24 October 2009

A Rocket To Nowhere

Next Tuesday, NASA plans to launch a test version of its new Ares I booster skyward on a suborbital mission to evaluate the flight characteristics of the planned replacement for the current Space Shuttle. This new rocket, the first stage of which is based on the solid rocket boosters currently employed for the Shuttle, is intended to loft a new spacecraft, known as Orion, into low earth orbit sometime in the next five years (or is it six... I've lost count with all the delays).

Orion is a great idea, and I wholeheartedly support sending human beings back to the Moon, and eventually on to Mars and beyond, but America's space program is at a low-point, similar to that of the post-Apollo era. Between the launch of the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975 to the launch of the first Shuttle mission in 1981, NASA experienced lagging timetables, technical issues, and slashed budgets (to be fair, the slashed budgets predated the cancellation of the Apollo project) as it prepared to deploy a fundamentally flawed and compromised launch vehicle.

NASA again faces tough times as a political leader with too many irons in the fire to give due consideration to spaceflight has spun the future of the American space program off to a commission and a White House panel to essentially determine the path forward for NASA's manned space program.

NASA chief Charlie Bolden, a retired astronaut, has ordered engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center to look into the fesiability of alternatives to the Ares project, including the Jupiter launch system, better known as Direct. Will it be too little, too late, to save the American space program? Possibly. Commercial space flight is a wonderful notion, and depending on the definition of commercial space flight, it may be somewhat practical. However, if by commercial spaceflight one means hitching a ride with companies like Space X, Rocketplane Kistler, or Orbital Sciences, the plain fact of the matter is that their systems arcitecture is neither robust nor mature enough to support a manned space endeavor. Mounting Orion on an existing EELV (evolved expendable launch vehicle) in the Atlas V or Delta IV Heavy can only marginally be considered 'commercial' as NASA is already contracting with them to launch various missions into deep space.

Hopefully, some day - perhaps even in my lifetime - inexpensive, reliable access to space will be a realized dream, but NASA isn't going to accomplish the dream with the Ares I system. It is already over-budget, under-performing, and way, way off on its timetable. Even the test next week won't feature a full-up first stage, because one hasn't been produced yet. Staying with Ares is a supreme mistake, but so is abandoning or curtailing manned space exploration altogether. Here's to hoping that the Obama Administration will make an intelligent choice at the recommendation of the people who really know how to accomplish the mission. Otherwise, the Ares IX test flight will truly become the 'Rocket to Nowhere' and an absolute waste of taxpayer money that could have been better spent on alternative methods to achieve the Project Constellation goal of Moon, Mars, and Beyond.


All original material (C) 2007-2010 by Father Robert Lyons.

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