So why does it seem as though we’ve done this before?
Dec. 5, 2014 — The big rocket stood upright grand and gleaming as the first rays of the early morning Florida sun back lit it with a surreal glow reminiscent of 2001 A Space Odyssey’s sunrise on the moon that triggered the monolith to send a radio signal toward Jupiter (or Saturn, depending on whether one is speaking of the movie or the book) to tell someone that it had been found. The countdown reached zero and the Delta roared and belched fire to tell the thousands of people gathered to witness this event that they had indeed found it.
And as the most powerful rocket in the world with the Orion capsule perched proudly on top slowly climbed into the air and its date with destiny, I looked around at all the people gathered from all walks of media; radio, TV, newspaper, magazine, Internet and more (is there more?) all gushing into their microphones, cameras, computers, telephones and more (is there more?) about this test flight heralding the dawn of a new era in space travel and about how this technology is by God going to get us where no human being has ever gone before and that this, this heat shield test, was a most wondrous event that would transform mankind info a multi-planet civilization. Only one little problem with that:
We did it all before. It didn’t transform us then and there’s a really, really good chance (given the reality of US politics) that it won’t transform us now.
What we witnessed the morning of December 5, 2014 was exactly the same thing we witnessed on the morning of November 7, 1967 when Apollo 4 took off, unmanned, on its first heat shield test flight except that they did it better in 1967. As opposed to today’s four hour test, the Apollo ship did a nine hour test and came screaming back into the atmosphere at 25,000 mph.
Apollo’s heat shield was made of Avcoat, an epoxy novolac resin with special additives in a fiberglass honeycomb matrix. As the heat shield got hotter during reentry it flaked off (ablated) and blew away, hence, it’s called an ablative heat shield.
The Orion heat shield is made of Avcoat, an epoxy novolac resin with special additives in a fiberglass honeycomb matrix. As the heat shield gets hotter during reentry it flakes off (ablates) and blows away. That’s right; it’s exactly the same as Apollo’s heat shield.
Orion itself is a capsule. It is launched like, flies like and lands like…just like… the Apollo capsule. It’s a tad bigger but not much. Unlike Apollo, Orion will have a miniature port-a-potty on board–no diapers for these crews (can you say, “…uh, would you all turn around please?”). Orion also has updated computers and flight software but that’s to be expected. Most of the control switches have been replaced with virtual switches on a glass display. Ever tried to use a touch screen wearing a spacesuit? Good luck. But, I digress…
Everything tested this morning was tested thoroughly twelve times before; forty seven years before. The heat shield, flight parameters, capsule design, everything, was not only tested in test flights (two of them) but in actual trips to the moon and back (ten of them). So this morning’s test was nothing special, innovative or exciting. It simply proved that we could duplicate and upgrade what had been already created by the grandparents of the Orion designers. There is no imaginative thinking, no radical design no futuristic creativity anywhere in the SLS/Orion package. It borrows from everything that has gone before and will use pre-owned shuttle engines in the core and even Saturn rocket motors (albeit, upgraded a tad) in the upper stages.
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NASA seems to be confusing the creation of new ways of doing things, such as laser welding, with innovation. Coming up with a new way to splice two wires together is not the same as coming up with something that eliminates the wires entirely. They’re copying everything that has been done already. There’s no inventing anything radical or even new and it’s still going to be another six to eight years before Orion flies anywhere carrying people. Wow. Why? The Orion project was started in, what, 2009? Launching humans in 2021 means it will have taken twelve years to copy what it took NASA seven years to do completely from scratch back in the sixties when there was no technology. In the epic words of Kenan Thompson, “What’s up with that?” In 1962 when JFK said we were going to the moon by 1969, there was no space program, no rockets, no guidance systems, no astronauts, no capsules, no computers, no space suits, nothing. Seven short years later we landed on the moon-hell, we drove a car on the moon! It took only ten years to develop the space shuttle, a whole new radical thing. Now, in 2014, after 7 successful moon landings and returns, 135 shuttle flights, building a space station, launching space telescopes and doing nothing but simply copying and upgrading old ideas, we still can’t get back into space in a timely manner. Folks, there’s something wrong here. I don’t know what it is, but something’s amiss. It seems as though every time NASA releases a new goal date for the first manned flight, it’s moved up a year. It was 2017. Now, it’s 2021. Is there a stall tactic somewhere in the mix? It certainly seems as though they’re stalling for time to either find fixes for the program or develop a more convincing PR campaign to sell it to those of us who might be seeing through it.
NASA has to know what’s wrong with this whole Orion concept. Here are some of the items on my list:
One: Orion is a little bigger, but not much, than Apollo. That extra room though will be used up by one or more extra astronauts and a miniature port-a-potty. Hopefully there will be a curtain of some sort that can be pulled around the miniature port-a-potty. Can you imagine being stuck in one room with three or four other people and a port-a-potty for six weeks or longer? Or, up to six months if Mars is involved?
Two: There’s no airlock. Need to make a spacewalk for some reason? The entire ship needs to be at vacuum and the entire crew needs to be in space suits. When the spacewalk is over and the hatch closed the cabin is re-pressurized-unless of course the re-pressurization unit fails or the hatch won’t close (hatch closing problems occurring with the shuttle delayed several launches) in which case the astronauts could very well end up kinda dead.
Three: The issue of radiation. DNA ripping high energy particles from outside our solar system are zipping around everywhere in space. The Apollo astronauts saw them as flashes of light passing right through their eye balls. And, should the sun decide to release a gigantic solar flare in the direction of the ship the crew needs a place to hide. The best place would be in a small room with six walls made out of lead or thick bags of water. Unfortunately, Orion has no room for either room. Unless NASA is planning to lash several Orions and their service modules together to make one big ship, going anywhere in Orion could be very hazardous to one’s health.
Four: The minute SpaceX successfully reuses its entire launch package, the cost of blasting Orion into space with no reusable parts means that NASA will have a gigantic white elephant (red herring?) on its hands. Orion will be launched atop the largest, most bullish rocket ever thrown together from spare parts, the SLS – the Space Launch System. You just make a central core out of what used to be a shuttle fuel tank, stick a few old shuttle engines on it and a Delta IV Heavy second stage then strap on a couple of five-segment shuttle boosters (same as but bigger than the ones that blew up Challenger) and presto you have the SLS. Why it would take eight to ten years to nail this stuff together is anyone’s guess (maybe because the parts were never designed to work together?). But, the point is, the only thing that comes back is the capsule which NASA is proudly touting as ‘reusable.’ Everything else is thrown away including the SRBs, the Solid Rocket Boosters that were reusable during the shuttle program (remember, they came floating back down on parachutes with on-board cameras capturing all the action and then YouTubing it?) but which are now expendable. The SLS will cost as much to launch as the shuttle did (a half a bil) and, while it is ten times safer than the shuttle, it does only a tenth as much and will be about a tenth as comfortable. Again, it’s like Delta or Southwest throwing away the plane after every flight.
Five: “Splashing” Orion down in the ocean with little or no maneuvering control and sending the expensive US Navy to retrieve it Long term distance missions are very, very different from short term LEO missions. A Low Earth Orbit mission affords the crew at least moderate control of their landing environment. Many times the space shuttles delayed their returns for one reason or another (usually weather). But, long duration missions at vast distances from earth are an entirely different ballgame. A returning deep-space ship must have the ability to control when and where it will land. What if, after a six-week long mission to an asteroid, there’s a typhoon in the landing area? The capsule, establishing its trajectory weeks earlier and barreling back at 25,000+ miles an hour, can’t change course or even pick out a nice quite patch of ocean and maneuver to it. It’s gonna land in that typhoon and the parachutes will more than likely get ripped to shreds. In reality, far less than typhoon strength winds can damage the parachutes (the weakest link in the whole system) and cause catastrophic mission failure. Prior to the December 5th test flight, NASA made sure the weather in the landing area as well as the launch area was ideal. They will not have this control at the end of a long mission. Unless a crew can completely control their landing parameters, they stand a real chance of ending their mission ingloriously.
Off the top of my head, there are at least two solutions to the landing problem.
Solution 1: Don’t land. Bleed 7,500 miles an hour off your speed with an EOIB (Earth Orbit Insertion Burn) and dock with a space station. Then take a different ship (a shuttle?) down to the ground. Assemble the refuelable long duration mission ship itself in orbit. Doing a series of launches of spacecraft modular segments to an orbiting service/re-fueling station and piecing the ship together in space would mean that it can be much bigger, more functional and much more comfortable than any capsule and once it’s built it can make many trips to many asteroids and comets and even to the moon and never need to be ground launched thus saving all that money. To be fair, NASA is considering this plan but far into the future.
Solution 2: Launch a ram/scram/kazam jet powered winged ship up the side of Pikes Peak on a magnetic levitation track that could land right back at Peterson AFB or Colorado Springs International or just fly around a while and check out the sights. To be fair, NASA is considering this plan but even farther into the future.
But implementing either of those solutions would require that NASA create something new that’s designed to solve the problems inherent with long-duration flights. And that would, of course, require more money. Unfortunately, given that the chairman of the House Science Committee is a literalist who believes that the earth is only 6,000 years old and science is a crock there’s probably not much use in asking him for more money. It’s a wonder he funds a space program at all since he knows that if one goes high enough one will reach Heaven. He Babels about it all the time.
I don’t mean to be a spoil sport or ruin the euphoric mood created by the NASA/Boeing/ULA/Airbus/Lockheed Martin PR teams but the Orion project is flawed from the start. I know it, you know it and NASA has to know it. Almost in a panic-driven knee-jerk reaction to the shuttle’s negative image, NASA’s goal became to take as much of the danger out of a launch as possible and do it on a shoestring budget. So they’ve reverted back to good old days thinking; get the humans up there and then, hopefully, get ‘em back. But that philosophy was spawned during the cold war when going to space didn’t mean exploration or research. The sixties space program was designed to simply shoot some bodies out there before the Russians did. If a big slingshot would have worked, they would have used that. That’s not what they should be doing. NASA should take the lead creating technologies that will eventually result in the general population having ready access to space. They don’t need to risk four lives sending people to an asteroid to prove that they can do it or justify their existence. And they especially don’t need to send 3 or 4 people to Mars and hope they make it back using pre-landed equipment exposed to the elements of that frozen dusty windstorm ridden rock for two years before those people even got there.
NASA needs to figure out how to eventually send hundreds of people to Mars to build settlements and eventually cities there. The logical way to do that is to develop the “stuff” needed to build and sustain a city on the moon first. The only differences between the moon and Mars are: Mars is further away, Mars is a little warmer (but not much), Mars has a little more gravity and Mars has a thin, thin atmosphere that, while being almost a vacuum, does allow the appearance of daytime by scattering some light. Mars is as inhospitable as the moon so if we built a moon city it would allow us to learn how to live and function on a vacuum packed heavenly body. We could create and test equipment that right this minute we don’t even know we need. We could monitor our people and their mental stability, challenge our methods and our creativity and learn how to function as an off-world community so we could eventually do Mars correctly. And we could accomplish it all close to home so we at least would have the possibility of rescue should something go wrong. Hey, maybe, just maybe, we could develop methods to even rescue people on a Mars mission. That could be important. The worst thing you can hear a Marsnaut say is, “Geez, we didn’t see that coming!”
For some reason, under the guise of innovation NASA seems to have degraded to junk dealer status cobbling a bunch of old parts and old ideas together into something that flies (unless the winds exceed 19 knots). Is their job now the same as it was in 1963; to just get a few bodies somewhere for the sake of doing it? Or, is NASA’s job to be cutting edge; to innovate, create processes, equipment, and concepts that never before existed and fashion a cost efficient space travel system capable of moving mankind as a whole forward to populate and colonize other worlds? Then, shouldn’t they be doing that? Yeah, I think so, too. Unless, of course, they’re just holding it together until their Warp Drive is ready or until Elon Musk does the job for them.
The Space Access Society, Space Frontier Foundation and the Planetary Society called for cancellation of the project, arguing that SLS will consume the funds for other projects from the NASA budget and will not reduce launch costs; some estimate this cost for the SLS to be about $8,500 per pound lifted to low earth orbit (LEO).[better source needed]U.S. RepresentativeDana Rohrabacher and others added that instead, a propellant depot should be developed and the Commercial Crew Development program accelerated. Two studies, one not publicly released from NASA and another from the Georgia Institute of Technology, show this option to be a possibly cheaper alternative.
Others suggest it will cost less to use an existing lower payload capacity rocket (Atlas V, Delta IV, Falcon 9, or the derivative Falcon Heavy), with on-orbit assembly and propellant depots as needed, rather than develop a new launch vehicle for space exploration without competition for the whole design. The Augustine commission proposed an option for a commercial 75 metric ton launcher with lower operating costs, and noted that a 40 to 60 t launcher can support lunar exploration.
Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin, who co-authored the Mars Direct concept, suggested that a heavy lift vehicle should be developed for $5 billion on fixed-price requests for proposal. Zubrin also disagrees with those that say the U.S. does not need a heavy-lift vehicle. Based upon extrapolations of increased payload lift capabilities from past experience with SpaceX‘s Falcon launch vehicles, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk guaranteed that his company could build the conceptual Falcon XX, a vehicle in the 140-150 t payload range, for $2.5 billion, or $300 million per launch, but cautioned that this price tag did not include a potential upper-stage upgrade. SpaceX’s privately-fundedMCT launch vehicle, powered by nine Raptor engines, has also been proposed for lofting very large payloads from Earth in the 2020s.
Rep. Tom McClintock and other groups argue that the Congressional mandates forcing NASA to use Space Shuttle components for SLS amounts to a de facto non-competitive, single source requirement assuring contracts to existing shuttle suppliers, and calling the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate possible violations of the Competition in Contracting Act (CICA). Opponents of the heavy launch vehicle have critically used the name “Senate launch system”. The Competitive Space Task Force, in September 2011, said that the new government launcher directly violates NASA’s charter, the Space Act, and the 1998 Commercial Space Act requirements for NASA to pursue the “fullest possible engagement of commercial providers” and to “seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space”.
Wow! You made it all the way through to the end. Congradchewlashuns! It’s Miller time!