NASA’s “new” rocket

6 January 2009

Last week Demian McLean, a journalist with Bloomberg.com, wrote an article detailing preliminary discussions between NASA and the Obama transition team to use existing rockets to launch Americans into space after the Space Shuttle is retired. In order to avoid the expensive and time consuming recertification program recommended by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board in 2003, NASA’s remaining fleet of Space Shuttles, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour, are scheduled to be retired in May 2010. The Space Shuttle’s successor, Project Constellation, will not be ready to launch humans into space until 2015 at the earliest. This leaves the United States with, at least, a five year gap between the final Space Shuttle flight and the first crewed flight of Project Constellation. For some, including this author, that is an untenable proposition.

As currently planned, Project Constellation will utilize a newly developed rocket, known as Ares I, to launch a newly designed Crew Exploration Vehicle, known as Orion. The Ares I rocket will use Space Shuttle-derived hardware, namely a five-segment solid rocket booster which will serve as the rocket’s first stage. Like all new systems, especially those designed to fly in space, the Ares rocket has presented challenges to its designers and builders. However, development of the Ares rocket has proceeded at a steady pace.

Unfortunately the progress made by NASA and its contractors has not kept pace with changing international dynamics. With an increasingly unpredictable Russia and a rapidly advancing Chinese space program, the United States may be left without a way to send humans into space at a time when it can least afford it. Thus the idea of using existing rockets has been raised. The two rockets most frequently mentioned are Boeing’s Delta IV and Lockheed-Martin’s Atlas V. Both rockets are currently used to launch commercial, military, and scientific payloads into space. The use of existing rockets to launch humans into space is not a new concept. Between 1961 and 1966, American Astronauts were launched into space atop military rockets never designed to carry human payloads.

An Atlas rocket launches Gordon Cooper into space, 15 May 1963.
An Atlas rocket launches Gordon Cooper into space, 15 May 1963.
An Atlas V rocket launches an unmanned spacecraft to Pluto, 19 January 2006.
An Atlas V rocket launches an unmanned spacecraft to Pluto, 19 January 2006.

While the use of existing rockets originally designed to carry, among other things, DISH Network satellites into spaceĀ  may seem like a desperate act, it could be necessary. A five year gap in human spaceflight by the United States is not acceptable and should be an embarrassment to all Americans. The United States has a proud history of human exploration in space. Surrendering, for at least five years, the exploration of space to Russia or China is a repugnant thought. Therefore, the incoming Obama administration should consider any and all options for continuing America’s human presence in space. If that means retrofitting existing rockets for human use, so be it. For those, including me, who are not thrilled with the idea of completly scrapping the Ares booster and throwing away the millions of dollars spent to design and build it, the use of existing rockets need not be the death knell for the Ares rocket. Using rockets such as the Atlas V or Delta IV could be a stop-gap measure employed while the Ares rocket is under development. Whatever the Obama administration decides to do, it must done quickly. While automobiles and clothing may be manufactured overseas, the human exploration of space is one venture that cannot be outsourced to the cheapest producer.