Apollo 2.0?

Since I’m sick at home today, I figured I’d finally get around to taking Mark to task for some of the stuff he said over at Curmudgeon’s Corner. Mark decided to take Henry Vanderbuilt and Rand Simberg to task for their response to the announced plan:

Both gentlemen, incorrectly, think that the VSE is “Apollo 2.0”, the ultimate calumny one can offer to a proposed space project, at least in certain quarters. That’s wrong because the plan does not so much retrace Apollo’s steps as it picks up where it leaves off.

I’ve heard a lot of people justify this plan by using similar arguments. “We’re not just doing what we did last time! This time we’ll put FOUR government employees down on the moon, maybe even for a week or two at a time.” Yawn. And how does this prove that calling it Apollo 2.0 is incorrect? When you see a Part Two to a movie, do you assume that it is an exact repeat of the earlier movie? No, what Henry and Rand were saying is that this ESAS plan is like an Apollo:The Next Generation. Sleeker ship, cooler destinations, neater costumes, but more or less the same old socialist misadventures of a starship misnamed “Enterprise”. It’s like the old Back to the Future movies. By the time number three rolled out, you already knew what some of the key plot elements were going to be, even if the sets were different, the stunts and visuals a bit higher quality, and several characters were entirely new.

That’s one of the problems with this plan. Sure, the “Longfellow” isn’t exactly the Saturn V, and the Stick isn’t exactly the Saturn IB. Sure, the LSAM isn’t exactly a LEM either, and their capabilities are a little bit better than the old Apollo system. They have newer electronics, and might even reuse part of the capsule. However it’s once again the bumbling socialist misadventures of our dear Space Agency. With steely eyed rocket men (and maybe some women too this time) boldly going where…you get the idea. I mean, do these guys really have that much desparation to have the program go the way of Apollo? Do they really want to put some bootprints on the moon for a couple of months only to have the whole thing eventually killed off by Congress for costing so much?

Anyhow, moving along:

Vanderbilt goes on with an argument that NASA ought to assemble its moon ship from much smaller pieces using existing (or proposed to soon exist) launchers. There is certainly some validity for that approach. But Vanderbilt airily dismisses the counter argument that with more launches required per mission, the greater the risk that a single launch failure will delay or even scrub the mission entirely.

How exactly will a single launch failure scrub the mission entirely? Almost all of the additional launches for such a technique would be propellant launches. We’re talking at most a slight delay as you have another propellant delivery launched. There are about a half dozen or more potential launch vehicles out there, so it’s not like you can’t have multiple suppliers. The whole fact that your program isn’t beholden to a single launch vehicle makes it more robust. If you have a launch failure with the Stick or the Longfellow (man, can these guys come up with less lampoonable names? I mean seriously, this sounds like something I would see as a header for some perverted spam message–possibly with at least one word slightly mispelled or with some other character in place of a letter), your entire program gets stood down for a year or two or three while they figure out what went wrong.

He also, I think incorrectly, suggests that the return to the Moon infrastructure will shoulder the same personel costs as running the shuttle fleet. That runs contrary to what NASA itself has been saying and the common sense fact that a great deal of the personel costs of running the shuttle consists of turning around the orbiters, which of course would go away when the shuttle fleet is retired.

Except for the fact that NASA’s also touting this plan as one to “keep the team together”. Mark himself uses the argument elsewhere that this plan is more “politically” feasible because it doesn’t eliminate a lot of jobs at KSC. So which is it? Does it eliminate enough jobs to actually free up enough money to actually develop the hardware to go back to the moon, or does it keep enough jobs intact so that it is easier to get political approvals? You can’t have it both ways.

Then even more silliness:

Vanderbilt makes a number of other questionable assumptions, in my opinion. For instance, NASA’s building a launch system in house rather than waiting for commercial launchers to come on line which may or may not be available is the wrong approach. Now, if the Falcon series and others now being contemplated were actually flying, it would be another matter. I can understand NASA’s decision to go with the tried and true (i.e. a couple of rockets with existing technology) rather than count on the commercial space sector which may or may not deliver. Mind, I might have made a different decision (at the very least keeping some options open.) But that’s not a deal breaker for me.

I wonder how well Mr Whittington has been paying attention to the industry if he’s completely unaware of the existance of Atlas V, Delta IV, Sea Launch, Proton, Soyuz, Ariane V, and other existing launchers. NASA doesn’t need to “wait for commercial launchers to come on line that may or may not be available”. Just by designing the individual pieces to be launchable on current vehicles would at least keep the door open for future cheaper vehicles. Especially if NASA keeps a common interface design so that they can switch between launch providers (or possibly use multiple different providers) as prices change. Once again, we see an interesting world where the Stick and the paper Longfellow are treated as real, existing, proven vehicles, while other vehicles like the Atlas V and Delta IV that have actually flown to space are denegrated. Sure, I can understand not designing the whole thing to work only with a Falcon V or Falcon IX, in case they don’t get developed. But ignoring existing current boosters and developing what are in effect brand new, unproven vehicles inhouse is just wasteful. For the $15B NASA wants to develop their own rockets, they could buy 60-150 launches on existing boosters that would be just as safe and cheaper per launch than the vehicles NASA wants to fly. Not only that, but by developing in-space vehicles that are capable of being assembled from smaller pieces and refueled on-orbit NASA would actually allow themselves to take advantage of advances in lower cost orbital flight, thereby allowing them to do more exploration. But it appears that keeping ATK fat and happy, and keeping KSC fully staffed is more important than actual exploration. I can see why politicians might be happy with that, but why are pundits like Mark standing up for this Don Young’s Way to the moon?

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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3 Responses to Apollo 2.0?

  1. Kelly Starks says:

    Big agree. Apollo 2 disgusted me. It combined NASA institutional desire to wrap itself in the legacy of Apollo rather then do anything new, with the political focus on keeping the job count as the true goal for the agency. Just as shuttle phases out, you phase in a new set of boosters tailored not for the launch mission, but for the skill set of the soon to be unemployed KSC and Marshal workers.

    This also explains why comercials are adamently not to be considered for lifting the goodies to orbit. It would be trivial and a big cost savings, to design a competative big for true heavy lift. Say give the winner 60% of the lift contract, and losers 30% just to keep a hot back-up. But the point of the excersize is to keep the shuttle workers employed, not to do missions in space.

    Hell I did a work up on how easy it would be to “refit” the shuttles to vastly cheeper and safer – and more capable system. Probably do it for the cost savings of a few shuttle flights, and be a much better basis for deep space maned missions. But it would crater the stafing levels of the big centers, which is of FAR higher priority then any exploration mission.

    As to why the space buffs don’t see this… I realy think a lot of the prospace orgs, realy just became NASA cheerleaders. REagardless of how bad NASA does something, they are to loved to ever see flaw with. Its just unthinkable.

    Realistically I think NASA has lost any chance of being a significant force in exploration anymore. They are so bloated and sluggish, they simply can’t keep up even with near term private maned timetables. Odds are the next humans on the moon will be setting up a tourist station.

    On the other hand I’m not as optimistic about redesigning everything around small lift weight boosters, and racks of fuel tanks brought up a tank at a time. Big bulky unfulled ships can’t be lifted on little light boosters, and often empty tanks can’t take launch loads.

  2. Kelly Starks says:

    As to
    http://curmudgeons.blogspot.com/2005_09_01_curmudgeons_archive.html#112759872707500054

    How is returning to the moon, in gear almost directly copied from Apollo designs, not going to be considered by everyone as Apollo 2? About nothing new is being done, and the heavy reliance on super expensive, high labor cost, launchers — means the programs going to be to expensive to maintain for long.

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