Thursday, April 26, 2012

NASA. Lost in Space

Or somewhere.  Having phased out the Space Shuttle and flown surviving orbiters off to museums, NASA finds that we have no way to get astronauts up to the International Space Station.   NASA is buying tickets to the ISS from the Russians, at $20 million a seat. 
   Sometime we ought to have our own transportation into space.  We have two good booster rockets, the SpaceX Falcon 9 and  the United Launch Association's Atlas 5.  Both rockets are real,  have flown many missions, and have plenty of power to boost a minivan load of astronauts up to the ISS.  But NASA and Congress (Senators Kay Bailey Hutchenson and Richard Shelby)  are "investing" in yet a third rocket booster, the "Space Launch Vehicle" (SLS).
   This is a black hole money sink.  The SLS offers nothing that the existing Falcon and Atlas boosters don't already have.  But a new rocket will require dozens of test flights and years of fiddling around.  A rocket is made up of a zillion parts, all of which get really stressed hard during flight.  Despite the best efforts of the engineers,  a few of those zillion parts will break and the rocket will be destroyed.  Only after figuring out what broke after each rocket failure, and beefing it up,  for the next flight, can we then find the next part that will break under load.  By experience, we know that it takes 20-40 disasters, before a good flight is achieved. 
   Falcon and Atlas have aready gone thru all this pain, the weak spots have been found and fixed, and both of them fly dependably now.  That cost a lot of money.  Now that we have two working boosters, NASA should use them. 
   Instead, NASA pushed by a pork loving Congress, and full of the good old Not-Invented-Here syndrome is pouring taxpayer money into an unneeded third booster.  The same money would move more cargo  using existing boosters.
  Then we have the same trick going on with crew capsules.  SpaceX has already flown their Dragon capsule and NASA wanted to fund private development of a second capsule.  Instead, Congress wants NASA to develop inhouse the "Orion" capsule.   Again NASA ought to use the existing flight tested Dragon capsule just because it's ready and it works. 
  Granted, capsule development ain't as hard as booster development.  Boosters have to handle tons of explosive cyrogenic fuels, withstand  fierce thrust, and provide perfect autopilot performance.  If anything goes wrong the explosion is in the kilotons of yield range.  Capsules just have to hold air, and hang onto their heat shield.  Much easier engineering proposition. 
   Want to bet some gutsy contractor would be able to fly astronauts to the ISS right now, using an existing booster and the existing capsule?  And do it for less than the Russki's are charging for a SINGLE astronaut flown to the ISS?  All it would take is some funding. 


Evan said...

Agree with you here. What's double foolish is that NASA doesn't want to build another rocket or capsule. Congress is trying to cut the $300-400 million that NASA has budgeted for SpaceX and another rocket company. Both of those companies also have contracts to supply the ISS and have working rockets.

Congressional stupidity at its finest. NASA doesn't want to do it, so Congress is forcing it.

Dstarr said...

I gotta think that some Congress critters have Orion or "SLS" contractors in their districts. The Aviation Week article fingered NASA as well as Congress for the push for doing-it-over-again in house programs.