If a capsule was good enough to get a crew to the moon, these old-timers say, it's good enough to get a crew back to Earth.
- By James Oberg
- Air & Space magazine, May 2004
(Page 4 of 4)
As their analysis kept pointing to the advantages of the Apollo capsule, some of the oldtimers found themselves surprised. Coming into the meeting, Szalai thought “there were expectations [within NASA] that the [Orbital Space Plane] would end up as some type of winged vehicle.” The space veterans he invited were future-oriented, and their instincts were to produce new designs. If anything, he says, “initially the bias in the room was away from the capsule, not for it.” But toward the end of the second day, Szalai voiced his thoughts: “I’m an airplane guy. Why am I recommending a capsule?” Then John Young piped up: “So am I.”
At the Congressional hearing, Myers said, “If all things were equal, I’d choose winged vehicles,” based on their gentler entry and ability to reach a wider range of landing sites. “Unfortunately, they are not known to be equal. And that’s why the team recommended a thorough study of the Apollo CM/SM as a CRV/CTV.” The team estimated it could be built within four to six years of NASA’s go-ahead.
And so it may be. Even before Szalai’s group met, NASA’s two main contractors, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, were studying capsules—some rounded like the Soyuz, some cone-shaped like Apollo—as contenders for the crew rescue vehicle. Now that the plans also call for going beyond Earth orbit, the wingless designs may win the day.
“Everybody likes sleek and beautiful,” notes Volker Roth, deputy director of Boeing’s Office of Orbital Space Programs in Huntsville, Alabama. “But is that safe and robust?” And former astronaut Michael Coats, who heads Lockheed Martin’s advanced space transportation division, says current astronauts may not be that stuck on wings. He thinks they’ll go for whatever is “safe, simple, and soon.”
Not everyone has jumped on the Apollo bandwagon. Last July, at a forum held in Washington, ex-Congressman Robert Walker, now a consultant who often serves on aerospace advisory committees, said that any capsule design would be a problem for Congress. “It becomes, in the minds of people here on Capitol Hill, a huge step backwards,” he says. “It means, essentially, that we’re trying to adapt technology that we know how to build.”
Some advocates of reusable spaceplanes don’t want to give up on the possibility of building a true single-stage-to-orbit vehicle, which could also have military and civilian passenger applications. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who chairs the House subcommittee on space, has been among those pushing hardest for NASA to invest in “next generation” space transportation. But, he told Space News last year, “If somebody came in and showed me that a capsule, engineered in the right way, could accomplish all the things we need and was cheaper and would be ready to go quicker, than I would be open-minded to it.”
As for NASA, it’s mulling the whole business over. In January, Administrator O’Keefe appointed retired Navy Rear Admiral Craig Steidle, who headed development of the Joint Strike Fighter airplane, as director of the new Office of Exploration Systems at NASA headquarters. For now, Steidle steadfastly refuses to speculate on what Project Constellation’s crew exploration vehicle ultimately will look like. And all O’Keefe would say before a Congressional committee in February is that a “spirited argument” is debating whether the vehicle will be reusable.
“We believe a capsule still makes a lot of sense as one element of the [crew exploration vehicle],” says Coats. It could be late summer before Steidle decides whether he agrees. If NASA opts for the capsule, it will come as no surprise to its contractors, nor to the Apollo veterans who came to the same conclusion 40 years ago, the last time the nation set its sights on the moon.