What Lift-off: Should Congress Design the Next Big Booster?

By frank_sietzen
August 25, 2010
Filed under
What Lift-off: Should Congress Design the Next Big Booster?

Consider how many space initiatives the United States didn’t pursue in the past half century. A fully reusable launch vehicle. A 20-person expendable space station. New heavy lift boosters. A permanent lunar colony. The Orbital Space Plane. NERVA and Prometheus. An outpost on Mars. In fact, there have been more false starts and failed approaches than those that worked. By setting budget limits, the hand of the Congress can be seen in all of these programs, but the “failure to launch” can be squarely placed on the Defense Department, the Air Force, and of course NASA.

Consider this history as the House and Senate move, albeit slowly, to finalize a NASA FY 2011 spending bill that could wind up as guidance in a Continuing Resolution to allow Uncle Sam to keep the doors open past October 1st. Thus far, common to both bills are a virtual rejection of the space plan submitted by President Barack Obama last February and a resurrection of key elements of the Constellation program, only without the name. Orion as a fully functional manned spacecraft is mandated. Commercial crew survives, but with little up-front funds in the House bill crafted by Rep. Bart Gordon’s science committee and approved by the chair of the space subcommittee, Gabrielle Giffords. These are Democrats that gutted Obamaspace, not Republicans. Such a fact is without precedent in the recent history of Congressional funding and approval for space projects (my upcoming book on this subject is nearly complete and will be published next year by Texas A&M University).

But something equally new has emerged from this round of budgeteering. Consider this language that was embedded in the committee report (not the actual legislation) that accompanied the Senate’s NASA bill passed by the full Senate before the recess:

“The Committee anticipates that in order to meet the specified vehicle capabilities and requirements, the most cost-effective and ‘evolvable’ design concept is likely to follow what is known as an ‘in-line’ vehicle design, with a large center tank structure with attached multiple liquid propulsion engines and, at a minimum, two solid rocket motors composed of at least four segments being attached to the tank structure to form the core, initial stage of the propulsion vehicle. The Committee will closely monitor NASA’s early planning and design efforts to ensure compliance with the intent of this section.”

Say what?

As near as I could find, this is the most specific instructions ever passed along to NASA as to the technical merits and specifics for a space vehicle configuration.

Let’s try and make sense of this. First, “specified vehicle capabilities and requirements”-for what mission exactly? Access to the ISS via Orion capsules? Missions to the Moon? Oh yeah, I forgot the Moon’s no longer in favor by this crowd. Launching heavy payloads to the ISS that replace Shuttle up and down mass? Carrying astronauts to asteroid encounters, Phobos landings, or Mars itself? It’s hard to know see, because both bills studiously avoid naming what the next U.S. space goal should be. Or a payload for that matter.

Then there’s “At a minimum two solid rocket motors with a minimum of four segments”. This would effectively imprison the first generation of heavy lift booster with 1970s technology. That may or may not be a good thing, depending on your point of view. Those man-rated solids have a long and largely successful flight history, thanks to the Space Shuttle program. But they ain’t cheap. At the same time, funding for advanced launch and propulsion technologies, like new hydrocarbon booster engines, has been wiped out. An in-line Shuttle-derived solution has also been eliminated. While all of this may make sense and be based on sound technical decisions, is this the place for rocket designing? I mean, isn’t that what NASA is for?

And while industry’s hand can be plainly seen as having shaped this choice, by doing it in secret there is no transparency, accountability, or competition. And while the Obama administration wanted heavy lift research, it wasn’t in a frenzy to get a new booster soon, which is what the Congress seems hell bent on doing.

My questions this week to NASAWATCH posters – please go here to reply.

-Is this a good precedent for Congress to follow in specifying the technical details of a new launch system?

-If not, then how can Congress be persuaded to let the design work be done by NASA?

-Why the rush for a new heavy lift vehicle: What is it for-and do we really need one sooner rather than later? Can we make do on the shortterm with existing Atlas, Delta and falcon boosters?

Your thoughts and ideas, please.