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Back to the future for U.S. manned space flight

 - June 9, 2009, 10:42 AM

As the era of the Space Shuttle draws to a close, uncertainty hangs over the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) like the pall of smoke after a launch. Only eight more Shuttle flights are planned, to complete the construction of the International Space Station (ISS). After that, there will be a five-year hiatus before the next U.S. astronauts fly from the KSC–on the Ares launch system that is reminiscent of the Saturn/ Apollo era. Meanwhile, former Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine is leading a high-level independent review into Project Constellation, the ambitious plan for manned space flight to earth orbit and then to the Moon and beyond that was set by the previous Administration.

Many workers at the KSC would be happy if the review granted a reprieve to the Space Shuttle. “I am amazed that it’s being retired before the replacement is available,” one veteran manager told AIN at the KSC last month. As things stand, the U.S. will rely on Russian Soyuz boosters to fly astronauts to the ISS until 2015. Meanwhile, NASA will rely on commercially developed launchers from Orbital Sciences Corp. and SpaceX for routine unmanned resupply flights to the ISS.

Boeing has a big stake in current and future U.S. manned space flight. It supports the Shuttle orbiter vehicle in a joint venture with Lockheed Martin, as well as being the prime U.S. contractor for the ISS, leading a team of nine contractors that processes all the NASA payloads at the KSC.

The company is trying to bridge the gap between the shuttle and the Ares for its 1,000 highly qualified workers in and around the KSC. “We’re doing work on the P-8 maritime aircraft mission system, and applying our expertise in structural analysis to the 747-8 airliner,” explained Kevin Hochstrasser, Boeing site director, Florida Operations. According to a NASA spokesman, about 3,500 of the 14,500 workforce employed by NASA and its contractors at the KSC are likely to be made redundant.

Boeing is already under contract for some aspects of Project Constellation, including production of the expendable upper stage that NASA has designed for the Ares 1 launcher. It is powered by a Pratt & Whitney/Rocketdyne liquid-oxygen/hydrogen engine that is derived from the old Saturn upper stage. The recoverable first stage of the Ares 1 is provided by ATK, and is the same Solid Rocket Booster as found on the Space Shuttle launch system, with an extra (fifth) segment added.

Lockheed Martin is providing the crew module, called Orion. This spacecraft looks similar to old Apollo crew module. It can take up to six astronauts to the ISS and return them to earth with an Apollo-style re-entry and touchdown. Essentially, NASA has gone back to basics following the failure of various single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) demonstrations in the last two decades.

The first test of this new launch system is scheduled for August, and the major components of the Ares 1-X are now in the huge vehicle assembly building at the KSC. But the fifth segment of the SRB, the upper stage, the Orion crew module and the launch escape system that top the rocket are all dummies. The real thing won’t be tested for a few more years, as the Aries 1-Y. Missions to the ISS should begin in 2015.

To go back to the Moon, two successive launches will be required. After the Orion is launched by an Aries 1, a much heavier two-stage booster called Aries V will carry an “Earth departure stage” and a lunar lander called Altair into orbit.

There, these two elements will dock with the Orion before the journey to the Moon. The Orion can stay in an unmanned lunar orbit for up to 210 days, awaiting the return of up to four astronauts from the Moon’s surface in the Altair lander.

Study contracts for the Ares V booster and the Altair lunar lander have been postponed pending the high-level review. Since Project Constellation was first approved five years ago, there have been cost overruns on Ares 1 and the Orion. NASA’s projection of the entire cost up to and including the first lunar landing in 2020 has risen from $57 billion to $92 billion. The Congressional Budget Office estimates $110 billion. Is this affordable? When Augustine led a previous review of NASA in 1990, he called for the agency to concentrate on science, not on human space flight.

“We’re here to serve NASA, not to drive their policy,” said David Bethay, Boeing’s director for Project Constellation. But he defended the urge to explore and the basic architecture of the project. “We’re in a transition and we must capture the lessons of the past,” he added. Bethay said that the Ares boosters would be much more reliable and would benefit from the ability to model and analyze that is much greater today than when the Shuttle was designed.

As for whether the three remaining Shuttles could be extended, Bethay said only NASA could decide whether they could continue flying with a lesser degree of certification when their current life on paper runs out.

He noted that an alternative means of closing the manned space flight gap would be to accelerate Ares.

According to one commentator, NASA has already spent $6.9 billion on the Constellation program and is spending $300 million per month. “There is never a perfect time to conduct a study such as this. The train is in motion,” noted Augustine, upon his appointment last month. “I am not thrilled that we have a gap. We will be looking at different architectures…we will probably offer a couple of options,” he added.