Last week I discussed the importance of the Augustine Commission informing the U.S. Government that NASA is underfunded. Today I will discuss, with greater depth, the non-monetary recommendations of the Augustine Commission. Some of them are truly inspiring, others are a little less than exciting. However, I feel that the Augustine Commission is a bold new look at America's space program, and I think that their recommendations are worthy of further investigation.
In keeping with my last blog's teaser, I will go over the best part of the Commission first, their proposed "Flexible Path." The basic idea behind the Flexible Path is that we should not invest too many resources in going only one place. Instead of spending years on the Moon or betting the farm on Mars, we should send the Orion spacecraft to a variety of places in deep space to increase our experience in interplanetary travel. The Flexible Path will eventually lead to a return to the Moon or a first trip to Mars, or possibly both.
The thrilling element of the Flexible Path is the variety of places where it will lead us. One proposal is to use the Orion to service space observatories at Earth's Lagrangian points (sending the Orion to the Hubble to boost its orbit and make repairs has, as far as I can tell, not been proposed, despite the fact that Hubble now has an attachment for soft-docking). However, this is probably the most-mundane proposal made by the Commission. The next stop on their itinerary is a location of great fascination of scientists everywhere, near-Earth-asteroids.
The idea of an Orion asteroid mission is not new, but the Augustine Commission has given the idea new life. The early proposal called for using a modified Altair lander, stacked with an Orion vehicle, to "dock" with an asteroid, allowing astronauts to explore a small area around the landing site. A new proposal by Lockheed Martin stacks two Orion vehicles and an Earth Departure Stage. This proposed mission would orbit the target asteroid, allowing astronauts to reach the surface of the asteroid with MMU-like devices (a.k.a. "jet packs"). The advantages this proposal holds are:
a) the astronauts will be freer to explore the asteroid and
b) less new hardware and technology will be required.
Regardless of which expedition we choose, a manned mission to an asteroid will help us to prepare for stopping an impact event and will have a very-high "cool factor," at least with space buffs like me.
However, the final stop on the Augustine itinerary before we land on the Moon or Mars is definitely the most-exciting. The Commission proposes to visit one of Mars's two moons, Phobos and Deimos. These moons are exciting in their own right. Not only do they have interesting pasts as captured asteroids, but they provide an excellent viewpoint from which to map Mars and examine its meteorology (on a side note, who wouldn't want to send their local forecaster on a one-way trip to Mars? But I digress). However, the really important aspect of visiting these moons is that a mission to visit them will serve as a dry run for Mars. It is the interplanetary equivalent of Apollo 8, getting there and testing everything while we leave the lander at home. We currently have no plans for an Orion Mars Mission, and Congress at one point banned NASA from even considering such a mission. Hence, the Flexible Path gives us a far better chance of reaching Mars than our current plans would allow.
While the Augustine Commission's Flexible Path proposal is a dream-come-true for many, their recommendation of scrapping Ares I has met with mixed reviews. Many have been critical of Ares I, criticizing its design while mocking its shape with the nickname "The Stick." However, the recent Ares I-X flight seems to indicate that Ares I is a workable vehicle. The only major problem that occurred on this flight was a parachute failure that dented the booster, a truly minor setback since the booster would already have separated from the upper stage and astronauts if the flight had been real. There were a few other anomalies, but on the whole the system performed beautifully.
The Augustine Commission feels that Ares I should be canceled. Designing the rocket has been and will continue to be expensive, and the rocket will likely not be available until 2017. By then, the International Space Station may have been deorbited, or else it will be nearing the end of its life. Ares I is only designed to take a spacecraft to Low Earth Orbit, so once the Space Station is deorbited it will have nowhere to go until Ares V comes online, and Ares V's development will be delayed by the development of Ares I. Hence, the Commission felt that Ares I should be canceled to clear the way for the development of Ares V.
However, the Augustine Commission has ignored a few important facts in this area. Firstly, a significant amount money has already been spent on the Ares I. Hardware has been successfully tested, contracts have been made and teams have been assembled. To drop the program now would make all previous work nothing more than a complete waste of resources.
Secondly, the Ares I rocket will be a significant help in testing parts for the Ares V rocket. The five-segment solid booster being developed for Ares I will later be used on Ares V, and the J-2X engine under development for Ares I is a vital part of the Ares V rocket as well. Hence, work done on Ares I aids in the development of the Ares V.
Finally, the Ares I rocket is probably the safest rocket available for launching astronauts in the near future. It is estimated that Ares I will be ten times safer than the shuttle, and it has already been rated as safe for humans to fly on. The Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets may be capable of launching the Orion spacecraft into orbit, but they are not "man-rated," and even if we stopped work on Ares I tomorrow and focused on making one of these rockets man-rated, it is estimated that we would still not be able to fly for six years. I also regret to say that private industry will not be able to deliver crews to the station for many years to come. Even SpaceX, the front-runner in the race for a private orbital vehicle, has yet to make the first launch of their Falcon 9 rocket. It will be years before they or any other company will have tested their vehicles enough to be sure that they are safe for a manned launch. Hence, Ares I may be far behind schedule, but it is unlikely that using any other rocket will return America to space much sooner.
So there you have it, the best part and the worst part of the Augustine Commission. In my own personal opinion, I am greatly impressed with the Commission's findings. They have given us a bold new Vision for America's future in space and informed our lawmakers of the commitments that must be made to remain a great space power. Though I disagree with their findings on the importance of Ares I, I nevertheless view the review of the Commission as a major step forward towards America's future in space.
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