I mentioned in passing recently that NASA’s future had been in question over the past few months. With the Shuttle program shutting down and their replacement scheduled to be rolled out in 2015 (and 2018 was looking like a far more realistic date) they were going to lose all capability for putting people into space. Additionally they’d sacrificed a whole lot of their core scientific activities just to try and meet the 2015 deadline with the Ares line of rockets. All of this was the result of an overly ambitious target set by Bush that lacked the additional funding to achieve such goals. Obama’s plans for NASA are not what you would expect initially, but diving deeper reveals why these changes need to occur.
- Research and development to support future heavy-lift rocket systems that will increase the capability of future exploration architectures with significantly lower operations costs than current systems – potentially taking us farther and faster into space.
- A vigorous new technology development and test program that aims to increase the capabilities and reduce the cost of future exploration activities. NASA, working with industry, will build, fly, and test in orbit key technologies such as automated, autonomous rendezvous and docking, closed-loop life support systems, in-orbit propellant transfer, and advanced in-space propulsion so that our future human and robotic exploration missions are both highly capable and affordable.
- A steady stream of precursor robotic exploration missions to scout locations and demonstrate technologies to increase the safety and capability of future human missions and provide scientific dividends.
At a high level the objectives seek to achieve a few things. The first was doing away with the lofty goals set by the former president Bush. To be honest I initially found this heart breaking as I felt this was one of the core reasons NASA existed. However without the appropriate funding for such actions (I’m talking Apollo era spending of around 5% of GDP, not the paltry 0.5% they get now) realistically it would have been far more detrimental to continue down this path than to cut our losses and refocus on the more important things. Whilst this might keep human boots off other terristerial bodies for another decade or two the missions that eventually go there won’t be flag planting missions, they’ll be permanent settlements. If we are ever going to establish ourselves throughout our solar system such sustainable missions are the way to go. It’s tough medicine to swallow, but it’s for our own good.
The new vision for NASA explicitly kills the constellation plan and with it the Ares series of rockets. I’ve lambasted the Ares I-X in the past for being an absolute waste of time but I still supported the Ares-V, mostly due to its paper capabilities. This is the in for alternative ideas like DIRECT which have had some traction in the past but were pushed aside due to the investment in Ares. I’m glad that Obama decided to include a heavy lift capability in the new plans for NASA as its one of those things that still isn’t commercially viable. Once NASA has the capability though I’m sure demand for it will start to materialize, but for now everything else is handled quite aptly by the current choices such as the DELTA IV Heavy.
Probably the best news to come out of this is an extra $6 billion for NASA over the next 5 years to support the refocus on these new objectives. Probably the most exciting part about the extra funding is that a whopping $500 million to buy services from private launch companies to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. Up until now there wasn’t an official word on whether or not NASA could do that as they’d committed to buying seats on Russian craft at $50 million dollars each. Considering that a Falcon 9 from SpaceX plus one of their Dragon capsules costs about $100 million and can deliver 7 astronauts (over 3 times the payload) to the ISS you can see why I’m excited about this sort of thing. It also helps drive down the cost of such launch vehicles meaning that, whilst its still out of the range of the everyman, the cost may one day enter the realms of say a trip on SpaceShipTwo. It’s a while off I admit, but having NASA buying kit from these guys is a guaranteed way to make space more accessible to everyone.
Additionally there’s also a substaintial amount of funds dedicated to some heavy duty science. This include things like new satellites, observatories, robotic missions to other planets and channeling funds into research that will help further our efforts in space. One of the big ideas nestled in amongst this is the development of orbital propellant stations (think petrol pumps in space), which are going to become a necessity if we seriously want to go anywhere with people on board. This is one of the problems that faces many space missions as you have to carry all your fuel up with you, driving down usable payload and needlessly wasting fuel. With orbital refueling stations we can design simpler, more efficient and capable craft that will take us to the farthest reaches of the solar system.
Still reactions are mixed over the new proposed NASA vision and budget. The bill still has to pass congress and this could prove to be a major sticking point for it. As with any bill that has passed through there concessions will be made, hot air will flow and it could quite easily end up looking nothing like it is now. With jobs on the chopping block because of this (cancelling Constellation will see a fair few people move on) you can expect certain congress members to fight it in order to win the support of their constituents. It will be a hard point to fight to, with America’s unemployment in the double digits. I’m hoping that the American congress’ short term view doesn’t skew this proposal too much, as it’s exactly what NASA needs.
So after rejecting it initially (and putting off this blog post for 2 days because of it) I’ve come to appreciate the changes that Obama has made. Sure we lose the vision of pioneering our way through space but it’s a cost we have to pay if we want to have any kind of sustainable presence outside our atmosphere. We’ll soon know what opposition this bill faces and I can only hope, for NASA and America’s sake, that it passes through unscathed.
They say there’s no good fishing story that doesn’t have at least one lie in it and the same can be said for space missions and delays. Look at practically any space mission and you’re more than likely to find that it ran over time for one reason or another and really it’s to be expected. Space travel is still on the bleeding edge of human capability and even routine missions can have unknowns in them that will cause the critical path to be affected. It should then come as no surprise that NASA’s latest endeavour, the Ares I-X which forms part of the Constellation program, has suffered the same fate:
A faulty part in the steering system for NASA’s new Ares I-X rocket has delayed the booster’s trek to its Florida launch pad by at least a day as engineers work to fix the glitch.
The rocket, a suborbital version of NASA’s new Ares I booster designed to launch astronauts into orbit and ultimately back to the moon, was slated to roll out to Launch Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center Monday for a planned Oct. 27 test launch. But a malfunctioning hydraulics component at the base of the towering, 327-foot (100-meter) tall rocket has stalled that plan, NASA spokesperson George Diller told SPACE.com.
“It’s at least a day [of delay], but it’s still kind of a developing story,” Diller said. “We’ll have to see how things go for us.”
Now I’m usually one of the first to fawn all over whatever NASA is doing at any point in time but the Ares I-X booster is a rare moment where I question what the heck they think they’re doing. For the most part the rocket is nothing like the final Ares I booster will be like, namely with the missing 5th part of the first stage and the second and third stages being just mock ups. I can understand the Orion capsule on top being a dummy payload, but for the rest of it I’m raising a cautious eyebrow as to how much useful data such a launch can gather.
The wiki article on the booster shows what NASA thinks they’ll get out of this mission:
Ares I-X will be the first test flight of a launch vehicle like the Ares I. The test flight objectives include:
- Demonstrating control of a dynamically similar vehicle using control algorithms similar to those used for Ares I.
- Performing an in-flight separation/staging event between an Ares I-similar First Stage and a representative Upper Stage.
- Demonstrating assembly and recovery of an Ares I-like First Stage at Kennedy Space Center (KSC).
- Demonstrating First Stage separation sequencing, and measuring First Stage atmospheric entry dynamics, and parachute performance.
- Characterizing the magnitude of integrated vehicle roll torque throughout First Stage flight.
The word “similar” used in the first two points is what makes me uncomfortable with the whole endeavour. They’ve publicly acknowledged that the Ares I-X is significantly different from the final flight hardware and that this particular stack will never be built again. The next two points demonstrate that they’re just trying to test out the construction and roll out process of the rocket, something they could do without actually launching anything. The last point is somewhat important, but it is lost when 80% of the mission seems completely pointless. Many of the secondary objectives mentioned could also be performed on a completed Ares I stack so the question remains: why the heck are they doing this?
For the most part I believe it is to show that they’re making progress with George W.’s vision for space exploration. Gone are the high budgets of the late 60’s and the focus of an entire nation, nowadays it’s all about what the government is spending on and what the public is getting out of it. The current rocket has been in development for about 5 years and it’s hard to go that long on developing something without showing that you’ve actually done some work. The Ares I-X is then a demonstration to appease the political overlords and hopefully draw some press so that the rest of the constellation program doesn’t get completely canned. Whilst I can appreciate the situation NASA has been put in I still would’ve liked to have seen what kind of delay they would’ve had to go through in order to launch a fully stacked Ares I right off the bat instead of the boondoggle they’re rolling out now.
It makes them look even worse when a company that has been built up from the ground from scratch will be launching a fully functional rocket with similar capabilities to the Ares I sometime soon. I am of course referring to the Falcon-9 from SpaceX, and it really demonstrates how bloated with bureaucracy has become when they can do the work of thousands with just 800 employees.
I guess I’m just nostalgic for the old days when space was seen as something of a national pride and the bureaucracy was kept to a minimum. I’m still hoping they continue down the Ares path however as the the Ares V will be a phenomenal power house unlike nothing we’ve seen before. However these kinds of demonstrations do the project’s timeline no good and I’m glad that it is the only one of its kind planned.