spokesmen for the Obama transition team refused to comment on the meeting—since the election they have not offered any public comments on the new administration's plan for NASA. During the campaign, Barack Obama changed his position, first promising change at the agency, suggesting that the government mine NASA's budget for other programs, then backing away by promising that space-related jobs (particularly in Florida) would not be threatened.
Will there even be a US Manned space programme under the new administration? Or will it be expanded into a great money-guzzling hole as part of an "economic stimulus package" to save jobs (and votes..) in Florida?

Stay tuned for developments. One thing's for sure : any decision that's made will have everything to do with money, and nothing to do with space exploration. The latter would be a useful, but ultimately dispensable by-product.


Anonymous said...

Zoe, what do you think of the possibility of NASA combining elements of the space program with the US department of defence (reported here:, and references to using the Delta heavy lifters?

And best of luck in the awards!

Unknown said...

A rather subversive teacher once told me that Kennedy was told by his advisers that the best way out of the recession he found the country mired in was to spend his way out; a war and a massive space effort were suggested as options. Shortly thereafter he escalated U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and kicked off the Apollo program with his famous "by the end of the decade" speech.

I don't know how true that story is but anyway it seems to have worked out that way; the U.S. went on over the next ten years to experience one of the best economic periods in its history (along with intense social upheaval), finally collapsing into stagflation only after withdrawal from Vietnam and terminating the Apollo program without funding any kind of follow-up.

Here we are now with the worst economic conditions in nearly eighty years, politically committed to winding down our involvement in an expensive foreign war, with a new President who owes at least some of his electoral success to evoking the spirit of JFK. I'll be disappointed and a bit surprised if he doesn't revive the space program in its original role--an essential part of an economic stimulus package. Anyway in this economy, how else could one sell a large government space program to the voters?