This analyst refuses to except the notion that NASA cannot return to the Saturn 5 — it s most cost-effective launcher in terms of cost per pound to orbit. Through careful planning and management of U.S. science, technology, economic and commercial resources, the Saturn 5 would be an exceptionally reliable, still-viable, best option for human lunar and planetary exploration.
For the present requirements, Cold War space development exploration thinking is not relevant — except to avoid depending on other nations for access to space or stepping up to China’s political challenge in space if we want to avoid being eclipsed in 2010-2020 by a capability developed elsewhere that we do not have because we scrapped it in the 1970s.
The future of manned space is in question unless we recognize certain realities that U. S. leaders to date have been unwilling to address.
At no time have unmanned scientific programs been allowed to wag the tail of the manned programs, and vice versa. Unmanned precursors are used in support of future manned exploration development because without human beings, there is no science. Where the humans are is where the political, economic support goes (all of which is spent here on Earth to employ U.S. citizens).
To move forward, we must recognize why we have been doing these large science and technology (S&T) projects in the West — which is rarely, if ever, explained.
Since the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations the plan has been to apply about 40 percent of the total available discretionary government funding to basic scientific research and about 60 percent to basic technologies (research & development).
Above all, the goal has been to provide for national security by keeping the United States technologically ahead of those in the world who oppose our social system. Unbalancing this kind of funding distribution should be done only for a short time and for a specific national purpose.
The experiences of the former Soviet Union show how emphasizing only technology development for several decades bankrupted its command economy and ultimately contributed to its demise.
To a large degree the United States still is reaping the benefits of the proper mix of the technology investments we made 1960s and early 1970s. Since then it has been faltering, except for the investments we made in the Strategic Defense Initiative period in the 1980s and early 1990s.
In short, while NASA is responsible for maintaining a strategic S&T balance, it has not been able to maintain it to the level we need today because of the consistent lack of appropriate support. We are presently paying dearly for compromising our selves.
Some five times since the early 1970s, the United States has attempted to produce an economically viable, fully reusable space shuttle system. Each time we have fallen on our collective faces because we are not technologically “there” in the critical S&T areas, as the retired NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe made painfully clear as he called a halt and redirected the Space Launch Initiative.
First in the late 1960s and early 1970s, we attempted to develop a two-stage fly-back shuttle system, which the Nixon administration did not support. It had the same technological problems that later systems faced and failed to master.
Second, to paraphrase Dr. George Mueller at a NASA history conference held in Washington in recent years, we “got the shuttle we have today from the ‘Bureau of the Budget Design Bureau’” that NASA did not want and that was not cheaper than Saturn 5.
The United States then tried the National Aerospace Plane (NASP) single-stage-to-orbit shuttle launch vehicle. But the Reagan administration had no intention of completing the effort beyond pushing the materials sciences, propulsion and flight avionics technology for the military. It remains unknown officially which black programs benefited from this effort. Common sense says they had to have benefited from that R&D effort, which recent wars have made partially clear.
The follow-on to that was the attempted development of the X-33 single-stage-to-orbit space transportation system using the un-flown aerospike propulsion system technology. The grossly expensive system was stopped after technological problems caused cost overruns. Although some of these issues have since been partially resolved, they are far from a perfected technology.
Finally, we attempted to return to the two- or three-stage fly-back shuttle system for the fifth attempt under the Space Launch Initiative, only to realize we were years from perfecting the material sciences, propulsion systems and fabrication technology to make such a system possible, much less economically viable.
These results should have been forecasted because if you are not prepared to put out that which is required to make the S&T breakthroughs, you are not going to succeed.
Money Kept Flowing
The NASA-industry partnership from the late 1960s and early 1970s consistently has been damned if they did (and damned if they did not) lay out the reality of what it was going to take to get the S&T job done for these various projects. NASA was lucky to get appropriations from one year to the next, much less what it needed for an extended period of time — such as the five to seven, or 10 to 15 years required to make the technological breakthroughs that would put the United States ahead of the rest of the world.
NASA and industry earnestly tried to do the job, but it was an unrealistic game of futility. Indeed, to get administration approval for the international space station , fibs had to be told about the true cost to get the job done. They only advertised what it would cost to build it on Earth — but not the launch, assembly and operational costs.
Free enterprise myth
Oh and let us not forget the cry of the Republican apologists to the space industry in the 1970s, the 1980s and even today that free enterprise and commercial human spaceflight is the answer to reducing the cost and complexity of space travel. It was, and remains to this day, a blatant abuse of this nation’s S &T capabilities.
In addition to requiring test flights, commercial proposals for space transportation systems and commercial aircraft programs should undergo an approval process overseen by a tough S&T board charged with scrutinizing the economic and technical viability of such proposals before the government makes any development commitments or matching government funds available for these kind of projects.
When the government does make an investment, it should receive free flights once operational flights begin. Regardless of private-industry efforts, NASA should have a replacement for the shuttle or a standardized manned spaceflight transportation system ready or working parallel with the shuttle.
So in short, we have been spinning our wheels since the early 1970s.
Former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe has attempted to retain some semblance of a critical propulsion initiative with no directed application to make up for over 25-30 years of neglect. That successful effort is being sustained through a joint NASA-U.S. Air Force propulsion demonstration program similar to what led to the development of the Saturn 5 ‘s F-1 engine in the 1960 s.
This effort could be redirected to develop improved closed-cycle versions of the engines used on the original Saturn 5 and applied to an improved Saturn 5.
To again paraphrase Dr. George Mueller, “If we cannot launch shuttle often enough to make it economically viable, then we would have been better off to have stayed with Saturn 5.”
Future Exploration Needs
The shuttle system has correctly been characterized as “a very dangerous, grossly expensive, very confining inflexible system” that the American space program can ill afford. Unfortunately, we are currently dependent on the space shuttle to finish the assembly of the international space station, which above all was designed to develop systems with lifetime durability technology to allow for future manned lunar bases, planetary manned missions and Hubble support missions. However, once those are completed with minimal crews, shuttle should be grounded and replaced by a more flexible launch vehicle system — like a modernized Saturn 5 .
The next 10 to 15 years of planning to systematically phase in the reconstituted infrastructure for the improved Saturn 5- Apollo-2 Crew Exploration Vehicle must begin to meet any future space leadership challenges.
How many Atlas, Titans and Thor/Delta boosters did the U. S. produce in all configurations? We should produce at least half of that many Saturn 5s over time and sell it on that kind of purchase pricing. This should dramatically reduce the cost to the U.S aerospace industry.
Saturn 5, which was becoming cheaper from its approximate $771 million cost per booster (in today’s dollars ) and more reliable with time, was put out of production at 15 plus boosters — well short of the intended 74 boosters originally envisioned.
Further, this Saturn universal space transportation system must be kept in production through 300-500 vehicles, or more for 45-50 years at a rate of 4-7 boosters a year with storability for long-term planning and development of the missions and payloads we need. National goals would be made possible by a known readily available, reliable-safe launch system, which shuttle is not .
We must act now decisively. China is challenging the U.S. leadership in space, regardless of what they say. We may wake up one morning between 2010 and 2016 — based on China’s Forecast Planning statements — and learn that China is about to eclipse our lead as it launches an unmanned precursor to a manned lunar circumnavigation mission, later to be followed by the planned 2020 manned lunar landing. We can do this much sooner if we try.
Planning the transition
In the near term, a further expansion of the space station also should consider combining the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) with a reusable Interim Control Module, revised as a space tug for station modules logistics and a required shuttle re-supply emergencies vehicle.
This revised crew-rated EELV could serve as an interim assured space transportation access vehicle for the Apollo-2 Crew Exploration Vehicle spacecraft until the improved Saturn 5 comes on line. Longer-term production and utilization of the improved EELV must be kept available to supplement the Saturn operational missions.
Saturn 5 could be launched on time, on demand and with greater flexibility than any shuttle system will ever give us at a level of unsurpassed safety reliability. In pure economic terms, this makes the system consistently more economical than any other manned launch system (except possibly Soyuz), shuttle system or shuttle-derived system would ever allow.
We must not forget the Apollo lessons learned as well as the Soviet manned lunar program lessons learned — do not attempt to assemble four to 10 vehicles in Earth orbit without a harbor for the safety quality control requirements.
That is why the U. S. went to the Saturn 5 design and the Soviets went to the N1-L3 design. I f the space station is to be sacrificed, then we have to return to Saturn 5.
Attempts to redesign and up rate EELV’s Delta-4/Atlas-5 class boosters to a human-rated super heavy lift would cost essentially as much as it would to bring back an improved Saturn 5 within the same time frame.
To attempt to replace shuttle by returning to shuttle-derived, solid rocket boosters with an upper-stage medium-lift booster for the Crew Exploration Vehicle with far less assurance of safety and reliability, is a return to the mistakes of the past.
How many times do we have to fly with this shuttle hardware and how many crews do we have to kill before we learn the lesson that this is not the way to go? We were successful with the Apollo Saturn 5 approach, so stay with what works safely, reliably, on time and on demand because without that you cannot conduct a human lunar base or a Mars mission outpost operation.
To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, “If we are not prepared to do what is required to get the job done it would be better that we not go at all.” I submit that that decision has long since been made — we are committed and it had better not change.
Charles P. Vick is a senior fellow, Space Policy, Globalsecurity.org.