The month of September 2011 was a fresh, new turning point for America’s space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration—NASA. There was finally some good news to report after two years of management indecision and missed public relations opportunities.
After more than 24 months of agency angst over federal budget reality and a new Washington administration’s “change”, many outside observers wondered if they were watching the demise of America in space. (The ill-timed space-shuttle program ending didn’t help matters either.) But when it comes to NASA, appearances are often skin deep and resurrections are scientifically possible.
Recovering from the change of focus in manned spaceflight beginning in late 2009 (not all for the good) NASA officials have had to roll with the punches; however, they again have demonstrated their agency’s ability to live up to its founding mission as envisioned by President Eisenhower in 1958.
Last week, NASA made official a new vision for space travel that it is very exciting, if somewhat more cautious than the Apollo days.
Both the Orion spacecraft—established under the Bush administration in 2004—and a giant carrier rocket (formerly known as the Ares V, but now revamped and dubbed the SLS or Space Launch System rocket) have survived the Obama’s administration need to mark its own territory. And aside from no plans to land on the Moon anytime before 2030, NASA’s Constellation program vision remains intact even if it’s no longer called such; the new effort is a leaner, less ambitious one than that envisioned by the previous White House administration.
No matter, NASA’s new SLS rocket will rival the old Saturn-5 rocket in both height and pounds of thrust. Like the 1960s, it will employ a large work force including engineers and technicians; its construction network will span 30 states. And during the course of the next 6-8 years or more, the rocket project will see quite a few technological spinoffs.
Standing 320 feet tall, this manned rocket will also have a larger unmanned cargo companion (standing 400 feet tall!) to loft future planetary landers and space station components into orbit.
Both SLS rockets will incorporate technology already developed from the Saturn-5 and the space-shuttle program.
The SLS’s main engine will be the space-shuttle’s main engine, the RS-25D/E. An upper stage rocket will be based on the Saturn-5’s upper stage engine. So, taxpayer investments are being well served here. And “recycling” is a good idea when billions of dollars have already been spent in rocket R&D.
With the SLS rocket, we’ll see a return to the USA’s human interplanetary adventure. The basic SLS rocket and its taller sibling will provide the means for returning humans to the Moon and going on to Mars.
Sitting 30 stories atop the SLS rocket will be the Apollo-like reusable Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. This aerodynamic craft looks like a beefier version of Apollo; it is roomier than Apollo and will hold up to seven astronauts and supplies for longer space treks.
While Orion’s service module component will be discarded when it returns to Earth, the command module will be reusable. More versatile than the shuttle in space, Orion will be ideal for trips to the Moon, asteroids, and even Mars and Mercury. Close observational flybys of Venus with a human crew are also possible.
Funded at $3 billion a year, the SLS program (excluding Orion) is well within NASA’s current budget. Its first flight is planned by 2017 with Orion’s first crewed flight to go around the Moon a short time later.
A 2025 asteroid mission is planned as a prelude to a Mars trek. In the meantime, a lander will have to be developed and tested in both Earth and lunar orbit.
According to NASA Administrator Dr. Charles Bolden Sept. 14, “the next chapter of America’s space-exploration is being written today.”
Barring unexpected financial and political obstacles (always a reality in today’s fits-and-starts space game), Bolden’s words may become as prophetic as JFK’s classic 1961 “Race to the Moon” speech.
Lou Varricchio, M.Sc., was a senior science writer at the NASA Ames Research Center in California. He was recently named director of aerospace education for the Vermont Wing of the Civil Air Patrol, a USAF auxiliary.