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Is Ares I dead? NASA is working on a redesign

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Is Ares I dead? NASA is working on a redesign
By Robert Block


CAPE CANAVERAL -- Members of the presidentially appointed panel reviewing the future of America's manned-space plans have asked NASA to design a new way to send astronauts back to the moon.

The request could result in NASA ditching the controversial Ares I rocket design that the agency has spent the past four years and more than $3 billion creating and defending. And any redesign would almost certainly delay NASA's first-launch deadline of 2015, though most critics no longer consider that deadline realistic.

According to committee officials, panel members have told NASA they want to see the effects of both minor tweaks and "wholesale" changes to its Constellation Program that is intended to return astronauts to the moon by 2020 on a new generation of two Ares rockets and a crew capsule called Orion.

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The White House named the 10-member review panel, chaired by retired Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine, to take a hard look at NASA's manned-space strategy for the next decade. The panel is paying special attention to the agency's efforts to develop a new rocket system to replace the space shuttle when it retires next year.

NASA's critics have said there's no way the Constellation program can meet its 2015 launch schedule -- let alone return astronauts to the moon by 2020 -- given the technical problems and multibillion-dollar cost overruns on its Ares I rocket.

"One of the [panel's] subcommittees has asked the [Constellation] program to present both the baseline ... program and one of the variants that they have studied as well," said one committee official, who asked not to be named because he's not authorized to speak for the committee.

The official provided no details about the "variant," but the request coincides with NASA scrambling some of its top engineers to study an "architecture" that would use a single rocket to launch both humans and cargo to the moon. Constellation's current approach calls for two rockets -- the Ares I that would carry humans into space, and the enormous Ares V to lift heavy cargo.

For more than a week now, engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., including some working on Ares I, have been pulled from their current duties to study creation of a smaller version of the Ares V that could carry both crew and heavy equipment.

NASA confirms that it is looking at different versions of the Ares V, though a spokeswoman played down the significance of the review.

"This is nothing new, and as a part of these ongoing ... studies the program continues to look at a wide variety of options on Ares V as is standard practice in formulation," said NASA spokeswoman Ashley Edwards in a statement.

But NASA insiders and contractors familiar with the work say that the work is far from "standard practice" and could herald the demise of the Ares I.

"They are looking at a whole new launch architecture," said one NASA contractor familiar with the study. "Although it's still too early to pronounce Ares I dead, it is safe to assume that members of the committees have doubts about it."

The review may also intensify competition between the agency's new designs and efforts by others -- including some NASA engineers -- to create a moon-capable rocket out of the engines, fuel tank and solid-rocket boosters now used to power the shuttle.

Those latter designs -- which backers say would be far cheaper than any configuration of Ares -- have been the subjects of several presentations to the panel. The Delta IV commercial rocket is also a contender.

One of the Augustine commission's objectives is to recommend ways NASA's human spaceflight plans can be slimmed down to fit President Barack Obama's budget priorities.

Designing one rocket instead of two could potentially save lots of money.

Right now, NASA must first develop and test-fly the Ares I rocket, which would be capable only of taking the Orion capsule and its four-astronaut crew to low Earth orbit. To get to the moon, Orion would mate in orbit with the proposed lunar lander, an 80,000-pound-plus assemblage that contains fuel, equipment and living space that astronauts would need to get to the moon, stay for weeks and then return to Earth.

Because of its weight, Altair must be carried into orbit by a bigger rocket -- the Ares V.

But work on the Ares V is still in the early development stages, and the White House recently signaled that it planned to cut funding for the project.

In the meantime, Ares I is dogged by technical problems and cost overruns, largely because of challenges created by a design that uses a single five-segment stack of solid-rocket boosters -- similar to the two four-segment stacks used on the space shuttle -- as a first stage.

Because of the way solid rockets burn, computer simulations show the Ares I would vibrate like a giant tuning fork on its climb to orbit, threatening to incapacitate or kill the crew and shake the rocket to pieces. Fixing the problem is turning out to be costly and technically difficult.

According to engineers familiar with the new study, NASA would not throw away all the Ares I design work and hardware.

The downsized version of the Ares V would use the same upper-stage engine as Ares I, the liquid-fueled J2X, and could even use two five-segment solid rockets developed for Ares I as boosters. The main power would come from several RS-68 liquid-fuel engines, like the ones now used on the commercial Delta IV rocket.

The original Ares V was supposed to be 381 feet tall; the new rocket would be shorter.

Although it would be cheaper to design one rocket rather than two, operating costs would rise. The reason: two launches -- one to orbit astronauts and a second to orbit the lunar lander -- would still be required, and the bigger rocket would cost more to launch than Ares I.

Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin recently wrote Augustine, the review panel's chairman, saying that the idea was feasible but that he did not support it.

"The dual-Ares 5 launch does offer considerably more capability to the Moon than the baseline Ares 1/Ares 5 scheme," he wrote to Augustine in an e-mail last week that was copied to the Orlando Sentinel. "However, it also comes at much greater marginal cost, and therefore I do not, and we at NASA in general did not, recommend it for the baseline approach."

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Personally I think this endeavour should be multi-national and all the big economies of the world should contribute.

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smeggypants wrote:Personally I think this endeavour should be multi-national and all the big economies of the world should contribute.

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