August 02, 2005
Up and Away

Slashdot linked up this nice summary of what seem to be the most current shuttle replacement plans. It includes the first pictures I've seen outside trade publications of the proposed vehicles.

The quote from Alex Roland, who said these plans had "the aroma of a quick and dirty solution to a big problem." is quite simply wrong. Aviation Week has been covering this stuff for more than a year now, and what the NYT is reporting here was reported there several months ago. The heavy lift vehicle in particular has been kicking around NASA in one form or another since at least the late '80s.

It would appear from this report, and AW&ST's coverage, that NASA will be going for a series of designs utilizing existing, derived, or improved shuttle components instead of commercial and military heavy-lift vehicles. AW&ST has been implying this ever since Michael D. Griffin took over as the agency's director. While on the face of it not as exciting as a program based on nifty new rockets and technologies, it does neatly avoid a very thorny and potentially expensive problem... "man rating".

While I've never actually seen the complete details of this process, from what I have gathered there actually is a formal set of specifications that NASA requires any launch vehicle to meet before it will allow its astronauts to use it. These seem to mostly involve a sort of "hyper redundancy" in all aspects of a vehicle's operation. They are extensive and detailed enough that AW&ST reported some officials as being very unsure a vehicle not designed with this redundancy (i.e. the commercial and military vehicles initially proposed) would ever be able to meet these requirements, and certainly never be able to do it cheaply.

The shuttle components are already man-rated, and have been for decades. The claim of leveraging the existing shuttle infrastructure is in my opinion a little disingenuous, since the alternatives also have well-established infrastructures of their own. Then again, it should be kept in mind this has to be sold to Congress, and proposing a new program that would suck thousands of jobs out of the districts of the people who need to approve it isn't what one would call starting out on the right foot.

This approach would also have the advantage of, contrary to all previous replacement initiatives (including the hallowed X-33), using hardware on the shelves and known to work. No improbable speculation, pie-in-the-sky tech, or gigantic cost overruns just waiting to happen here. Spaceflight is perhaps the most complex human endeavour ever attempted, there is no need to make it more so just for the sake of it.

Plus, on a personal note, I just like the thought of NASA flinging Saturn V-sized rockets into space once more. I once worried Olivia would consider them the stuff of legends, and so I'm thrilled she might be the third generation of my family to watch such monsters in action.

Posted by scott at August 02, 2005 09:53 AM

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