guest blogger john hare
I have been reading about some of the financial numbers and technical problems of the Aries I for the last couple of weeks with more interest than usual. The idea that $8B has been spent already, and that total cost to first flight is projected to be $35B just boggles my mind. The laundry list of technical problems from under performance to extreme vibration should have stopped the program even before this price tag became known to NASA management.
If we accept as given that a shuttle derived vehicle with solid rockets was the only politically acceptable choice at the time, was it possible that something better could have been chosen? Something that would keep much of the shuttle work force and contracting organization together as possible? As a basher of der Griffenschaft, it seems possible to me that a somewhat similar architecture could have done better.
Suppose that instead of stretching and totally redesigning the SRB, they had shifted to a two SRB first stage with the exact same units as used for the last hundred and something shuttle launches. These rockets are fully developed and tested with an extensive flight history of operating in pairs over the last three decades. The purchase costs, handling , and performance are known quantities. Development consists of building an attachment structure, upper stage adapter, and vibration dampening gear. With the considerably more lift performance available from eight segments compared to five in Aries I, the problem fixing payload hits could be absorbed without sacrificing the flavor de jour safety systems NASA would like to have. They wouldn’t even have to game the requirements to match the competition from ULA, Direct, and various upstarts. While it’s possible that this would cost as much as the projected Aries I, it shouldn’t, and if it did, it would be for a system nearly twice as capable.
The Aries I upper stage has another interesting budget feature in development of the J2S. This was supposed to be a simple upgrade of the flight proven J2 of Saturn fame. Now it seems to be a major development project in its’ own right. If the two SRBs were used instead, the upper stage would be much larger, perhaps too large for even the upgraded (read new engine) J2S. SSMEs, for all their expense, have a lot more flight history than the original J2 ever had. Modifying an SSME for second stage use would involve a new ignition system that would work in vacuum, and a much expanded nozzle for improved vacuum performance. Though SSMEs are expensive, a lot of them could be bought for the development price of the J2S, and the payload to orbit would about double.