'Shuttlyndra' and the Smoking Rocket

This isn’t a new concept -- it is similar to studies that I performed with Boeing seven years ago. And in fact, Boeing actually gave a presentation on such an architecture that also utilized propellant made from lunar ice at an aerospace meeting a couple of weeks ago. The Boeing briefing didn’t explicitly say that no heavy-lifter is needed (the company would no doubt still like to get a contract for such a vehicle if it moves forward), but it was easy to read between the lines, given that the architecture had no single piece larger than 12 tons -- a tenth the size of the SLS.

But the big-rocket mafia has been ignoring them, because they are death to its space-pork agenda. They either pretend that such architectures don’t exist, or they denigrate them with spurious and specious technical arguments (too complex, we don’t know how to store or transfer propellant on orbit, it would take too many launches, there’s not enough launch capacity, etc.).

This NASA study, that just saw the light of day last week, no doubt to the regret of those at the agency who have been trying to keep it under wraps, blows up all those flawed objections. It shows how we could start sending humans beyond earth orbit early in the next decade using SpaceX Falcon Heavy vehicles, or United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavies, or a combination of the two, while spending roughly half the money or less of NASA’s current plan. Beyond that, while the study doesn’t mention this, it would drive down the cost of launch for other users by creating a competitive market with a high flight rate. It would be an excellent market for testing new untried vehicles, particularly new reusable ones, because the payload is so cheap (propellant costs less per pound than milk, while satellites typically cost thousands of dollars per pound), and it doesn’t matter if one occasionally fails.

How long will the Shuttlyndra charade continue? If Congressman Rohrabacher was chairman of the House Space, Science and Technology Committee, it’s likely that he would have had hearings on it long ago and Shuttlyndra would have been exposed and perhaps on its way to the dustbin of history. Unfortunately, he’s not, because the current chairman, 88-year-old Ralph Hall of Texas and a supporter of Shuttlyndra, switched parties in 2004 in exchange for an offer from the Republicans to keep his seniority, and outranks Rohrabacher, so don’t expect hearings on this any time soon. But don’t expect it to go away, particularly in the coming fiscal maelstrom, as NASA is forced to choose between saving the Webb telescope and saving the congressional pork rocket. The former will allow us to see all the way to the beginning of the universe, while the latter is so short sighted, it can’t see beyond an election.