Thursday, June 25, 2009

Trash the international space station in 2016?

From Aviation Week:
"NASA hopes it can use untested commercial vehicles to fill a 60 metric ton cargo shortfall in resupplying the International Space Station until 2016 when it plans to drop the $100 billion orbiting lab in the Pacific Ocean for lack of funding."

One hell of a lead sentence. Two bombshells before we get to the period at the end of the sentence. There are plenty of fully tested commercial vehicles. They launch commercial communications satellites every other week. NASA could use those. Then announcing plans to scrap the frightfully expensive ISS in just 7 years is a real bombshell too. First I'd heard of it. Seems a shame to waste all that money. They just finished the station last week and now they say it's toast in just seven years? If we dump ISS you can scratch any plans for a Mars trip. Any space craft large enough to go to Mars is too large to blast off from Cape Canaveral. It needs to be hauled up to orbit in pieces and assembled in free fall. No ISS, no in orbit assembly.

"Gary P. Pulliam, vice president of civil and commercial operations at The Aerospace Corp., briefed the panel on his organization's finding that it will be possible to human rate a Delta IV heavy launch vehicle to carry the Orion crew exploration vehicle for about $3 billion LESS than it will cost to finish Aries I."

Buzz Aldrin agrees that Aries is a bad deal.

Aries is a new rocket design to support manned space missions after the Space Shuttle is retired next year. Despite using Shuttle engines and solid rocket boosters, Aries is not expected to fly for 5 years. Right now Aries has a serious vibration problem, serious enough to shake the rivets out of it, and no fix in sight. In the mean time the US will purchase rocket tickets to the ISS from Russia.
Delta IV is in service right now, has as much or more lift than Aries I. The price of Delta IV will go down if NASA buys some of them, economies of scale. The "human rating" means doing a lot of NASA paperwork, it doesn't mean changing anything real in Delta IV. Due to the company ruining cost of a failed satellite launch, commercial satellite launchers are built as reliably as we know how. The early astronauts rode ballistic missiles (Atlas, Thor, Titan) into space. Delta IV in 2009 is a whole bunch safer ride than an Atlas in 1962. In fact, given Aries vibration problem, Delta IV will be a safer ride than Aries I.
Many in the industry think NASA has lost it's way. And under an Obama administration it is unlikely to find it any time soon.

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