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 et.al. 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.

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