Friday, November 25, 2005

To CLV or not to CLV?

So, if Griffin intends to involve the private sector to the extent he has stated, things could be looking much brighter for the sustainability of the Vision. Then, why do I still get this odd sensation in the pit of my stomach when I think about the ESAS?

Could it be that I'm a little uneasy about the massive amounts of money that NASA will be pouring into the CLV development at the expense of many other worthy projects? Perhaps I am subconciously wincing at the billions of dollars which will have been given to ATK to develop the shuttle derived CLV by the time that SpaceX, TSpace, or SpaceDev can bring their commercially developed crew launch capability to market sometime in the next five years.

Then I see an article like this, which warns of the looming fiscal challenges for NASA if it intends to complete the ISS with a shuttle retired by the end of 2010 while rushing the development of the CLV/CEV system so that it will be ready by the time the shuttle is retired. If it is indeed in the plan to purchase these services as soon as they become commercially available, then will all of the investment in the CLV have been wasted? Will the CLV system meet the same fate as the X-38 and every other NASA developed shuttle replacement for the past two decades? Or, if it gets close enough to completion, will they feel compelled to make use of it in order to justify the great expense that went into developing it? With all of the uncertainty which surrounds the next five years of manned spaceflight in the US, what are NASA's options at this point?

Let's assume for the moment that the private sector is just about as close to developing an orbital transport as NASA is to fielding a shuttle replacement. SpaceDev has stated that they could have an orbital version of the Dream Chaser, based on NASA's own HL-20 design, ready by 2010. TSpace says that their CXV could be making crewed flights by 2009. SpaceX will have the Falcon 5/9 boosters launching unmanned payloads by the 2007/2008 time frame. The Falcon boosters will be at least as capable as the proposed CLV at a fraction of the cost, and from what I've read, there appears to be a chance that Elon Musk may also be working on a crewed vehicle to go atop his booster, either on his own or in collaboration with other fellow space entrepeneurs, (like TSpace, SpaceDev, or perhaps even Blue Origin).

So, would it not be prudent for NASA to simply hold off on CLV for a couple of years? Of course, NASA should proceed with the CEV and HLV development as funds are available, since those are components which may not be available in the private sector for a few more years. But is it too much to ask for NASA to take a leap of faith and trust that the private sector will produce at least one viable crew launch system in the next five years? It may be a risky strategy, but I believe that this one could pay off huge dividends if successful.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Potential for commercial involvment in the ESAS

Mike Griffin has finally stated his own thoughts on how he sees the commercial sector fitting into the new space exploration architecture. It would appear that the ESAS contains within it, although not obvious at first glance, the potential to allow private companies to competively supply services to the exploration missions as those services appear on the market and prove themselves reliable and cost effective. To my knowledge, this is the first time since Brant Spoonberg first announced NASA's Innovative Programs initiative that NASA has provided any insight into what kinds of commercial opportunities they are interested in pursuing.

The points outlined in his speech also reinforce my belief that the key to sustainability of human space exploration is infrastructure. He made specific references to the establishment of a fuel depot, perhaps started by NASA (i.e. by donating the first storage tank), but maintained by commercial interests. The presence of such a depot makes the dry launch scenario possible and allows NASA to put more useful (in his words: high-value) payload on the HLV. The fuel depot is a good first step as far as getting the needed infrastructure in place, but it is not in the critical path. For what it's worth, I agree with his reasoning about why it is not, but I do hope that they are able to provide a strong incentive for the private sector to establish one very soon.

Of course, the fuel depot is just one of many support services which could be supplied by the private sector. Crew launch could also be made commercially available if the personal spaceflight industry materializes in a timely manner. From Griffin's remarks, it seems that he wants the private sector to start looking at NASA as a potential customer rather than a competitor. I'll take his comments as an encouraging sign of things to come; however, I have one remaining objection which I will cover in my next post.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

To HLV or not to HLV?`

The community is split on several issues, but one that I keep seeing pop up is whether or not NASA should be developing the HLV. Recently there were two articles posted to which attempted to argue each side of the debate. First up was John Strickland who wrote an article about the kinds of missions which could only be accomplished by launching very large payloads on HLV's. A few days later, Edward Wright wrote a response which described how much more expensive it would be to launch large payloads on one HLV than it would be to launch multiple smaller payloads on EELV's.

The primary argument in favor of the HLV is that there are some missions which just cannot be accomplished without launching very large integrated payloads. Mr. Strickland outlines some of these missions in his article (linked to above). Others, like Robert Zubrin, also see HLV as a means to avoid doing time consuming on-orbit assembly, and a way to avoid lengthy delays in missions if one or more components of a multiple launch architecture are delayed or destroyed.

The main argument against the HLV is that there is insufficient demand for it. NASA's expected flight rate will be far too low to see any practical return on the massive amount of R&D required to develop the booster. The fact that NASA would rather go with yet another proprietary booster than with existing EELV's is also regarded as anticompetive; depriving struggling launch providers of a significant number of NASA payloads. The new ESAS, as it is currently formulated, is seen as a waste of resources that could be better spent if NASA simply designed its architecture to be launched on EELV's.

Each side raises valid points, but they each argue as if it's an all or nothing proposition. Either NASA designs its architecture so that all of the components are launched on HLV's or everything on EELV's. Manned flights beyond LEO are going to require lots of mass delivered to orbit and it's very possible that this mass could be delivered by both EELV's and HLV's. As far as the ESAS is concerned, I think that NASA would rather go with an HLV than multiple EELV's for their early missions because they have experience doing it that way, and they are fairly certain they can do it again. In the current risk adverse climate at NASA, practicality seems to be winning out over innovation.

Personally, I believe that both kinds of launchers are needed and ultimately the EELV's will end up seeing as much action as the HLV's. There are some components, such as the long duration lunar habitats, which will simply have to be launched as one large integrated payload. However, there are other components which can be launched independently of these large payloads. So, while we wait for the HLV, NASA could be delivering alot of support hardware and getting some preliminary lunar exploration out of the way by taking advantage of the smaller launch vehicles that are available now.

For example, within the next five or six years, NASA could begin sending small unmanned decent stages to the moon loaded with ISRU equipment, solar panels, telepresence robots, spare parts, etc. This would allow them to begin testing out and refining technology that the manned missions will eventually rely upon as well as checking out landing sites and setting up small amounts of infrastructure. I believe that there are already robotic landers (to be launched on EELV's) in the current ESAS. All that I am proposing is a slight expansion of this aspect of the architecture to support delivery of smaller components to the lunar surface independent of the large integrated structures. This is just one example of how NASA could take advantage of the availability of the EELV class of launch vehicles in their architecture. I'm sure that there are many others.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


I've been noticing a few posts recently about the spaceflight simulator Orbiter. I've been messing around with this very cool program for about a year and a half now, so I thought I would post my own observations.

First of all, this is definitely not a game, even though it plays like one at times and has some nice graphics to rival some commercial flight simulators. However, for the sake of comparison, let's treat it like one for a moment. I've always thought that the best video games I've ever played are ones that are very easy to begin playing, but the difficulty continues to rise to match the players ability. The addiction factor common to many of these games is: How do I get just a little bit further? How do I do just a little bit more?

Orbiter definitely has this addiction factor. Using the delta flyer one can quickly take off, fly around, and even attain orbit, all with comparitively little difficulty. Once on orbit, one of the first things you'll probably want to do is dock with the International Space Station. So, once basic control of the spacecraft has been mastered, one next turns one's attention to deciphering the control panels. Locating the ISS is not hard, but getting anywhere near it is quite a trick. It took me almost a week of trial and error before I was finally able to get within docking range and another day to actually dock. But you see, this is exactly what I was talking about. It's easy to get started, but to do anything more than simply flying around at random, you must begin to master new skills and gain more experience. And not just any useless computer gaming experience, this is experience with flying and navigating spacecraft under very realistic conditions. What could be better!?

Of course the delta flyer is an incredibly forgiving spacecraft. It's performance characteristics are purposefully exagerated to make it easier to get started. If you're ready for a challenge, then consider one of the other launch vehicles included with the program. The space shuttle Atlantis, for instance, has characteristics more closely modeled after the real thing. Trying to get the space shuttle into orbit is not an easy task. After failing to reach orbit on several occasions, I definitely have a greater appreciation for how precise they have to be to not only get them into orbit, but the exact orbit they need to be in to achieve their mission objectives.

Orbiter is much more than a flight simulation game. It's more like a flight simulation environment. With the SDK and API interface, one can modify nearly all aspects of the simulator. Not only can you add in custom built spacecraft and planetary bases, you can also modify the planets themselves. You can fly a spacecraft of your own design through a solar system of your own design if you so desired. It is this incredible flexability combined with its realistic modeling of the physics of spaceflight which makes Orbiter such a powerful program.

Now, I wouldn't apply for a job at JPL touting my proficiency at Orbiter. However, if I could hold my own in an interview talking about the intricate details required to navigate and pilot a spacecraft to any destination in the solar system, then their might be something to be said for using this program as a training tool.