Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Whither NASA?

Or, how to get men into space. NASA wanted to scrap the Space Shuttle and build a new booster and space capsule, kind of an enlarged Gemini system. Reason, the shuttle is expensive and dangerous and old. The new booster (Aries) was going to be able to loft as much weight as the Shuttle, about 24,000 kilograms or 24 metric tons. The NASA people were all kinds of enthusiastic about doing a new rocket design, and they pushed ahead as fast as possible and actually flew the first prototype before the Obama administration cut off the funding.
NASA should have simply bought either the Atlas V or the Delta IV boosters from SpaceX. These boosters have been launching communications satellites for years and have as much lift capacity as Aries or the Shuttle. NASA kept saying that Atlas and Delta were not "man rated" and thus unacceptable and dangerous. This was a smokescreen intended to let NASA have the fun of doing a new design, in house. "Man rating" is a paperwork exercise to document every single part that goes into the rocket on the idea that after doing a load of paperwork, the part wouldn't dare fail.
Now the Congress is getting into the act. Their plan is to keep the Shuttle flying and avoid laying off the 10,000 man Shuttle workforce. Which was the major reason for ending the shuttle program, all those bodies cost a lot of money. Senator Bill Nelson, D-FLa. is spearheading that effort.
Then, scenting a chance at a contract, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne is proposing a pair of new booster designs, one using LOX and liquid hydrogen, the other using LOX and kerosene (jet fuel).
So what is really going down? Probably a struggle between the cost savers who want to reduce NASA to a tourist attraction at Cape Canaveral, and pork processors who want to keep the massive shuttle workforce on the payroll.

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