Friday, September 30, 2005

Moonward Ho!

Last week, NASA announced its plan to return to the moon.

The link takes you to NASA's site describing the hardware involved. Some of it ought to look more than a little bit familiar.

On the face of it, taking the Shuttle rocket systems apart and jamming them back together like so many Legos sounds ludicrous. But ... it's not a half-bad idea.

Look: the primary lesson we can take away from our experience with the Shuttle is that parallel staging is nothing but trouble. Both times we lost an orbiter, it was because of the hazards inherent in parallel staging. An O-ring burn-through is what killed Challenger, and insulation shedding is what did Columbia in. If the Orbiter had been designed such that it rode atop the External Tank, the Columbia accident could never have happened the way it did.

Now, take another look at the CEV stack. (It's on the right.) SRB on bottom, cryogenic stage in the middle, and the "Son Of CSM" CEV manned module on top. If something goes cubist with one of the lower two stages, the astronauts can jet away with an escape tower. That's proven tech, folks. We never had to use one with Apollo, but the Russians have had to make use of escape rockets, and they really do work.

Looking at the proposed heavy-lift model (it's on the left), we see that the SRBs and External Tank are side-by-side, just like we do it now. But, we've pretty much fixed the O-ring burn-through problem. They'll have to find a brand new way to screw that one up. And the cargo rides up on top. The foam can shed 'till the cows come home, and never hit anything important.

There's evidence of a lesson learned, here. Because we did something quite foolish at the end of the Apollo program in the early 1970s.

We threw all of that old, proven hardware away.

By electing to start from a completely clean sheet of paper, we thought we'd be able to realize some measure of economy by developing completely new technology. But, at the same time, we lost the opportunity to leverage from what we'd learned from building and flying the Apollo/Saturn hardware. We threw away a booster with an absolutely spotless flight record! Every time the Saturn V flew, it put its payload in orbit. A perfect record. You don't see that very often.

What they're doing right here, in my opinion, is leveraging what the American taxpayer has already bought and paid for. We don't need to blow R&D money on a new heavy-lift booster. We've already got one, for the most part, we just need to reconfigure it a bit. We don't need a completely new manned booster. We just need to use what we've already built a little more creatively.

Some might deride this approach as low-tech. Me, I see it as being good stewards of the public's money, using what we've already got to get where we want to go. Using known, proven technology to get the job done. No vaporware. No unobtainium. No dumping massive amounts of cash down a money pit for five or ten years, only to discover that you just can't get there from here.

Well, we can get there from here. What man has done, man can aspire to.

When I was a boy, I saw men walking on the Moon, live on TV. Not many can say that they chose their college major at five years of age, but I did. I always wanted the chance to do that, myself. I probably won't get it -- I'll be 51 in 2018, after all -- but it does warm the heart to know that the Stars and Stripes will once again be planted on extraterrestrial soil.

It is good to see us dare great things, again.

UPDATE: Holy Pimp-Slap, Batman! Now, it's important not to read more into what Dr. Griffin said than he actually meant. He's not saying anything that many of us in the aerospace community haven't already been saying for years: the Shuttle is a seriously compromised design, and always has been. But there's also a side point that ought to be stressed. With the imminent phase-out of the Shuttle, NASA gets a lot of budgetary breathing room. That's where the funds for this new initiative will come from. So, the answer to the inevitable question, "Where's the money come from?" is "Same place it always has." There's no new funding here, just a re-allocation of what NASA already gets.

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