Obama’s capsule conundrum, what you hadn’t noticed?

by | Feb 4, 2010 | Seradata News | 21 comments

The total annihilation of the Constellation programme with the culling of the Orion crew exploration vehicle and any vestigal remains of the Ares V cargo launch vehicle was a surprise for this blogger. Despite the prospects for Constellation beginning to look bad last year with the Review of US human spaceflight plans Lockheed Martin officials could still be seen smiling at the technical conferences I attend while Ares contractors were obviously not happy bunnies

And that big smile on Lockheed’s employees’ faces seemed justified because, for what has felt like forever, we have been hearing that a commercial provider could deliver crew and cargo to the International Space Station but something else would take the brave explorers beyond low Earth orbit. Throughout all of the kerfuffle over the cancellation of Constellation in the last few days this blog has not spotted (correct me if I’m wrong) any one asking the question, what are the astronauts travelling beyond LEO to travel in?

Think about it, your commercial provider will have designed a capsule thermal protection system (TPS) for re-entering the atmosphere at just under 17,500mph but now you’re heading into the cosmos on this “flexible path” as NASA calls it to visit an asteroid or circumnavigate the Moon or deploy or service a telescope at L1 or L2 – and then you have to head home at speeds well in excess of 17,500mph. How confident would you feel about your TPS?

This is the situation Obama’s space plan has left the US exploration efforts in. A propulsion R&D project for an unknown “heavy lift” rocket of the future, other unspecified technology efforts and a commercial competition for LEO access, only

There is no manned spacecraft for leaving Earth orbit. Oh but you can use a “block II” of the commercial capsule I hear someone out there cry

Uh oh I reply. Hasn’t anyone learned already that unless you get your specifications right at the beginning you’re just looking for a world of cost and schedule overruns? I guess not

Assuming your LEO access rocket, whatever that will be, can lift this beefier beyond Earth orbit capsule and your happy to accept a smaller crew count for the longer trips I guess you can stick with the same outer mold line but your TPS, service module and crew capsule innards are all going to be very very different

Hello extensive redesign, hello doubling your costs to produce “block II”. This should not sound like a swipe at commercial providers, it is not, it is just a reflection upon the realities of designing a spacecraft for one order of magnitude of re-entry heat flux when another order of magnitude of heat flux is just a few years down the road

You’ve got it all wrong, voices from the blogosphere shout, the heavy lift will take the beyond LEO capsule into orbit, it will be a new more effective design enabled with the technologies developed under the research programme Obama wants to enact

That is an argument, and with the Congressional backlash good arguments are going to be needed, but what timing is envisaged for this new path of exploration and how does this mystery capsule fit in with it?

NASA administrator Charles Bolden says tiger teams are hard at work analysing the needs for the “flexible path’s” many missions. Somehow I think a manned spacecraft that can keep at least a crew of three alive for weeks at a time is going to be in that mix somewhere

And where will the money for that Orion redux come from?

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