May 08, 2003

Apollo Redux? Not Likely

Transterrestrial Musings talks about NASA's plans for the Orbital Space Plane, which is "intended to provide crew and limited cargo access to and from the International Space Station." Apparently, NASA is considering an Apollo CM-inspired design, because of all of the problems that NASA has had with winged orbiters and OSP designs.

The problem is, you see, that this is not just an upgraded Apollo CM. It would be a completely new design, that happened to be a capsule with the same pitch as the Apollo CM. The structure would be new, the controls new, the atmospheric system new, the heat shield new and so on. While this would still likely be cheaper than a fully-reusable winged system (and that should scare you if you pay US taxes!), the real problem is not with the wings. The problem is that NASA has forgotten how to design effective spacecraft. No matter what the technical requirements are, the primary drivers of any NASA program are political: what will offer the best shot at keeping NASA funded, and preferably increasing the budget.

As a result, it is almost a guarantee that any large NASA program will fail. Only small programs (like the "faster, better, cheaper" missions) have a chance of escaping notice long enough to succeed. The history has been that as soon as they succeed, they get escalated into big follow-on programs which generally fail. I don't see that this will be any different. Indeed, the visual similarity to Apollo is most likely more showmanship than technical requirement. Apollo has a good legacy, so clearly it's in NASA's interest to play up that angle. In real terms though, given the mission requirements, split-pitch capsule (with barely-sloping sides near the base, then sharply-sloping sides further up) would likely provide a better ballistic shape.

But that is probably all academic, since it is likely that NASA will add a significant cross-range requirement to the project, in order to provide flexibility. At that point, a capsule can't meet the requirement.

Posted by Jeff at May 8, 2003 12:30 PM | Link Cosmos
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