NASA Plans to Build Two New Shuttle-derived Launch Vehicles

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According to a new NASA study, when America goes back to the moon and on to Mars it will do so with hardware that looks very familiar.

NASA has decided to build two new launch systems - both of which will draw upon existing Space Shuttle hardware. One vehicle will be a cargo-only heavy lifter, the other will be used to launch the Crew Exploration Vehicle.

The Plan

NASA has essentially completed its Exploration Systems Architecture Study - also known as the "60 day study". Briefings of the study’s conclusions and recommendations will be conducted by Doug Stanley. Stanley led this study team and will begin his briefings next Tuesday on Capitol Hill and with representatives from industry. While the final report will be released in mid-July, its conclusions are already making the rounds in Washington.

Update: This "60 Day Study" will not be a single, printed document - but rather a series of Powerpoint presentations that will be summarized for delivery to different audiences. NASA briefings this week are designed to provide a status of the study thus far - and its preliminary conclusions. Final study recommendations will be made to Mike Griffin after STS-114. The outcome of the study will be formally announced by the end of July.

According to an internal memo, the study team focused on four primary areas:

  1. Complete assessment of the top-level Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) requirements and plans to enable the CEV to provide crew transport to the ISS and to accelerate the development of the CEV and crew launch system to reduce the gap between Shuttle retirement and CEV IOC.
  2. Definition of top-level requirements and configurations for crew and cargo launch systems to support the lunar and Mars exploration programs.
  3. Development of a reference lunar exploration architecture concept to support sustained human and robotic lunar exploration operations.
  4. Identification of key technologies required to enable and significantly enhance these reference exploration systems and reprioritization of near-term and far-term technology investments.

Something Old, Something New

According to sources familiar with the study's final recommendations, the heavy lifter will be a "stacked" or "in line" configuration (one stage atop another) and not a "side-mounted" configuration as is currently used to launch the space shuttle. The first stage will be a modified shuttle external tank with rocket engines mounted underneath. The first configuration will use 6 existing shuttle (SSME Block II) engines.

A growth version for lifting heavier cargos will use three RS-68 engines. The RS-68 engines, manufactured by Boeing, are currently used in its Delta IV family of launch vehicles. Additional engines would be clustered for launching heavier loads such as those needed for Mars missions.

The second stage will have a liquid engine capable of restarting multiple times. The payload will sit atop this second stage inside a large aerodynamic payload shroud.

During the study several shuttle-derived heavy launch vehicle options were considered. An old favorite, based on so-called Shuttle-C NASA designed in the late 1980's would have replaced the shuttle orbiter with a payload canister which would more or less replicate the existing orbiter's payload interfaces - sans the orbiter. Existing launch infrastructure would stay mostly the same. This configuration has its limitations in terms of the size of payload that could be launched and was rejected in favor of the in-line design, which has greater capacity for growth and performance.

The in-line option resembles the "Magnum booster" that was designed by NASA in the mid-1990s. This will be a rather immense vehicle more on the scale of a Saturn-V. It will require substantial modifications to the existing launch pads and payload handling facilities at the VAB.

The second vehicle to be pursued is based on a 5 segment Solid Rocket Booster (SRB). Atop the SRB will be a new liquid-fueled upper stage and the CEV. While this vehicle is being developed for CEV launching, Mike Griffin has spoken of a cargo version of the CEV as well - one on a scale somewhat greater than Russia's Progress cargo carrier and more in line with that offered by Europe's ATV and Japan's HTV. See this website sponsored by Alliant Techsystems for more information on how SRBs might be used in shuttle-derived launch systems for heavy lift, cargo, and CEV launching.

Update: A trade study is underway to see what minimum set of requirements are needed for a CEV to be deployed as early as possible to visit the ISS. Currently under consideration is whether or not to include the larger propulsion systems, advanced guidance, enhanced heat shields etc. required for lunar missions in the ISS-capable CEV. Also under trade study is whether this vehicle needs to be reusable.

Looming Consequences

The long-term implications from this decision are not insignificant. The heavy lifter will be designed so as to streamline payload processing. As such, while much of what is done by the existing infrastructure and workforce at KSC will be similar to what is done for the Space Shuttle system, it will likely require a much smaller workforce. While members of Congress from the space states will be happy to hear of a new launch system - one that retains some existing infrastructure - they will not be happy to hear that jobs will be lost.

Early after the announcement of the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) by President Bush in early 2004, much speculation centered on the possible use of EELV (Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles) such as the Boeing Delta IV and the Lockheed Martin Atlas V to loft the CEV and perhaps other payload associated with the VSE. With potential business shrinking for the two EELV launch systems, both Boeing and Lockheed-Martin formed a joint marketing endeavor, the United Launch Alliance which would "combine the production, engineering, test and launch operations associated with U.S. government launches of Boeing Delta and Lockheed Martin Atlas rockets". With the decision to go with a shuttle-derived launch system, it would seem that a substantial market for EELVs has disappeared.

Of course, once this study is formally released, the next task facing NASA will be to demonstrate how it is going to pay for these new systems and accelerate the delivery of the CEV. Existing plans called for its availability no earlier than 2014 - 4 years after the Space Shuttle fleet is due to be retired. And he has never spoken of any significant overlap between CEV and Shuttle operations. To do so he has streamline the so-called 'spiral development process" that had been in place. But it will take more than streamlining to bring these new launch systems into operation.

Griffin has also found himself facing a Congressional constraint - from the Senate - who wants Griffin to keep the Shuttle fleet operational until the CEV is online and flying. The concern is that the U.S. not have any gap in its independent ability to launch humans into space. Griffin is working toward a very firm date - 30 September 2010 - after which the space shuttle system will not longer be flying. Griffin has stated his intention to narrow that gap between CEV availability and shuttle retirement considerably. However, he has yet to claim that he will eliminate that gap. Whether his accelerated plans can result in an operational vehicle a scant 5 years away so as to placate Congress remains to be seen.

Being smart about how NASA does things will only get Griffin so far. He is going to have to find more money to make all of this happen sooner than was the case when the plan was initially presented to the White House and then to Congress.

To make all the books balance, there will be considerable pressure to reprogram funds from other NASA programs. Griffin made it clear that he saw the development of these new launch systems as being more important than the science that NASA had promised to do aboard the International Space Station for the past decade. In hearings earlier this week before the House Science Committee Griffin said "But I cannot responsibly prioritize microbiology and fundamental life science research higher than the need for the United States to have its own strategic access to space." Sen. Hutchison, who chairs the subcommittee on Space And Science has a somewhat different view and has introduced legislation that would bar Griffin from such large cuts.

Griffin is also faced with congressional demands that he not cut aeronautics (as planned) and pledges he has made that he is not going to lay people off (as had been planned).

The only other option is for Griffin is to go back to the White House with a request for additional funds. Given that NASA's increases in the past several years have been rather unprecedented, its is rather unlikely that any such request would result in additional funds - at least from this White House.

With the announcement of this new space architecture, no one can ever say that Mike Griffin is not serious about conceiving and building the systems needed to get humans back to the Moon and on to Mars ASAP. What remains to be seen is if everyone else in the approval chain agrees with the difficult choices that must be made in order for Griffin's plans to work.


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