Resurrecting Apollo? The Orbital Spaceplane may be dumped.

Discussion in 'After Hours Lounge (Off Topic)' started by Jack Briggs, May 2, 2003.

  1. Jack Briggs

    Jack Briggs Executive Producer

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    Don't really know what to make of this.

    As some of you know, NASA has issued competitive bids to three aerospace companies to offer design proposals for a manned Orbital Spaceplane that would serve as the primary crew-transport vehicle to and from the International Space Station (with one permanently docked at the ISS as a Crew Rescue Vehicle). OSP would itself be reusable, but be lofted into low Earth orbit aboard an expendable launch vehicle. The vehicle would complement the present STS, not replace it.

    Eventually, the Space Transportation System (aka, "space shuttle") itself would be retired (unfortunately) almost two decades from now by a new-generation reusable manned heavy-lift spaceplane. I say "unfortunately" because it is suicide to consider using the present system that long; a replacement vehicle should have been approved long ago.

    However, given the entrenched reluctance to boost NASA's budget to above susbsistence levels, a new proposal is being floated at the space agency: an uprated, improved version of the single-use-only Apollo Command/Service Module.

    That's right. In a clear move back to an earlier era, the U.S., under this proposal, would return to one-time-use-only spacecraft with ablative heat shields and water recoveries (i.e., "splashdowns").

    Talk about vision. The troubling part is that such a scaled-back manned-spacecraft system would be forced on NASA because of its ever-present budgetary woes.

    Way I see it, if this nation continues to regard the space effort with such indifference why not just scrap NASA altogether and parse out its science programs to other government agencies? One either conducts a manned space program with all thrusters firing or doesn't do it at all. One thing's for sure: I won't be seeing a manned mission to Mars in my lifetime. Neither will most of you.

    Read the sad news here. (A little technical, but what the hey.)
     
  2. Andrew Testa

    Andrew Testa Second Unit

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    Let me add a few comments, Jack, that may make you feel better about this.

    The ISS desperately needs a high occupancy escape vehicle in order to allow larger crews. The entire concept 10 years ago envisioned and depended on a crew return vehicle (CRV) already flying by now. The budgetary woes that are hurting us now were cast in stone years ago. Station planners had developed a strategy to work around this by stretching out assembly over additional fiscal years. This has finally bit them in the ass and they realized that some long term projects, like the CRV, couldn't be completed in time.

    The real enemy here is TIME. We've been through a flurry of design proposals for a reusable CRV that progress to the point where everyone realizes that it'll never fly within 10 years, and it's needed NOW, so it gets canceled. The fancy stuff really takes a lot of time to develop, like reusable thermal protection and long life components, runway landings, not to mention the weight trap of having to have aero surfaces and landing gear.

    What we need NOW is a simple CRV. An escape pod. A way to get crew to ISS and back, with no other capability. One already exists in the soyuz, and it has been proposed that two soyuz be left on ISS to allow a crew of six. There's nothing logistically wrong with the idea. The problem is that the Russian government practically runs an extortion protection racket with the soyuz. They loudly proclaim that funds are gone and the production lines will be stopped in, oh, 6 months. Unless you can pay us off, then we'll MAYBE build one or two more. maybe. So nobody want anything more to do with the Russians than we've already signed up for.

    Yet, for what we need RIGHT NOW, the soyuz is the perfect model. A small, single use vehicle that only transfers crew, has a simple, proven reentry strategy that would cost almost nothing compared to the reusables, and could be built far quicker for less. Don't look at it as a step back in time. Look at it as the proper tool for the job at hand. Not every problem requires the fanciest and sexiest solution. That approach is in fact the problem: we always try to make even the simplest project satisfy a huge wishlist of mostly contradictory objectives. The NASA you should be proud of is the one that spends your money on the best tool for the job, even if it's been hanging on the rack for 40 years and needs a good polishing. Good tools should last a lifetime. Bad tools SHOULD get canceled. It doesn't always work out that way, but I think this is actually a positive move to get a CRV up there as soon as possible.

    What do you think?

    Andy
     
  3. Eric_L

    Eric_L Screenwriter

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    I think NASA is on the right track. Cheaper, more efficient, better. Treat it like a private enterprise. If only more govt agencies did that.

    It seems to me that there are several consortiums of private enterprises attempting to enter into the space market as well. I recall hearing that the biggest obstacle that they face is not physics, but bureaucracy.

    Apparently the govt does not encourage competition for NASA, even though much of it is already subcontracted.

    Of course, this is my filtered 'hear what they want me to hear' opinion - which I often find to be lacking....
     
  4. RobertR

    RobertR Lead Actor

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    I tend to agree with Jack. Going back to old technology does not produce the kind of technical leap forward necessary to make progress. It's like a SF story I read about, where a giant computer was built on the Moon (because of the ability to dissipate the heat) out of vacuum tubes. It was an excellent example of staying in a technological straight jacket, simply because it "worked before".
     
  5. BrianW

    BrianW Cinematographer

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    When I was a kid, I used to watch a very badly animated cartoon called Space Angel in which the protagonist (and his EVA suit-clad dog) flew around the solar system in an Apollo rocket, sans ground crew. I guess this really is our future. That's a dreadful shame.
     
  6. Andrew Testa

    Andrew Testa Second Unit

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    Yeah Brian, I fixed that. Minor brain fart. Sorry Jack.

    You guys have to realize two things:

    1: nothing having to do with the ISS or shuttle is going to be what the public would consider a "big leap forward" in technology. The engineering involved is impressive, but it doesn't hold the attention like a slick batwinged super-orbiter or something. How many people do you know would even understand the significance of completely upgrading the fleet from switch and gauge display and control to complete glass cockpit technology? It was a pretty big deal, but nobody knows about it because it doesn't make the orbiter look any different.

    2: There are quite a few "big leap forward" research projects going on at NASA, but they are very long term, low budget, still in the research phase. One fact of life in the space program is that things evolve slowly, and it takes a pretty large public push to make them go faster. By the time things like plasma engines are in use, they'll already be behind the current technology curve due to the time required to build systems around them and launch them. We've used some pretty amazing technology in the past few years, but on small projects. We've used some very novel landing strategies to put landers on Mars. Some worked, others didn't. We've used ion engines in an operational deep space probe that included autonomous control, something never done before, but got almost no press since no people were on board.

    The current apparently abysmal condition of the manned space program was written in stone 15 years ago. We're going to have to live with it for another 20 on the front burner with ISS and the orbiter fleet. But NASA is waking up to the fact that they need multiple paths into space and that planning must begin now for a replacement for the shuttle. If the result of that leads to a temporary single use Apollo-style CRV and transport, then it's a step forward, and a correct one, since it fills a direct need and will allow incorporation of today's technology to the design. It will be an advanced technology vehicle even if it looks and behaves like a very old one.

    All progress is going to be incremental. That's the nature of the political and economic world that a space program has to live in now. "Because it's there" is hard to justify to Congress when you ask for 100 billion to go to Mars. You're right, you most likely won't see a manned mission to Mars in your lifetime, barring something like a rover uncovering an arrowhead. But that's not NASA's fault. We'd go if the money and political will were behind it, but it's not.

    Andy
     
  7. Grant B

    Grant B Producer

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    I had a few friends who worked at the old rockpile plant, they were convinced most of the original apollo design stuff was shitcanned in the 80s due to space considerations.
    they would have to reinvent the wheel
     
  8. Grant B

    Grant B Producer

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  9. BrianW

    BrianW Cinematographer

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  10. Jack Briggs

    Jack Briggs Executive Producer

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    I'll second Brian's comments. Andy, you are really, really impressing me. I also have read similar arguments on behalf of the new CRV proposal at Keith Cowing's excellent NASAwatch site. I see the point, but I don't like it.



    That, too, has been supremely frustrating to me. The Deep Space One spacecraft truly is revolutionary. But how many rank-and-file people even know about it?

    About media attention: The commercial broadcast networks and print media, at the time of the Apollo 12 mission in November 1969, have been telling us smugly that Americans are not that interested in manned spaceflight—despite, for example, a million people showing up at the Cape for the 1971 launch of Apollo 15. Well, it's the people in the media who are not interested in manned spaceflight; none of the networks nor any of the major newspapers have any full-time space correspondents any longer.

    And what coverage there is usually is rife with errors and misunderstanding due to laziness. How often, for example, have we heard about the "stranded" ISS crew that is now able to come home? They have never been stranded; a Soyuz is permanently docked at the ISS. But ABC's Peter Jennings, just two evenings ago, referred yet again to the "stranded" men aboard the ISS.

    How can the public wisely disseminate information about the manned and unmanned space efforts with this sort of misinformation steeped in media apathy and ignorance?
     
  11. Eric_L

    Eric_L Screenwriter

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  12. CharlesD

    CharlesD Screenwriter

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    Why not buy Soyuz capsules and the rockets from the Russians? Yeah I now pride and all that, but we need something to salvage US manned spaceflight in short and medium term. Unfortunately we, the US, have lacked the collective will and vision to do anything other than band-aid compromises and I don't see that changing any time soon. In the mean time the Russians have a reliable human launch vehicle that can get people to and from the ISS. Why go to the expensive of developing our own version of Soyuz, when the Russians already have one?
     
  13. Eric Kahn

    Eric Kahn Guest

    Although NASA would never consider it, what the space station needs for life modules (boats) is something quite like an Apollo space capsule, get in, hit go, and it drops you to a safe, with no need for a trained pilot, splashdown in the ocean.
    there is almost nowhere that we can not get a navy ship to in 48 hours and the module does not have to re-enter immediately on separation from the station, they would have to make sure that there were supplies for a couple of days on board the capsule and maybe a life raft in case the flotation failed at splashdown
     
  14. Andrew Testa

    Andrew Testa Second Unit

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    Thanks for the kind words guys.

    If there's one thing that NASA is a complete failure at, it's public relations. They rely too heavily on the press to cover their successes. The press has an extremely short attention span, however. If something works three times in a row, it's no longer news.

    NASA really needs to publicize everything they do. We've had plans for moon and Mars bases for years. There are all kinds of new propulsion technologies that are being lab tested right now. New concepts for living quarters(TransHab, an inflatable module) have successfully completed full scale thermal and vacuum testing. Several companies have sunk there own money into prototype single-stage-to-orbit vehicles. But without full Congressional support , there's no money. And so these programs get canceled at the first sign of difficulty because the companies would go broke going it on their own.

    There's a lot of smart people at NASA, and sometimes they even get heard. I think this Apollo style vehicle is one of those times. There's really no reason for anyone to feel discouraged about it. It's not like their going to pull old capsules out of museums for this. And I can assure you that it isn't taking the place of some more worthy vehicle. None of the fancy designs, like the OSP or the current CRV prototype, or any of the SSTO or second-generation shuttles could possible be built in time at anything remotely resembling a reasonable cost. This can.

    This is truly a new vehicle that would have the most current technology driving it, that uses a tried and true model for a single job. And it will be much safer for the crew than the shuttle. It has a great escape concept that allows a bail at any time. It the best idea I've seen yet to solve the ISS staffing problem.

    An advanced generation vehicle to replace the shuttles won't be seen for at least 10 to 15 years. The ISS is locked into dependency on the current shuttles, so they can't be retired until a replacement has already flown. R&D on such a replacement has started conceptually, but we're not even close to agreeing what the mission of a new vehicle would be. Is it only for ISS servicing? Should it carry larger or smaller payloads? Should there be a non-crewed version? Should it have a small crew, or capacity for a large crew of mission specialists? None of there have been answered. Until they are addressed, the shuttles must keep flying.

    I know that from the outside it looks like NASA couldn't put it's pants on if the lights were out, but there's a lot more going on that drives the decisions that eventually make the news. As I said previously, most of the revolving door of new vehicle concepts getting canceled is due to the plans reaching a stage where it's clear it can't be done in time or with a reasonable budget, so it's best to look for other alternatives. So far this Apollo-derived vehicle makes the most sense for the specific job it's being considered for.

    Believe me, this is pretty sedate compared to the cluster-fuck we lived through during the station redesigns in the early 90's. Now THERE was a case of extremely bad management from headquarters, and downright ugly micromanagement from Congress. If you want to hate people for the state of the space program today, that's where you want to aim it.

    Anyway, I'm just rambling now. But I'd be pleased to offer an insider's view (at least from an engineer/physicist view) of why things happen the way they do at NASA. Or just field generic physics problems, like the feasibility of space elevators.

    Andy
     
  15. BrianW

    BrianW Cinematographer

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  16. Ashley Seymour

    Ashley Seymour Supporting Actor

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    Well, the Soyuz just came down with the Cosmonauts and our Austronaut - 250 miles past the target. How does this thing come down 250 off target? Are we still dealing with Russian technology shortcomings?

    Question for Jack Briggs. About 10-15 years ago, there was a chemist who had a spray on substance like the tiles on the shuttle. You could spray it and hold a blow torch to it and it would be immediately cool to the touch. So what happend to this stuff? More like a perpetual machine? Not easily implemented into any proposed space craft? Inquiring minds want to know.
     
  17. Eric_L

    Eric_L Screenwriter

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    Andrew and Jack;

    Your knowledgeable insights are appreciated.

    Thank you
     
  18. Jack Briggs

    Jack Briggs Executive Producer

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    X-33/X-34 anyone? The VentureStar was an ambitious, quantum-leap-forward concept. Maybe too ambitious for today's technology. But I can't help but wonder if decent funding might have enabled the engineers to overcome the problems with the fuel tank on the demonstrator.

    And, yes, who can forget the conceptual redesigns and redesigns of the redesigns of the "Space Station Freedom" debacle. That had to be one of NASA's more ignominious hours, with billions wasted and no hardware to show for it. Right down there with all the tiles blowing off the Orbiter Columbia when it was first flown to the Cape in 1979 on top of the 747.

    Andy is also correct about NASA being its own worst public-relations enemy at times. The people in the information office seem inherently incapable of communicating the agency's vision.

    I remember watching a NASA-made "documentary" about the forthcoming space station on the then primitive Discovery Channel in 1989. Its opening line of voiceover narrative described the space station as—hold on to your seats—"a place to work."

    Wow. Your nearest McDonald's is a "place to work."

    Talk about salesmanship!

    Of course, NASA in those days was politically constrained from describing the space station as a platform for launching deep-space vehicles. Talk about manned missions beyond low Earth orbit was a strict no-no.

    But the ISS, as configured and as envisioned, cannot support that sort of activity anyway.
     
  19. CharlesD

    CharlesD Screenwriter

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    The Soyuz may have missed it's target by a huge margin, but at least it came down in one piece.
     
  20. Andrew Testa

    Andrew Testa Second Unit

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    Jack,

     

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