NASA Budget: Constellation Officially Canned, But The Deep-Space Future Is Bright

February 4, 2010 at 8:35 am (Uncategorized)

02/02/10 at 5:09 am

The most redeeming quality about the constellation program was that it was an actual fully laid out plan for what NASA should be doing. It insured that NASA would keep on pushing the boundaries of exploration. That being said it was not necessarily the best plan. Going forward NASA should encourage commercial space flight and put forth a newer long term vision for space that along the lines of what I will lay out

Concerning Constellation while its goals where noteworthy, it was a fundamentally flawed plan in terms of how much money it would cost and the direction it would take development. The Ares I rocket had two main design goals. Be safer than the shuttle and be a lot cheaper than the shuttle. While I do not doubt NASA could reach the safety goals of the program it was looking like it would still fail miserably in terms of being economical. The shuttle started to cost close to 1.5 billion per launch but the Augustine commission estimated that an Ares 1 launch would still cost close to 1 billion dollars per launch. Better than the shuttle but still terrible.

While I disagreed with the constellation programs execution and approach I overwhelmingly agree with its objectives of expanding humanity’s reach into space: namely returning to the moon, traveling to mars and giving us the capability to launch substantially more powerful space telescopes in order to advance the cosmological and astro-physical sciences to help propel the technological revolutions of the future.

Some things about the Obama announcement actually signal the right direction to go to. The purpose of government is to achieve what none of us individually would be able to reach. In the context of government agencies such as NASA that means pushing the scientific envelope beyond what private citizens or corporations would be able to or have the incentive to do. In terms of developing rocket technology NASA has already fulfilled this role. Their role now should be as a benefactor and mentor for private corporations in fulfilling launch duties as private companies have the capability to achieve vastly superior economically efficiency than NASA could . This would allow NASA to be spend substantially less money on its launch needs than it would spend otherwise and free up personal, money, and other valuable resources for doing what NASA actually does best, science.

As evidence for the efficiency that private enterprise can provide I present the example of SpaceX. Their newest rocket, the falcon 9 cost only 78 million dollars per launch in the triple booster heavy configuration which is capable of 29,000 kg to orbit, which is several thousand more kg than the close to 1 billion dollar per launch for NASA’s Ares 1. That’s less than 1/10 the cost and their costs are expected to eventually more than half over the next several years as their scale increases. The rockets and their accompanying dragon capsule spacecraft ( analogous to Russian suyoz/progresso spacecraft) have been designed with manned flight in mind in from day one and it will probably take only six years to get to them to man rated qualifications with some NASA stewardship. Hands down, that takes NASA to the cleaners which is why NASA awarded them a contract to resupply the International Space Station for at least the next 5 years.

As to testifying to NASA’s efficiency at many scientific missions look at the recent Spirit and Opportunity rovers. The program cossted only 820 million dollars and has vastly exceeded expectations. Another example is the mission to Pluto that launched last year. The entire life time cost of the mission is only 650 million dollars and its going all the way to the far edge of the solar system to a place that has never been visited before.

Another advantage of private enterprise for launch systems is that it gives you alternatives when your main system is grounded. The US couldn’t send anyone into space for years following Challenger and Colombia and will not be able to after this year’s shuttle retirement. If it wasn’t for the Russians right now the space station would be in huge trouble and our entire astronaut corps would be grounded. Private enterprise could make this a problem of the past and overall helps everyone to do what their most efficient at, therefore allowing NASA and everyone to get more done that we would otherwise.

As for what NASA’s new plan and direction should be I would suggest two plans. The first one is areas of development they should pursue and the second is of specific missions they should try for. Together they form a super plan duo.

Development Plan

1) Accelerate and support private enterprise launch capabilities like Obama said. Specifically, SpaceX is way closer to meeting NASA’s needs for both crew and cargo so focus on them. Even more specifically have them upgrade the falcon 9 boosters merlin 1c engines to something about 15 percent more powerful and commission them to create a 9 booster super heavy lift configuration of the system. Multi booster rocket like this are how the Russians have always done it and they have always been way cheaper than us and more recently have gotten a lot fewer people killed. Such a rocket would have about half the lifting capacity the Ares V but would literally be about 1/20 the cost per launch and thats not even including the huge development costs Ares V would have. The halved lifting capacity of about 90,000 kg to leo vs Ares V 188,000 kg to leo won’t matter so much due to my next point.

2) Going beyond rockets. When it comes right down to it they’re pretty shitty. There the confounding oxymoron of being both rather primitive yet extremely complicated. Plasma ion thrusters and related technology are where almost anyone would agree space propulsions going to be. So why waste resources on the status quo when you can instead start making the future a hell of a lot closer to right now. It’s vaguely similar to a 70’s era computer company investing in vacuum tubes when transistors could offer exponentially better performance going forward. That being said rockets are still needed for launching purposes however.

Ad Astra’s vasimir plasma ion engines are the farthest along and they’re geared up to start performing missions to the moon later this decade. I would advice focusing efforts on this company while still pursuing alternatives to a lesser degree. Due to the tremendous performance advantage these rockets can have, like a 39 day trip to mars kind of advantage, they easily warrant a multi-billion dollar investment.

They also could reduce the need for super heavy boosters. The Ares V would push 71,000 kg to the moon or to the L1 point, approximately. Because plasma ion engines are more fuel efficient, craft can weigh substantially less. If you could boost only 90,000 kg to leo as opposed 188,000 for Ares V you could make up the difference for lunar missions by having a vasimir third stage that would be able to make up for less rocket thrust and still get the same amount of payload to the moon or L1 as if you had a rocket booster twice as large. Additionally Vasmir tugs could stay in space and be reused indefinitely with periodic propellant restocking.

Furthermore such developments could help along inertial confinement fusion research for energy production and vice versa. When ICF technology is eventually developed having already developed plasma ion thruster would vary greatly ease the creation of fusion thrusters. One that happens we can all say hello to vacations on the moon and bye bye to chemical rockets.

3) Develop nuclear reactors modified for space as these would be required by plasma ion thruster and other application.( Solar arrays are limited to the inner solar system and would be to big and fragile for ship.) They would also be able power radiation shielding required for manned flights beyond earth orbit. This is not that big of a deal though because lots of companies are coming up with very light small reactors such as Hyperion and Toshiba’s 4S.

4) Accelerate the development of lighter, stronger and other high performance materials. Particularly carbon nanotubes as they are way stronger and lighter than any metal or even carbon fiber. You could have way lighter, stronger and more durable spacecraft and things like an ultra hypersonic (mach 5-12) parachute for mars landings.

5) Develop and launch a series of very large and advanced space telescopes to replace Hubble and the like. New technology’s could enable them to be over a hundred times more powerful and if you’re gonna go through the effort to design one then you might as well get your design dollars money’s worth and build more than one, especially if launch costs in the future will be cheaper. Also give them repair bots and extra space parts so we don’t have to launch a bunch of repair missions which leads into 6.

6) Develop construction robots that can operate in orbit in order to put together things like larger plasma ion based ships form smaller components sent over various launches. If robots do it all it would be way cheaper than if people in space suits did it. Also have repair bots that can repair those ships if they become damaged during a mission.

Having laid out a plan for areas of development here is the plan for proposed missions and a possible schedule for them.

Mission Plan (note, just has most notable milestones, not necessarily entirely comprehensive)

2011- First SpaceX ISS resupply mission

2016- First manned Spacex dragon capsule mission to ISS

2016- First Vasmir tug to moon sending a robotic rover.

2019- Manned mission by companies and craft other than SpaceX and their dragon begin.

2019- Very large probe to mars surface via a vasimir space tug

2020- Manned mission to moon using a plasma ion propulsion to get from LEO to the moon

2021-More manned missions to the moon and probes to mars with the same payloads as a manned mission would have.

2022- First in series of new, post Hubble super space telescopes launched.

2023- Full plasma ion propelled mars practice mission with a payload landing on mars and then actually returning to earth.

2025- Manned mars mission. Approximate round trip time 120 days. 45 to mars, 30 on the surface, 45 back. (because you travel so fast you can do the entire mission in one orbital cycle instead of waiting 1.5 yrs for the next alignment).

2025 and on- More manned Mars missions and lunar missions

2025 and on- More space telescopes launched

2027- Manned mission to near earth asteroid

2029-Either a manned or robotic mission to the Saturn moon of Titan to drill through its ice sheets and explore its under ice oceans for life, along with searching and exploring the rest of the moon.

2031 and on- More missions, manned and robotic, to distant moons and planets.

2036- Robotic mission to Alpha Centauri. Yes you read that right. A highly developed plasma ion engine should be able to eventually accelerate to between 10 and 20 percent light speed after a year or so. Propellant would normally be a problem but at that speed a magnetic scoop should be able to collect stray hydrogen atoms in space at a rate fast enough to keep the engines supplied.

2038 and beyond – Robotic missions to the other nearby solar systems.

Overall I believe these two plans would be both extremely respectable, ambitious and definitely doable both technically and financially. Many of us mourn the loss of Constellation but if that program were to be replaced by one that could send us to Mars, Titan, and other solar systems I think we would all agree that the space agency and humanity would be better for it.

God willing Obama , NASA, and whoever comes after them will see the light and have the conviction, fortitude and foresight to come up with a ten , twenty and thirty year vision similar to the one I have laid out as an example. In summary develop private launch abilities, develop plasma ion thrusters, new space telescopes, new materials, space nuclear power, back to the moon by 2020, mars in 2025, Titan in 2029 and Alpha Centauri in 2036. In terms of budget .005 percent of the federal budget is not asking much. What does it say about us as a society if we spend 35 times more on defense than we do on exploring the enormity of creation.

Exhausted after leaving possibly the longest comment ever and hoping somebody up top actually cares.

Posted via web from HoosierDiva’s Raves & Rants


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