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NASA: Constellation Won’t Cut Crew Size To Reduce Orion Capsule Weight

By | December 15, 2008

      Costs, Options For Reducing Gap Between Shuttles, Orion, Detailed In NASA Study

      The Constellation Program won’t cut the size of the Orion space capsule, or crew exploration vehicle, as a means of reducing space vehicle weight, Doug Cooke, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems, said.

      "We’re not looking at taking … astronauts off," even though the spaceship weight is a problem, Cooke told the Space Transportation Association at a luncheon on Capitol Hill. "Reducing the crew size — we’re not looking at that."

      The weight problem is, he said, "manageable." In any aerospace system design process, weight ordinarily becomes an issue at some point, he noted. "You always work mass," he noted.

      Constellation Program leaders met last week to discuss and resolve various issues, such as avionics systems, he said.

      Cooke also spoke to the problem of narrowing the half-decade gap when NASA won’t be able to transport even one of its astronauts to low Earth orbit, and instead will be reduced to hitching costly rides from the Russians on the sometimes troubled Soyuz spaceships.

      President Bush ordered space shuttles to cease flying by October 2010, freeing up money to pay for developing Orion and its rocket, Ares. But shuttle retirement would occur five years before Orion is ready for its first astronaut crew.

      Cooke declined to specify just how much an earlier Orion flight might cost, but estimates by NASA Administrator Mike Griffin and others peg it at something like $1 billion for each year that the first Orion manned spaceflight is accelerated. In other words, moving that first flight from the current schedule of March 2015 back to sometime in 2014 would cost about $1 billion.

      Even with yet another $1 billion, however, the first flight at this point likely couldn’t be moved back to 2013.

      President-elect Obama has said he wishes to provide $2 billion to shrink the gap. "That is a number that would help, if that were to be the case," Cooke said.

      If so, then $1 billion might pay for moving the first manned Orion flight back to 2014, while the other $1 billion could pay for further space shuttle flights, beyond the October 2010 retirement deadline.

      Space & Missile Defense Report asked Cooke how that would impact facilities at Kennedy Space Center and other NASA facilities that the shuttles would continue to use, facilities that eventually will have to transition to the Orion-Ares program.

      Aside from Kennedy assembly and launch facilities, there would be a handoff from the shuttle program to the Constellation Program of engine testing stands at Stennis Space Center and facilities at Michoud Assembly Facility where space shuttle external fuel tanks now are made, both in Louisiana, Cooke noted. Those facilities would be used by Constellation for Ares segment work on the upper stage and Orion capsule structure and manufacturing.

      "We are working together to try to figure out how to orchestrate those kinds of things," he said.

      With no new money, the ability of the Orion and Ares programs "depends on retirement of shuttle" by October 2010, he said. Bush mandated that space shuttles cease flying then, to save money for developing Orion, Ares and the Altair moon lander. "That’s …how the gap really kind of got there," Cooke said, "because we can’t really accelerate a lot of the final designs" unless "there’s money available, freed up."

      But "if you add money to the equation," then other alternatives become possible, he said.

      At this time, Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for space programs, is studying ramifications of a potential extension of space shuttle flights, Cooke noted. It will take some time, he said, before that study is complete and can produce answers.

      Vibration, Hitting Tower

      On a separate point, NASA engineers and others are fully able to solve the problems that beset the Orion-Ares system, Cooke said. That applies, he said, whether the problem is thrust oscillation, the violent rocket vibration that must be barred from hitting the crew, or tower clearance, the concern that a sudden gust of strong wind at liftoff could shove the Ares rocket sideways into the launch pad tower.

      In fact, NASA engineers have several mitigation approaches that can solve the thrust oscillation headache, he indicated.

      The tower clearance problem is highly unlikely to arise, and would occur under a worst-case scenario of 34 knots (39.1 mph) of wind from one certain direction that would shove the rocket into the tower, Cooke noted.

      Tilting the rocket one degree off vertical, away from the tower, has been considered, along with steering away from the tower, which is what the old Saturn rockets did, he said.

      And limits on flying with winds of a certain speed could be considered as well, he said, such as a limit of 20 knots (23 mph). Generally, some of the concerns raised are "a red herring," he said.

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