NASA Must Embrace New Ideas

Many of those enthusiastic about the president's new space policy want to redo Apollo.

I pointed this out when it was first announced, but I didn't really describe all the implications of it.

There are many, but I want to focus here on those aspects of it that affect our choice in launch systems to achieve the president's goals, whether existing, or new.

There is an assumption that we cannot move humans beyond earth orbit without a heavy-lift vehicle, like the Saturn that first took men to the moon three and a half decades ago (and the fact that this July 20th will be the 35th anniversary of the first lunar landing makes me feel quite ancient). This assumption is based on the fact that it's how we did it the first time, and some have too little imagination to conceive that it could be done in any other way.

But that was then, and this is now.

What are the differences between then and now, in terms of our ability to fling humans beyond earth's orbit, and on to other worlds?

First, of course, we know much more now than we did then, if for no other reason than we've done it. But more importantly, technology has advanced over the past third of a century since we first went to the moon, in a time period in which technology has been generally advancing at a dizzying pace, with a seeming continuous acceleration.

Computers are much smaller and faster, materials are stronger with the ability to take higher temperatures, our ability to design is much greater, and our ability to get designs from a computer screen to functional hardware is phenomenal, compared to our capabilities in the 1960s.

Consider also that our goal then was not to open up space in any sustainable way, but to simply beat the Russians to the moon.

Under those conditions, our choice to launch a lunar mission on a single large rocket probably made sense. It wasn't cheap, but it was low risk, since we knew how to build big rockets (we only had to scale up what we already had), and we didn't know how to assemble things in space.

But there seems to be an assumption on the part of many that large launch systems are an intrinsic requirement of manned space travel. Accordingly, they've skipped past the part of the trade studies that would determine whether or not this assumption is valid, and gone straight to debating the best way to get heavy lift.

Of course, there's another motivation on the part of many engaged in such debates--a large launch system means a large development contract that provides continued employment for many who may fear losing their jobs when the space shuttle is phased out.

There is a huge constituency for the shuttle program--in Florida where they are processed and launched, in Utah where the Solid Rocket Boosters are manufactured, in Louisiana where the external tanks are built, and other places. The president's announcement that we will no longer fly the shuttle after the end of this decade had to have cast a pall over many people in those places, because even if the new initiative blossoms, there's no guarantee that it will benefit the communities that are currently supported by shuttle-based jobs.

So it's not surprising that some are talking about building a new heavy-lift launch system that uses shuttle components. If they can't keep the orbiters, there are certainly many parts of NASA and its contractors that will work very hard to maintain the rest of the (costly) shuttle infrastructure. Concepts for shuttle-based launchers have been around as long as the shuttle itself, and many will claim that this is the fastest and cheapest route to the capability that they insist we need.

But do we?

Most people are unaware that other options were considered for Apollo, including earth orbit assembly, but as I wrote above, this mode was ultimately rejected as being too risky in terms of the primary goal--beating the Russians to the moon.

But as the president said last month, this isn't a race--it's a journey, and we need to come up with modes of operation that recognize that, and make the journey an economically sustainable one. A heavy-lift vehicle, even a shuttle-derived one, will cost a lot to develop, and unless it flies enough, it will be difficult to amortize those development costs. Smaller vehicles, flown more often, will be more likely to reduce launch costs in the near term.

The objection, of course, is that orbital assembly carries its own risks. What few realize is that this is because NASA hasn't really devoted the effort necessary to reducing them (particularly in developing space suits that don't tire out the astronauts).

The current soft suit resists motion because bending a joint changes the volume of the air inside it, providing a force that wants to restore it to its original position. Think of a rubber glove, limp until inflated, but difficult to bend the fingers once under pressure.

In fact, the glove is the biggest problem in designing the high-pressure space suits necessary to avoid the bends (the same problem a diver has when she surfaces too quickly) when an astronaut goes out into the vacuum of space. Larger joints like shoulders and knees have special designs that are zero-volume change, but no one has yet miniaturized such a design to finger joints.

Because this is a critical technology, and one that has great leverage in influencing launch system trades, I would propose the following:

Build a vacuum glove box with a task box inside (perhaps an automobile engine that has to be dissassembled and reassembled). Put up a purse of a million dollars to the first person who can achieve the task working through gloves under a pressure differential of half an atmosphere, without a break.

Unlike many space activities, it's a project that can be literally done in someone's garage, and it may spur a great amount of innovation for very low cost. Accordingly, it would make an excellent candidate for the Office of Exploration's new prize fund, and I hope they'll strongly consider it. At very low cost to the taxpayers, one or more successful concepts could lay to rest myths about the intrinsic difficulty of working in space, opening up the options for how we will get to the planets beyond redoing Apollo, perhaps saving billions in dollars, and constituting a major step toward becoming a truly spacefaring nation.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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