A small band of rogue rocketeers takes on the NASA establishment.
- By Michael Klesius
- AirSpaceMag.com, September 29, 2008
Artwork by Philip Metschan | Copyright 2008 Directlauncher
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As for who’s right, in NASA’s view it’s the space agency’s 3,700 team members in over 200 organizations across the country against Direct Launcher’s 69 anonymous engineers.
Metschan and his team intend to keep working on their plans anyway, in case Ares fails or Griffin leaves NASA. At least one recent development has worked in Direct’s favor. Russia’s military incursion into Georgia stirred concerns of U.S. dependency on Soyuz vehicles and led several influential lawmakers to press the White House to keep the shuttle flying past 2010. That in turn led NASA to halt plans to begin ripping out the tooling for the shuttle’s external tank fabrication at the Michoud facility near New Orleans. Direct Launcher would use the same 8.4-meter fuel tanks as the current shuttle. Ares V, on the other hand, would use a 10-meter tank that requires all new tooling. Once NASA converts to manufacturing the larger size, Direct Launcher becomes a dead option.
Is it common to have such a determined group of engineers working on alternative plans at NASA?
“Oh sure,” says Roger Launius, senior space history curator at the National Air and Space Museum and chief historian at NASA between 1990 and 2002. “You’ve always got hobby shops. People are always working on stuff on the side. I remember a great example: the lifting body people. Back in the ’60s they couldn’t get funding. The focus was all on Apollo. All they got was about $20,000 at first. They built the M2-F1 [lifting body] out of plywood. Went down to L.A. and bought an old Pontiac, suped it up so it would do 180, and used it as a tow vehicle.”
Launius regards the parallel effort as a natural wellspring of activity from a creative bunch.
“You got a bunch of smart people who are used to solving problems,” he says. “Nothing to be surprised at. It’s really something to applaud. The question is, though, is this reality or is it pipe dreams? We’ll see. It’s easier to draw this stuff than it is to build and fly it.”