The Super Heavy Fight

The Super Heavy Fight

NASA’s Constellation Program has been cancelled, or has it?   NASA’s 2011 budget as proposed by the White House deletes the program, but certain members of Congress are fighting back.  Congress is holding hearings featuring famous astronauts such as Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan decrying the President’s plan.   The fight is about the impending loss of Shuttle and Apollo era national assets, which is another way of saying “jobs”. 

The Super Heavy Fight

Meanwhile, certain teams inside NASA are working on plans to continue Constellation in modified form.  On May 17 the New York Times reported that a MSFC team headed by Jeff Hanley, Constellation Program Manager, was working on an accelerated plan to fly several more Ares I tests through 2014 followed by early testing of a super-heavy lifter beginning the following year.  In this plan, Ares I might not be fully developed, but might instead be used to test systems for the bigger rocket.

The super-heavy, smaller than the previously-planned Ares V rocket but still weighing more than 2,700 tonnes at liftoff, would borrow Ares I first and second stages.  

Two five-segment boosters from Ares I would straddle a core vehicle, which could be either 8.4 or 10 meters in diameter and powered either by a cluster of SSME or RS-68 engines.  For deep space missions, the rocket would be topped by a J-2X powered Ares I Upper Stage.  The rocket looks much like the “Ares IV” studied by NASA several years ago.

Previous studies have shown that such a rocket, if powered by four SSMEs, could lift more than 100 tonnes to LEO as a 1.5 stage rocket or, by topping it with an Ares I Upper Stage to make a 2.5 stage machine, up to 45 tonnes to escape velocity. 

This Super would be designed from the outset to serve both as a cargo and, when topped by an Orion spacecraft and a Launch Abort System, a crew launcher.  A single launch could send an Orion on a trans-lunar mission, or into deep space on a “Flexible Path” mission.  Two launches might support a lunar landing.  

A two-stage “core only” variant with no solid boosters, and with propellant offloaded from the first core stage, could, if needed, serve as a LEO crew launch vehicle.

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The plan, a sped-up, lower-cost version of Constellation, seemed designed to serve as a template for a NASA budget compromise between Congress and the White House.

While some of his staff worked on Constellation plans, NASA Administrator Bolden remained steadfast in his support of President Obama’s proposed Post-Constellation budget.  The President’s plan would cancel Ares I/Orion and Ares V, extend ISS operations, develop commercial crew launch for ISS, and initiate propulsion research that might be used by super-heavy lift rockets after 2020. 

Bolden mentioned plans for kerosene/LOX propulsion during his address to the same Congressional committee visited by Armstrong and Cernan.   Clearly, Bolden and Obama’s plan replaces Shuttle-derived solid motors with liquid hydrocarbons, something like Atlas Phase 2, the “Fat Atlas” described in the 2005 ESAS report. 

Presumably, NASA would support development of an RD-180 class U.S. engine for Phase 2.  The Phase 2 core would be 5 or 5.4 meters in diameter and would be powered by two RD-180 type engines.  Three such cores would be clustered and topped by a new “Fat Centaur” – something like the Advanced Common Evolved Stage (ACES) proposed by ULA to lift up to 70 tonnes to LEO and 30 tonnes to escape.

  Such a rocket would weigh more than 1,700 tonnes.  A single-core first stage topped by an ACES could serve as a 640 tonne crew launcher able to lift about 28 tonnes to LEO.   Atlas Phase 2 could fly from the existing ULA Atlas V launch site at Cape Canaveral

These two paths to Super Heavy stand in stark contrast.  One would preserve Shuttle External Tank infrastructure at Michoud, ATK’s SRB production in Utah, SSME or RS-68 and J-2X engine production and testing at Stennis, and Kennedy Space Center’s sprawling Launch Complex 39 – including use of the VAB and the under-construction Ares mobile launcher. 

The other would see all of the above scrapped irrevocably in favor of supporting EELV infrastructure.  One approach appears to provide a more capable launch vehicle.  The other may offer a lower-cost rocket.

Launch vehicle choice is only part of the total struggle currently underway, but decisions made in coming weeks and months could decide NASA’s future for decades.

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An Ed Kyle Commentary
May 19, 2010

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