NASA’S BIG BAD ROCKET

If you haven’t read about it yet, or seen a report on the news, here is a write-up from the Sydney Morning Herald:

TO PUSH further out into the solar system – to the moon and beyond, to asteroids, eventually to Mars – NASA has unveiled plans for a behemoth rocket that would serve as the backbone of its human spaceflight program for decades.
The finished rocket would be the most powerful vessel ever to rise from the gravitational bonds of Earth.
”We’re investing in technologies to live and work in space, and it sets the stage for visiting asteroids and Mars,” the NASA administrator, Major-General Charles F .Bolden jnr, said at a news conference in Washington on Wednesday.

The megarocket, blandly named the Space Launch System, embodies the space agency’s enduring desire to aim far and dream big.
But it also reflects a shrinking of near-term ambitions as budget-cutters seek to rein in federal spending.
Just two years ago, NASA had hoped to build an even larger rocket that would take astronauts back to the moon and set up an outpost there.

With money more limited, the pace of progress will be much slower than during NASA’s Apollo heyday in the 1960s.
William H. Gerstenmaier, the agency’s associate administrator for human exploration, said NASA expected to devote $3 billion a year to the effort, or a total of about $18 billion over the next six years.
That would be enough to finish a rocket capable of lifting 70 tonnes into orbit. The largest unmanned rockets, currently available, can lift about one-third that much.

The first unmanned test flight is scheduled for 2017.

The design would evolve to larger versions that could lift up to 130 tonnes. (The Saturn V rocket that powered the Apollo Moon exploration program could lift 120 tonnes.)
The rocket will be powered by five space shuttle engines and, initially at least, two solid rocket boosters taken from the shuttle.

”We’ve talked conceptually about multiple destinations,” Mr Gerstenmaier said. ”We talk about an asteroid in 2025. We talk about Mars being the ultimate destination.”
NASA hopes that the SLS project will now allow it to rehire many of the thousands of workers laid off at the conclusion of the 30-year space shuttle program. Scientists and engineers will be needed at Houston’s Johnson Space Centre, the rocket assembly plant in Huntsville, Alabama, and at Cape Canaveral, Florida, where up to 10,000 lost their jobs at the Kennedy Space Centre.

I think it’s a step in the right direction, really. I’ve said it before, but I’d like to see a manned mission to Europa at least within this century. Ideally within my lifetime. To me it holds the ultimate curiosity. What is below that icy crust, in those freezing cold waters? I refuse to believe that there can be nothing at all there…

However I take issue with the plans of sending a manned flight to Mars to do a few loops around the red planet and then return. Whilst it would be amazing to see the footage the Astronauts would film from the mission, with vistas of Mars from orbit we’ve never seen before… why go there and not land? Why the test run? We can use probes to practice the trajectory adjustments needed to get there and back. And also a probe flight could be outfitted to collect data on the stresses experienced against the hull, micro-meteor impacts, radiation, etc before we send a ship carrying real live men and women within it.

I think we should have a go at landing on an asteroid, and then shoot off for Mars. That will give us good practice of getting to an ‘alien’ planet, landing on it, then taking back off. Meanwhile we send probes to Europa to attempt to map its subsurface geography from orbit, much like what we are doing with the moon. Then we locate the best place to drill down into the ocean beneath its surface. Then we go.

But this approach, which actually is a backwards step in one way, will allow us to carry heavier loads to space, to assist in building a craft that make that kind of journey.

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