NASA Seeks Weight Reduction, Reuseable Components

By | September 29, 2008 | Satellite News Feed

NASA needs technology, design and components that will cut weight and costs in Constellation Program systems such as the Orion space capsule and Ares rocket, the next- generation space hardware for missions to the moon and beyond, according to speakers at an industry-day briefing.

NASA officials briefed several hundred contractors attending the session. Those NASA briefers included Doug Cooke, deputy associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate; Geoff Yoder, director of the Directorate Integration Office; Jeff Hanley, manager of the Constellation Program; Clinton Dorris, deputy project manager for the Altair lunar lander effort; and Steve Cook, the Ares project manager.

The briefing was one in a series for industry representatives being presented at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce headquarters in Washington, D.C. The Chamber organization, the Space Enterprise Council, is working with NASA to bring leaders of industry and NASA together in charting a future course for the space program going to the moon, Mars and beyond.

Hanley said the Constellation Program isn’t aiming for an uninspiring target of returning to low Earth orbit, which is all the current space shuttle fleet can attain. Rather, the next-generation Orion-Ares spaceship system is designed primarily for voyages to the moon and beyond, Hanley explained. "Everything we’re doing is with the moon in mind," he said, with the Constellation Program now well along, a key "to opening the solar system to us."

Where the Apollo program focused on sending astronauts to easier destinations along the lunar equator, the Constellation Program will have the capability to land astronauts at any point on the moon, he added. Some proposals would involve landing near a lunar pole to seek water ice, perhaps creating a manned outpost there.

He outlined how the Orion-Ares system will be larger than the space shuttle, and how Orion-Ares will use updated legacy systems with proven track records. That saves money on design work, and can increase safety by using known systems with proven track records.

From broad concepts, the Constellation Program now is moving toward a day when specifications will be completed, he said.

Cook said the program obviously will be complex, involving such things as sending tons of vehicle/payload weight into a trans-lunar orbit, requiring such things as the muscle of the largest upper rocket stage the United States has built since Saturn V. But this new system wil have some 40 percent more lift capacity than Saturn.

The idea is to minimize risk, he explained.

For example, in choosing RS-68 engines (Boeing-Rocketdyne), NASA is seeking to partner with the Air Force, using common components.

And cost savings is a key goal as well.

Increasing commonality between the Ares I space capsule rocket and the Ares V heavy payload lifter, NASA saved about $5 billion, Cook said.

One aim here is to send as little mass and weight to the moon and back as possible.

However, the Altair lunar lander program will have to handle heavy weights. NASA may have to send 14 to 17 tons of payload to the surface of the moon. This includes major elements such as propulsion, and other touches such as an airlock that can keep lunar dust out of the lander.

During design, many choices are being made. For example, adding 12,000 kilograms (13.2 tons) of propellant might increase capabilities, but it also would increase the bottom line by $1 billion.

In designing the different modules going to the moon, engineers have attempted to use the greatest possible number of common components.

During design, he said, the craft is stripped down at the beginning of the process so that it has very few safety features. Then, one by one, safety enhancements are added to it, so that safety and cost tradeoffs are visible.

The Altair design is far from settled, he said. "We’re changing the design daily," he reported.

These are some other points during the individual briefings, and during the ensuing question and answer period:

NASA wishes to bring in more industry help to aid NASA personnel in the program, including to the Ares V heavy lift rocket effort.

The space agency wishes to receive more ideas on how to make the Constellation Program systems more produce-able and operable.

There will be another industry day in November.

Ares V and Altair requests for proposals are being written this fall and are being targeted for release in January, with multiple awards in spring.

Ares V work packages will include Earth Departure, the Core Stage, First Stage, Avionics and Shroud.

NASA absolutely doesn’t plan to preclude large contractors from bidding on the larger contracts.

In designing buildings to be used on the moon, inflatable structures don’t help to reduce mass much compared to solid or rigid buildings, but inflatables help to cut packaging, not requiring as much volume.

In deciding how to split the work of the Constellation Program between the United States and other participating nations, NASA most certainly will build, end to end, the transportation system from the Earth to the moon and back, along with initial extravehicular activity (moonwalking) systems for activities on the lunar surface, and navigation systems.

But that leaves many areas for foreign contributions.

Also, a U.S. contractor could have overseas firms on its team.

In designing craft or systems going to the moon, recognize that it is enormously difficult and expensive to send every pound of payload going to the lunar surface. Therefore, consider in designing anything how — after it is used and abandoned on the lunar surface — it might be grabbed by astronaut scavengers for further use later. Design in interoperability between components on any craft and other components or craft. Every pound of whatever is sent to the moon requires lifting about nine to 12 pounds to low Earth orbit.

Likewise, if water ice (two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule) can be found on the moon in substantial quantities, that would be enormously helpful: oxygen could be harvested on the moon, without the enormous expense and work of hauling it from Earth.

Could an empty fuel tank be used later, say, as a habitat on the moon or Mars?

Could commercial space transport firms someday provide logistics, making runs to the moon to supply astronauts in outposts there?

NASA needs to check some long-held assumptions that may be half a century old, such as how thick the walls of a rocket or tank must be for safety, to see whether more recent technology means weight can be removed.

The moon, where there is no atmospheric disturbance and pollution, would be an ideal site for an advanced telescope to study the universe.

When astronauts begin living on the moon, exploring it will involve traveling substantial distances. Is it better to use a vehicle such as a pressurized rover (moon buggy with a passenger cabin), or would it be helpful for the Altair lander to be refueled on the moon, so that it can hover and move, flying astronauts from point to point? That use of a "hopper" is one possibility NASA won’t stop considering.

The hours-long morning briefing was held in a hall at the Chamber building decorated with flags honoring historic explorers such as Columbus, LaSalle, Magellen, Amerigo Vespuci, Balboa, Drake and others.

For an overview of the industry day presentation including a NASA TV rebroadcast and slides used by the briefers, please go to http://www.exploration.nasa.gov on the Web, and click on Lunar Exploration Industry Briefing.

To view slides used by the briefers, please go to http://www.uschamber.com on the Web, click on programs, scroll down to Space Enterprise Council, then go to Past Events, and click on 2008 Events.

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