Where will NASA's next giant step take us?
As space agency rolls out a new rocket, its long-range mission remains unclear

By Joel Achenbach
Tuesday, October 27, 2009

It emerged just after midnight last Tuesday, bolted down and gleaming under the floodlights. This was the biggest debut since King Kong, joked the aerospace folks. The Ares I-X is the world's tallest rocket, 327 feet high, and it began the long crawl toward the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center, where it will blast off Oct. 27 if weather permits.

This is a test rocket, a crude approximation of the Ares I, the rocket that NASA has said will replace the aging commuter bus known as the space shuttle. But the Ares I may turn out to be a rocket to nowhere.

A blue-ribbon committee has said the Ares I is part of a NASA program that doesn't make sense given current and future budgets. The commission would like NASA to get out of the business of ferrying astronauts to low Earth orbit and let commercial companies handle that task. Now the Obama administration may try to kill the Ares I.

The space shuttle is old and unsafe and is supposed to be put out to pasture by the end of 2010. The United States will then find itself in the unfamiliar position of being incapable of launching humans into orbit. For five, six, seven years, American astronauts will probably have to buy a seat on a Russian spacecraft.

It's an awkward time for NASA. The most basic questions are on the table: Where to go? How to get there? And to what end?

There are billions of dollars at stake. The technological questions are complicated.

Um, yes, it's rocket science.

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The whither-NASA issue was supposed to have been decided already. After the Columbia disaster of 2003, an investigative commission declared that NASA lacked clear direction and purpose. By early 2004 the Bush White House put together a sweeping blueprint for NASA that it called the "Vision for Space Exploration."

The plan called for returning astronauts to the moon for extended stays as preparation for what would someday be a manned mission to Mars. Under a new NASA administrator, Michael Griffin, the agency put together the Constellation program, which called for two new rockets, a new crew capsule, a lunar lander and a lunar habitat. Crew and cargo would no longer ride to orbit together in a huge space truck such as the shuttle. Instead, NASA would return to an Apollo-style architecture, with astronauts in a capsule on top of a rocket. The capsule would parachute into the sea at the end of the mission. NASA's new crew capsule, dubbed Orion, is being designed to ride atop the Ares I rocket to reach low Earth orbit, or LEO. A heavy-lift rocket called the Ares V, to be built later, could take Orion moonward.

It was an ambitious plan. Too ambitious, apparently.

Soon after President Obama took office, he appointed a 10-person committee, led by retired aerospace executive Norman Augustine, to eyeball the human spaceflight program. The Augustine panel declared that going back to the moon by 2020 was impossible. At the current pace and with current funding, the United States won't have a big moon rocket until the late 2020s, and even then won't have the hardware for a moon base, the committee said.

It's not Griffin's fault, Augustine said after a news conference Thursday; the budgetary foundation changed beneath his feet.

Griffin, who left NASA in January, thinks the Augustine review was unnecessary: "You cannot get anything useful out of the space program if you are going to conduct a sweeping review of its purpose, goals, strategy, plans, every four years."

The Vision isn't dead, entirely. Its essence was the need to get beyond LEO. But for budgetary reasons, the moon may get bumped as a near-term destination in favor of what the Augustine panel calls the Flexible Path. The idea would be to focus on building a heavy-lift rocket that could take astronauts to a variety of interesting destinations. Perhaps they would rendezvous with a near-Earth asteroid, scores of which are discovered every year. They might circle the moon. They might make service calls to distant telescopes. Astronauts might even do a Mars fly-by, or alight on one of the tiny Martian moons. The Flexible Path saves enormous amounts of money and fuel by avoiding the descent and re-ascent of any significant gravity hills (the moon, Mars, etc.).

Griffin doesn't care for the Flexible Path: "They're just looking for something cheaper to do where they can claim to have a great space program without having a great space program."

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As easy as it is to get lost in the weeds of this topic (did we mention that Ares I-X uses a four-segment solid rocket booster for its first stage, but the production-model Ares I will use a five-segment SRB?), it might be helpful to pull back for the view from 30,000 feet. Or maybe the view from Jupiter.

Doing anything in space, even going to low Earth orbit as the shuttle does, takes extraordinary planning and exquisite technology. Airless, pressureless, cold, saturated with lethal radiation and cosmic rays, space is a hostile environment for humans. It is also at the far end of a gravity hill. Getting payloads into space has remained surprisingly expensive. There are limits to what can be achieved with chemical rockets.

Thus, the innovation in spaceflight may come from a much more mundane direction: the contracts with aerospace companies. The traditional NASA contract is of the cost-plus variety, where there is relatively little incentive for the contractor to control costs. That's why the Augustine committee suggests a closer look at the commercial option or, more exactly, a "public-private" partnership.

The idea is that, rather than sticking with the traditional, bureaucratic method of building government-owned spaceships, astronauts would essentially buy a ticket to space as if they were flying US Airways to Atlanta. In the short run, the government would provide a big chunk of the money for developing the commercial rockets.

Which brings us to Elon Musk, who made his fortune as an Internet entrepreneur and now runs a start-up rocket company, SpaceX. He is one of the most colorful characters in the space business, dreaming of going to Mars, and promising at the very least a rocket to low Earth orbit. He says bluntly of the Ares I: "The average kid could look at the rocket and say there's something that doesn't look right about that thing. It's absurdly long given its diameter."

Musk hopes to test a rocket called the Falcon 9 in just a matter of months. It could launch a crew capsule called Dragon to the space station within two to three years, Musk says. But the commercial path could be a big gamble for NASA. SpaceX, for example, has so far managed to launch a grand total of one satellite. Musk has a reputation for overpromising.

There are other commercial outfits with a longer history, notably Orbital Sciences, based in Dulles, which has a 28-year track record of launching satellites on a variety of rockets. But Orbital hasn't launched any astronauts and doesn't have rockets that could do the trick. Orbital chairman and chief executive David W. Thompson said it takes four to five years to develop a workable rocket, and thus the commercial option wouldn't significantly close the gap in American spaceflight capability. And it doesn't sound like his firm needs to get into the astronaut game.

"Commercial space is bigger than a $100 billion business today, and it doesn't involve a single person in space," Thompson said.

Griffin thinks commercial operations aren't ready to take over the business of getting to LEO. He also raised the specter of an accident.

"That will work right up until there is the first accident. Then there will be a big government committee, a congressional investigation, and questions as to where was NASA and why was this allowed to happen," Griffin said.

Musk said there's no reason to think a commercial firm would tolerate more risk to astronauts: "It's incredibly bad business to kill your customers."

Also in the mix as possible Ares I replacements are the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, made by United Launch Alliance. Both would have to be upgraded to be rated as safe for human flight. NASA's Orion capsule, currently being designed to fly either to LEO or on prolonged lunar missions, would need to be slimmed down and simplified.

One final option would be to delay the retirement of the space shuttle for a few more years. But the design of the shuttle is fatally flawed, because the orbiter (the spaceship proper) launches side by side with a fuel tank and two SRBs. This bunching of components means that the failure of one element can damage something adjacent. That has happened twice, killing the seven-person crew each time. With Challenger in 1986, a solid rocket booster sprang a fiery leak that ignited the adjacent fuel tank. With Columbia, foam fell from the fuel tank on liftoff and damaged a protective panel on the underside of the orbiter that is crucial for surviving the heat of reentry into the atmosphere.

The bottom line: NASA can't keep flying an old ship that was greenlighted by Richard Nixon.

Augustine said last week that everyone in the business seems to have a different idea about how to proceed.

"Human spaceflight is almost like a religion with many people," Augustine said. "The only problem is, they're all of a different religion."

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