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)

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“If your plan didn’t include Ares I,” says Metschan, “then your case was dead on arrival.”

NASA shrugs at such accusations.

“NASA has assessed over 1,700 launch vehicle options since the conclusion of ESAS [the Exploration Systems Architecture Study] in the summer of 2005,” says Steve Cook, NASA’s Ares I program manager. “The primary issue with all of the ‘Direct’ options, including the most recent variation released in late June, 2008, is that they fall short of our performance requirements. If a system can’t pass this primary gate, we do not perform more detailed analyses.”

Cook says the Direct proponents offer no methodology or data to support their claims of cost savings on their design for the central fuel tank; and that developing Jupiter’s core system, even with the fuel tank derived from the shuttle’s tank, would be far more expensive than the Direct proponents promise.

Furthermore, he says, Ares I and V are well under way, with Ares I having just concluded its Preliminary Design Review. The thrust oscillation problems, Cook admits, still need to be addressed in a follow-on review next summer, “to mature the design solution.” But he warns that restarting the program now would waste billions of dollars spent developing the integrated Ares I stack, including redoing 6,000 hours of wind tunnel tests.

In Government Accountability Office noted the technical risks facing the Ares program, but was not as pessimistic as Metschan about the chances of solving them: “We do not know yet whether the architecture and design solutions selected by NASA will work as intended,” concluded the authors.

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.”

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