Tonight on Monster Chiller Horror Theatre: Arestein Returns!

Ares 1-X

NASA’s Ares I rocket was always an odd looking bird. While many rockets are large at the bottom and get progressively thinner as they near the top, this booster bucked that trend: a thin first stage with an enormous upper one. In that, I guess, it appeared somewhat more human — but not in a good way. More like Frankenstein human. Or Arestein, if you will.

The rocket’s development was a horror story, with massive cost overruns and years-long delays as engineers struggled to adapt legacy space shuttle hardware to a brand new mission. After billions were consumed, the Obama Administration canceled the program last year.

But, if you thought Ares I was gone for good, think again. It’s back for the sequel — and it’s badder than ever….

The rocket’s numerous problems and premature death hasn’t stopped ATK — the prime contractor — from trying again. Yesterday, the company unveiled a new version called Liberty that adds the Ariane 5 core module as the new second stagae. ATK and its European partner, Astrium, are hoping NASA will fund the rocket as part of the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program next month.

The selling points on this design are the reliability and maturity of the boosters involved, a high payload capacity (22 tons to LEO), quick implementation (human flights by 2015), and a relatively low cost ($180 million per launch).  It would also make use of existing manufacturing and launch infrastructure and keep a lot of people employed in key American states and European nations.

This last point is very important: NASA got into its current predicament largely due to its desire to keep people employed. Although experts argued in favor of using existing expendables (Atlas V and Delta IV) for human missions into LEO and developing a brand new heavy-lift vehicle, NASA decided to build the Ares I and V boosters from shuttle components. This satisfied members of Congress with key NASA facilities in their districts and states.

It was a bad bargain. The SRB was never designed to fly on its own. So, NASA spent billions on modifications, including adding a fifth segment to a four-segment booster to accommodate the increasing weight of its payload. A massive second stage was added to make up for the lack of performance. The configuration gave engineers a headache because it caused severe oscillations that could have left crews incapacitated — or worse.

Despite all their work and the billions spent on it, Ares I remained an underpowered vehicle. The service module engine on the Orion capsule would be required to get the astronauts to the International Space Station. NASA spent billions on a rocket that couldn’t get beyond suborbital space on its own.

The new Liberty rocket presumably solves that problem — and the other ones that vexed Ares I. Just how much money would be required to prove out this concept is uncertain at this point. Also unclear is just how much engineering analysis has gone into the Liberty configuration. After the Ares I experience, NASA may well be quite gun shy about funding a rocket cobbled together from different vehicles that looks good on paper but could prove to be a horror story down the road.

We should know soon enough. NASA is set to make the CCDev awards next month — providing Congress actually passes a budget that gives the agency money to do so.