I’ve been having a little bit of a hard time figuring out where to go from my last post. Whether to flesh it out, or leave it as is. However, I did have some new and relevant information I’ve received over the past few weeks about some of the technologies I’ve been talking about, so I figured it’d be worth putting those out in public.
After some of my initial posting about Lockheed’s work on settled cryo transfer, Wide Body Centaurs, and long-duration/reusable Centaurs, I decided to see if I could get some more direct answers about these projects. Mainly I wanted to get a feeling for if these were just viewgraph engineering projects that they’d only go after if given a bunch of NASA or DoD money, or if they were solid concepts that they felt were worth pursuing, even on their own dime if necessary. Basically I wanted to know “how real” these ideas were.
The basic answer I got, which applies to all of these technologies, was that since Lockheed (now ULA for most of this) is a for-profit, publically owned business, they can only pursue technologies on their own dime that they feel they have a strong business case for. In other words, while they may be just as excited about a given technology as the next guy, they aren’t a charity. They have a responsibility to their shareholders to try to give them the best return on their money possible. The important thing that I got out of the conversation though was that these guys were willing to take some risks, and to do some of these things 100% commercially, on their own dime–but they just have good reason to believe that not only will they not lose their shirt on the deal, but that they’ll make a profit overall.
Another factor is that Lockheed and Boeing both lost a good deal of money on the EELV program. They each sunk over a billion dollars of their own money into building for capacity that is now unused. The Lockheed side at least has reached the point where they’re more or less cash-flow positive, but they’d really like if at all possible to get their flight rate up so they can make back some of their original investments. The key trick is that they also want to minimize the amount of new investment needed to salvage that previous investment.
One more important point that ought to be mentioned is that these guys are quite open to working with alt.space companies. Emerging entrepreneurial space companies have some relative strengths that compliment the strengths of the “dinosaurs”, and the “dinosaurs” really do have some areas where they have more experience and have capabilities that could compliment the “mammals”. There is obvious danger involved with working with the Boeings and Lockheeds of the world (mammals can accidentally become squish-marks on the soles of dinosaur feet if they aren’t careful), but there is some real potential for collaboration. I haven’t had the chance to ask my friends at XCOR much about how working with ATK on their 7500lbf LOX/Methane engine has been going, but I’m willing to bet that while they may have lots of warnings to give, that they also have some positive things to say about working with ATK. And that’s ATK we’re talking about!
Human-Rated Atlas V
I’ve been asked not to say too much about this, but between my contacts and some discussion on NASASpaceFlight.com, I can say that this project is probably the furthest along and “most real” of the four I’m talking about here. This is one project that everyone I’ve spoken with feels strongly is the most likely to be financially succesful. Substantially increasing their flight rate would help them recoup their previous investment, while also enabling some of the other projects like WBC.
I think their approach of focusing on the rocket side of things, and keeping the capsule side open to anyone who wants to fly on their vehicle is a good move. As Mr X over at Chairforce Engineer pointed out the other day, it might make a lot more sense for SpaceX to focus on getting Dragon ready for flight, and then flying it initially on Atlas V until they have their Falcon IX sorted out. However, my gut feeling is that the Lockheed/ULA guys are going to have a hard time trying to convincing companies like SpaceX and RpK, that are trying to roll-their-own launcher, to launch their stuff on Atlas V, even if only temporarily. They’re more likely to have luck with companies like SpaceHab, Venturer Aerospace, or others that don’t have immediate orbital launch ambitions.
Anyhow, that’s about all I can say for now, other than I wish them a lot of luck. If they can find someone with a capsule, they may very well have commercial manned spaceflight opportunities before the end of this decade. Contra conventional wisdom, I think that will go a long way towards bringing further investment money into this industry, and may actually make it easier for “plucky mammals” to close their business cases. Having good competitors is actually a good thing sometimes.
Wide Body Centaur
I can say a bit more about the Wide Body Centaur work. The Wide Body Centaur stage was originally conceived as a way to reduce the cost of most Atlas launches. As detailed in a recent Space Review article, when most commercial satellites outgrew the Atlas V 401 capabilities, the solution employed (by both Lockheed and Boeing) was to add solid strapon boosters. By going to a wider Centaur stage with more propellant capacity, in many cases they can eliminated 1-2 strapon boosters for many commercial payloads. They could also get rid of the 4.2m PLF, which would also reduce costs.
Another big reason for the Wide Body Centaur was to make it easier to do long-duration missions. By inverting the direction of the common bulkhead, and changing its design somewhat, they can greatly decrease the amount of heat leaking from the LOX tank into the LH2 tank. Bottom line is that while they think they can keep the boiloff of their current Centaur down in the 0.1% per day range (with substantial add-ons), they feel they could reach 0.01% per day–without cryocoolers using the Wide Body Centaur design as a start. 0.01% per day means things like being able to use LOX/LH2 for Mars missions for both the Trans Mars Insertion burn as well as for the Mars Orbit Insertion burn, instead of having to rely on aerobraking or hypergols. Or if you planned ahead for the boiloff, you could probably use it for the Trans Earth Injection burn even after one of the longer-duration Martian stays.
When I asked about the likelihood of WBC coming into existance 100% commercially, the answer I got was a lot more cautious than for manned Atlas. They are continuing to move forward with some of the required technology, mostly on in-house funding (with a little bit of money from one of the NASA centers that was also interested). I heard something about a goal of doing a demonstration Friction-Stir-Welded flight-sized, flight-weight tank by sometime in the next two years. After that though, there’s a lot of integration work, that while low-risk technically, is relatively costly. The big obstacle to going forward full-steam on the project is that with their currently low flight-rate of 3-5 flights per year, there’s just not enough demand to justify the remaining development costs.
We did discuss a couple of options for moving this forward commercially though.
One possibility we discussed was that if they could convince Boeing to go to a Wide Body Centaur stage for the Deltas as well as the Atlases, that might up the flight rate of the design by a bit. Boeing’s upper stage isn’t as high performance as the current Centaur, let alone the Wide Body Centaur design, so it’s an option. It would probably increase the performance of some of those stages substantially, particularly the D-IVH vehicle. The DoD however, might be reticent to have both of their EELVs using identical upper stage hardware. At least right now, Atlas and Delta while both using RL-10 powered upper stages are using different versions of the RL-10, with different upper stages. Which means that an upper stage failure of one doesn’t necessarily imply a stand-down of the other. Even an RL-10 failure on one of the upper stages wouldn’t neccessarily imply a long stand-down of the other launcher, because there are substantial differences between the two RL-10 versions used, and there’s a good chance that the failure might not actually be a common-mode failure. Moving to WBC for both boosters would likely only be tolerated by DoD if someone like SpaceX could deliver on an alternative EELV classed booster that didn’t use the exact same upper stage. Assured access and all that.
Another option I briefly mentioned above. If Bigelow can pull off his Sundancer (and eventually his Nautilus) station, that could potentially lead to a substantial increase in flight rate for the Atlas V fleet, especially if SpaceX for some reason or another isn’t able to field the Falcon IX (I’m still a SpaceX cheerleader, but a somewhat more cautious one these days). It turns out that using a Wide Body Centaur with 1.5x sized propellant tanks and two RL-10 engines, you can launch a much bigger capsule (about 20% bigger), even with enough propellant margin for engine-out performance.
Let me go into that last point a little bit more (as it will be important for future posts). Due to acceleration limits and gravity losses, a Single Engine Centaur can only put up about 20klb to a Bigelow orbit while still keeping the trajectory shaped right to eliminate reentry “black zones” (zones where if an abort happened at just the right time, the reentry G’s would exceed NASA’s man-rating requirements). A Dual Engine Centaur could put about 24klb up, but not if it is to have engine-out capability. If you think about it, to have engine-out capabilities, you need to have enough propellant to deliver the payload to LEO, even with the higher gravity losses and different trajectory inherent with the lower stage T/W ratios you get with a single-engine stage. In this case, using a stock Dual Engine Centaur upper stage for manned launches would require launching only Single Engine Centaur sized payloads, if you want to have engine-out capabilities. I think the tradeoff is probably worth it, as that means that a single RL10 failure doesn’t cost the mission, or risk a high-G (but within NASA limits) unplanned emergency reentry.
The basic takeaway was that if they could take even 10 of the planned 22 flights per year (between ISS crew rotation/resupply and Bigelow’s Nautilus/Sundancer station passengers and cargo), they’d be able to easily close the business case justifying building the Wide Body Centaur.
On an interesting side note, it appears that I wasn’t the only one who thought of using the WBC as an EDS replacement. Apparently someone at NASA at some point asked them to do some analysis on the idea, using a J-2S with a 6x sized Wide Body Centaur. The guys I spoke with really weren’t much of a fan of using a J-2S instead of some RL-10s, mostly due to the likely cost of a low-production engine like that, but the propellant fraction of such a stage would be truly impressive, somewhere around 95% in fact. Using a J-2X instead of a J-2S would also improve things a bit.
I’m still biased though towards the RL-10 version using Drylaunch techniques and refueling, but this might be an interesting option even if you’re stuck in the Shuttle Derived HLV rut.
Long Duration Centaur and “Lunar Mission Kits”
I also asked a bit about longer duration Centaur “mission kits” and how much they’d likely weight/cost. It turns out that at one point, they proposed doing a secondary mission as part of launching LRO. Basically, it would involve adding solar panels, rechargeable batteries, some MLI, an extra Hydrazine tank, and high-gain antennae in order to form a “Lunar Mission Kit”. After dropping LRO off in lunar orbit, 5-days later, the Centaur would have relit and performed a TEI burn, to demonstrate that they could do longer duration missions. This is actually almost identical to what would be needed for my proposed Lunar Much Sooner architecture. Development costs would supposedly be in the $75-100M range for that mission, with a marginal cost around $10M thereafter. The weight was a little bit higher than I had originally anticipated, but rerunning the numbers for the architecture, it doesn’t hurt things too much. It’d only cut into the capsule size by a couple hundred pounds (down to around 7800lb from 8400lb), and the other missions still had performance to spare. Updated spreadsheet can be found here.
I also talked a little with them about reusing a Centaur stage. They felt it would be possible if you had a way of transfering the consumables (LOX, LH2, Hydrazine, and GHe), but the people I was talking with about this were somewhat skeptical about the economics of it, since a new Centaur stage, with all related integration and launch prep isn’t that expensive in their opinions. They are looking into doing some modifications that could allow them to eliminate the GHe and Hydrazine consumables, which would cut down on the weight a little bit, and make the whole system more reusable. I’ll go more into this idea a bit further at a later date.
Settled Cryogenic Propellant Transfer
The one technology that was considered the least likely to be commercially fielded was the one I was most personally interested in, settled cryogenic propellant transfer. Basically, at this point NASA is the most likely customer, and they’re not particularly interested. The people I spoke with about it felt that they had almost everything under-wraps except for the final integration and the autonomous rendezvous and docking, but needed a customer before they could justify spending the money to do the demo mission. I’ve got some ideas about that which I may post soon too.
Anyhow, I just wanted to provide some interesting information and updates. I think there’s a real chance that the Atlas V team may very well end up playing an important role in opening up space for private spaceflight. It’s good seeing that some of the bigger companies do still have an entrepreneurial bone or two left in their bodies.
Latest posts by Jonathan Goff (see all)
- Unorthodox Reusable Lunar Landers Concepts - June 12, 2021
- Goff Family 2021 Summer Sabbatical Part 1: Utah Trip - June 1, 2021
- Transitions and Summer Sabbatical - May 31, 2021