NASA Proposes Spawn of Shuttle HLV

Jupiter Direct Launcher Variants

It looks as if Congress may well get its shuttle- and Ares-derived heavy-lift vehicle after all — although it will cost more and take longer to build than anticipated. Space News reports:

NASA told U.S. lawmakers Jan. 10 it intends to build a heavy-lift rocket that incorporates the space shuttle’s main engines, giant external tank and taller versions of the solid-rocket boosters it jettisons on the way to orbit, according to a senior NASA official. However, neither the rocket nor the crew vehicle it would launch could be completed within the cost and schedule Congress outlined for the project late last year….

Doug Cooke, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems, said the agency recently concluded the best approach for meeting the heavy-lift requirements spelled out in the law will be to build a rocket that incorporates the shuttle’s nearly 8.4-meter diameter external tanks, five space shuttle main engines also known as the RS-25D, a J-2X-based upper stage and two five-segment solid-rocket boosters similar to those NASA and industry have been working on the past several years for the Ares family of launchers Obama targeted for termination in the 2011 budget blueprint he sent lawmakers last February….

According to a Jan. 10 interim report to Congress detailing the proposed space transportation system, the rocket and crew vehicle designs the agency has selected respond to congressional direction to make wide use of existing space shuttle infrastructure and minimize the costly termination of hardware contracts the agency awarded under the Moon-bound Constellation program the Obama administration has marked for cancellation.

NASA has not fully committed to the shuttle-derived HLV. The space agency awarded 13 study contracts to U.S. companies for HLV designs in November. Cooke said NASA could change its approach if the studies show other launch architectures that improve upon NASA’s current plan.

My thoughts: One of the main goals of Obama’s space plan was to get us away from the space shuttle era. Although the system is a technological marvel and flight proven, it’s a headache financially because it costs so much money to build, maintain and fly. You need a large standing army to support it, which is good for employment levels but bad for cost. And this design includes five SSMEs, a pair of extended length SRBs, and a J2X engine. None of that comes cheap.

It’s telling that NASA doesn’t feel like it can complete building this version of the HLV with the $11.5 billion that Congress wants to spend on it over the next six years. Given the amount of technology that already exists from the shuttle program or is under development for Ares, this would seem like more than enough time and money.

My guess is that the jobs that this architecture guarantees will trump all other considerations. Congress will likely require NASA to build its shuttle-derived vehicle, downplay the cost and schedule implications, and raid NASA’s other programs to pay for it without increasing the space agency’s overall budget.