HLVs, EELVs and the Future of NASA


Three items have appeared over the past week concerning NASA’s future plans for human space exploration and what type of heavy-lift vehicle it needs to go beyond low Earth orbit. Rand Simberg examines at the arguments in favor of an Apollo approach in the above animation and finds them wanting. (Thanks to Clark Lindsey over at Hobby Space for finding the video.)

The Wall Street Journal’s Andy Pasztor looks at a proposal by Lockheed Martin to launch an Orion vehicle into a highly elliptical orbit aboard a Delta IV Heavy, an approach that ascendant Republicans will find wanting:

Lockheed Martin Corp.’s development of a new astronaut capsule for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, seemingly sidetracked by White House opposition barely a few months ago, now appears to be gaining traction with a proposed unmanned test flight as early as 2013.

Joanne Maguire, overall head of the company’s space programs, said in an interview that the Orion capsule is slated to blast off on top of a heavy-lift version of the U.S. military’s Delta IV rocket. The flight, perhaps climbing to around 5,000 miles above the earth, is intended to test the capsule’s emergency launch-abort system, as well other systems, and Orion’s protection against damage from micro-meteorites…

At least some of the incoming Republican panel chairmen and other senior GOP lawmakers, these officials said, may view the proposed test flight as circumventing congressional language to quickly develop a new heavy-lift NASA rocket able to transport astronauts past low-earth orbit. Congress has adopted language strongly favoring space-shuttle derived rockets for this purpose, rather than a version of the Delta IV. The Delta IV is operated by a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing Co.

The full story is here.

Meanwhile, Henry Spencer weighs in at NewScientist on the claim that NASA must use shuttle-era technology to produce a heavy-lift vehicle:

The latest political nuisance for NASA is that senators and congressmen from Utah are trying to pressure NASA to promise that any new heavy-lift launcher it designs will include derivatives of the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters (SRBs). They’re even claiming that the recent NASA authorisation bill that President Obama signed into law in October legally requires it. Hogwash!

The recent authorisation bill does direct NASA to proceed (subject to funding) with development of a heavy-lift launcher to support future space exploration. However, nowhere does it require use of the shuttle SRBs. The farthest it goes toward that is to specify that NASA should use existing technology from the shuttle and the now-defunct Ares launchers “to the extent practicable”…

Claiming that solid rockets are necessary for a heavy-lift launcher is obvious nonsense. The US’s previous heavy-lift launcher, the Saturn V, used no solid rockets and lifted a bigger load than the new launcher is required to carry.

NASA, for its part, is casting a very wide net for HLV ideas. Earlier this month, the space agency selected “13 companies for negotiations leading to potential contract awards to conduct systems analysis and trade studies for evaluating heavy-lift launch vehicle system concepts, propulsion technologies, and affordability.”