Friday, October 30, 2009

The Rockets' Red Glare

At 11:30 Eastern Time on Wednesday, NASA's first new rocket design in nearly forty years began a brief test flight, flying some 25-30 miles high and 150 miles downrange. The first stage was mostly a complete Ares I first stage, with the upper stages being all boilerplate ballast. Performance-wise, everything looked all right, from what I can tell. The prototype first stage did pretty much what a first stage has to do: lift the stack up above most of the atmosphere, and accelerate it to somewhere around Mach 5. What I'm curious to find out is how the vibration loads worked out. Preliminary design revealed some vibration problems early on, presumably the prototype incorporates some kind of vibration absorber. It'll take some time to spin the data down, though; it may be weeks before they know, and weeks after that before the report comes out. And it'd be nice if Ares I had enough lifting power to haul a six-man Orion capsule into orbit, being that the International Space Station has a crew of six... Still, a job well done for the Ares crew. But that's not the only interesting thing happening over in NASA-land.

Unless you've been paying close attention, you won't have known that the Augustine Commission has released its final report on America's manned spaceflight program. It's an interesting document. Basically, it outlines two problems: selection of goals, and marshaling the resources to achieve those goals. The two are related, in that the amount of resources you allocate determines what kinds of goals you can accomplish.

The fundamental fact is this: the United States is willing to spend between half to one percent of the Federal budget on space flight. Not more, and not less. The spectacular failure of Von Braun's post-Apollo plans was entirely due to his failure to realize this fact. No one today has that excuse. Over the last 35 years, the give-and-take of politics has quite firmly established what the American public is willing to pay.

Nevertheless, given that the current budget is at the low end of that range, there is room for some growth. And some growth is necessary, if we want to explore beyond Earth orbit. Basically, the FY2010 baseline budget won't allow any operations beyond Earth orbit. You just can't get there from here. But a modest increase -- and, relatively speaking, one half of one percent is a modest increase -- will provide enough resources to develop the vehicles and technologies to enable meaningful, useful exploration.

Mind you, I don't think that a flags-and-footprints jaunt would be either useful or particularly meaningful. But, exploring the far side of the Moon, where no one's been yet, or exploring the polar regions where we've recently discovered water ice... These are well worth doing. So would a flyby of a near-Earth asteroid, which would give us more information about a class of celestial objects that we really need to know more about.

I don't especially care how we go about doing it. I prefer the "Flexible Path" options outlined in the report, because that seems to give us a sufficiently flexible infrastructure to do whatever we want to do. That would be a better way to spend the taxpayers' money, in my opinion. The irony is that Ares I isn't part of any of those options. Ares I isn't part of any of the options, aside from the "program of record" entries. As I said earlier, Ares I is sadly underpowered, and the project probably isn't long for this world. The report makes that fairly clear. But the ultimate goals aren't in any real danger, since there are other rockets that can do the job.

Now, the decision rests with NASA management, and with the White House. They will have to take the recommendations of the Augustine Commission under advisement, and figure out how we go forward from here. We know where we are. We know where we want to end up.

Now, we have a better idea how go get there.

[Addendum, 1Nov09: Mr. X over at Chair Force Engineer has a wealth of recent posts about the Ares 1-X launch, the Augustine Commission report, and the Constellation program in general. Well worth a look.]

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