End Run

A small band of rogue rocketeers takes on the NASA establishment.

Artist's depiction of the Jupiter-120 arriving at the launch pad. (Artwork by Philip Metschan | Copyright 2008 Directlauncher)

The rocket is transformative, literally. On the web site, a space shuttle launches atop two pillars of flame gushing from solid rocket boosters, just as we’ve seen for the last quarter century. Then the video morphs into an animation that freezes and rotates the vehicle back toward you. Invisible hands take the shuttle stack apart, like a child mixing and matching a toy. And a new rocket, the Jupiter 232, takes shape, using the external fuel tank and the boosters, but without the familiar spaceplane.

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In the upper left corner of the screen appear the words: “Direct v2.0: simpler, safer, sooner.”

That description is a matter of some debate between the web site’s creators and NASA. The animation is the work of Philip Metschan, a graphic designer and concept artist at Pixar Studios in California. He produced it about a year and a half ago using the same kind of software used for Hollywood movies like Jurassic Park, The Golden Compass, and The Incredible Hulk.

But he’s just the artist. His brother Stephen, he says, is the brains behind the concept, known as Stephen Metschan insists that Direct is a more elegant way to send astronauts to the moon than the launcher NASA now plans to build. The agency has been spending billions on a pair of new rockets, the Ares I and V, which he says are unnecessarily complicated and expensive, and which fail to adhere to a Congressional mandate to use shuttle-derived rockets to the fullest extent possible.

Stephen Metschan, with a handful of colleagues, is among the most vocal critics of the Ares design. He says he’s supported by 69 active NASA and contract engineers—mostly at the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama and Kennedy Space Center in Florida—who remain anonymous for fear of losing their jobs. At night and on weekends, the band of renegades keeps refining their Direct Launcher concept as an alternative to the Ares launchers. Should the political winds shift at NASA, Metschan thinks it’s still early enough in the program to switch to Direct, as much of the money spent on the moon program so far would still apply to his concept.

A decade ago, Metschan started his company, TeamVision Corporation, with a NASA Small Business Innovation Research grant. TeamVision makes Framework CT, an analysis tool that helps solve highly complex problems by sorting through millions of possibilities. Metschan soon found a meaty problem for the software: What’s the best way to convert the space shuttle’s existing parts into a design that will take astronauts to orbit and to the moon, with a new space capsule (called Orion) atop the vehicle, and with as few changes to the rest of the parts as possible?

One key advantage of Direct, say its creators, is that it uses the tried-and-true, four-segment version of the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters rather than a new, five-segment version required for Ares. Adding the extra segment has caused engineering headaches for NASA due to the increased shaking produced by what is, by far, the largest solid rocket the world has ever seen. If left undamped, this “thrust oscillation” would feel like a massive jackhammer for the astronauts riding on top of the Ares.

NASA discovered the problem early in the design phase, and says that it has a solution: installing about 200 large springs in the bottom end of the booster, and another 200 in the top end, between the booster and the second, liquid-fueled stage. Dampers beneath the astronauts’ couches should reduce residual oscillations to a tolerable level, letting astronauts reach out and toggle a switch during ascent.

Metschan says the plan won’t work, and that the agency is clinging stubbornly to its Ares design without giving other ideas a chance. “In any normal organization, this would have been put in the dust bin of history,” he says.

He and two colleagues—Ross Tierney, who owns a model rocket business in Florida, and Chuck Longton, who used to work for NASA on liquid-fueled engines—are the public faces of Direct Launcher. All three claim that the real problem at NASA is close-mindedness, particularly on the part of Administrator Mike Griffin. To Metschan, it seemed that Griffin came to NASA in 2005 having already decided that Ares I and V were the only options. Direct Launcher, they say, never got a fair hearing.

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