Why NASA needs to focus on deep space missions

A bit of history

After the manned lunar missions, NASA was tasked with creating a reusable spacecraft to support future human exploration and Low Earth Orbit (LEO) projects.

NASA engineers came up with several suggestions and shared them with hand-picked teams of post-grad engineering students and their mentors at Stanford and MIT.

The overall favorite design was for a manned shuttle about half the size of the final design that would be used only for personnel and small payloads. Any heavy-lifting would be relegated to updated versions of the Saturn V series of boosters. The small shuttle could be launched using either a Saturn or by using a stage-and-a-half system when it would ride the back of a 747 up to 50k feet and then use a smaller booster set to achieve LEO.

Another design featured a shuttle that was about twice the size of the final design and would require a whole new heavy-lift launch system.

An in-depth financial analysis showed either system would be cost-effective over a 20 year expected lifespan.

That is when congress and their big money backers intervened.

Both the cost-effective programs were nixed in favor of a “compromise” that was not totally re-usable, but ensured thousands of extra jobs and larger profits for the companies involved.

None of the engineers involved in the initial designs were in favor of Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) but the military loves them. Anyone who complained too much ended up assigned to other projects.

To make matters worse, there were two companies bidding for the SRB contract.

One was based in Louisiana and their design would be shipped via barge, around the coast of Florida, to the cape. Their boosters were a one-piece design and were cheaper.

The second company was based in Utah and since their shipping was based on railroad curves, bridges, and tunnels, they could not be one-piece, but rather segmented. The segments had to be assembled with O-rings after arriving at the space center. These boosters were also much more expensive.

When the time came for Congress to finally approve funding, the swing vote was held by the representative from Utah. He would not vote in favor of the program unless they gave the contract to the company in his district. He considered it a jobs program.

That was just the first of several bad decisions that led to the Challenger disaster.

The original shuttle design requirements called for a reusable system that had a turn-around time of two weeks or less. As we all know, most shuttles had a six month gap between flights.

The reason is quite simple. Any mechanic knows that engines ares designed to work at a certain level. If you run it at 100% of rated power, it will last a certain period of time between breakdowns. If you run it at 80% power, that time element will double.

Every time the Space Shuttle took off, they had the shuttle engines running at 110% power! That meant that as soon as it returned, they were required to do a total tear-down and rebuild to make sure they were up to standards for the next launch. That meant every shuttle spent five or six months getting rebuilt before it was man-rated again.

The Good News

NASA and JPL have proven themselves with many long-term, robotic deep space explorations. They should continue this great legacy to pave the way for future manned missions.

The Bad News

There has been a tremendous amount of hype concerning the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion lunar vehicles.

It is obvious to any one who takes a close look that the Orion spacecraft is nothing more than a much larger version of 1960s-era capsules.

That, coupled with the continued use of SRBs for manned flights tells me Congress is still treating NASA as a jobs program for defense contractors. SRBs are for warfare, not manned spaceflight.

Much as I applaud their deep-space research efforts, I’ve lost faith in NASA’s ability to safely handle manned missions.

It looks like SpaceX and other private players will have to pave the way to a permanent human presence off-Earth. That is, IF we don’t kill ourselves off as a species!

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