Sunday, June 28, 2009

You weigh in on NASA's next rocket choice

I got a virtual bag full of mail following up on the columns I've written the last couple weeks. The first asked people to speak their mind to the presidential panel studying NASA's human space flight plans. The second pointed out the Ares rocket is not the only way to get NASA's shuttle replacement spaceship to orbit.

You sent letters and e-mail. You called me. You commented here on our space blog, The Flame Trench, and via Facebook and Twitter. The conversation was civil, lively and on point. That's just the kind of discussion we want about important space issues.

So, today, I thought I'd share a few of the comments and my responses. If you enjoy that kind of back of forth, drop down below, click comment and get in the debate. You can comment here every week on this column or every day on the myriad items posted by our team of space reporters, editors and photographers.

So, what are people saying?

Dave Bonnar of Viera voiced the concern of many that NASA ought to aim higher than the moon. The space agency, Bonner and others told me, ought to be doing things that lead to a human expedition to Mars rather than repeating past feats.

"The large NASA projected cost of returning to the moon with a manned station on the moon is not affordable and a waste of funding," Bonnar wrote in a longer letter. "The longer term vision for America should include the manned Mars mission goal."

Some folks asked whether it would matter if they voiced their opinions to the human space flight committee reviewing NASA's programs for President Barack Obama.

From what I've seen so far, yes. The committee has set up easy ways to communicate and members are openly responding to input and requests for information. Check it out at

Finally, I heard most about my failure to write about the Direct launch system. Direct, touted by a mostly-anonymous band of engineers inside and outside NASA, is another means of cobbling together various shuttle launch components to make a new rocket. So, why didn't I talk about that?

Not far from my bureau at the spaceport, I can see the first version of the Ares being readied for a test flight. In the week since I last wrote, an Atlas V blasted a pair of spacecraft from here to the moon and a Delta IV launched a weather satellite.

Even Space X's Falcon rocket is more mature than Direct. I've walked in Space X's California factory and spoken directly with everyone from engineers to founder Elon Musk. I'm convinced they'll make Falcon a viable launcher someday.

Direct is just far less real than any alternative on the table. What's more, most of the engineers behind it refuse to identify themselves out of some threat (real or imagined) from superiors at NASA or its big contractors.

For now, Direct is a rocket on Powerpoint slides only. There are several solid alternatives years closer to being ready to launch. NASA doesn't have time right now to go back to the drawing board and start fresh.

That said, you can read even more about Direct at the supporters' web site. Also, if you want to see all of the presentations made about Ares, shuttle variants, EELV and Direct, check out this post for links to the presentations made to the Augustine panel.


Gaetano Marano said...


I've just posted my suggestion #7 for the Human Space Flight Plans Committee and NASA:

"scrap NOW the Ares-1 and Ares-5 before it's TOO LATE for ESAS"


Gaetano Marano said...


TRUE story of "Direct" here:


Anonymous said...

How about a choice for once instead of Boeing or Lockheed or should we call them ULS or Bloeheed or Lockhing?

How about not ripping off the tax payers for once?

How about not Privatizing Profit and Socializing Loss for once?

It's pretty sad when the country would be better off if we just didn't do anything because the only vendors are crooks.

Bruce said...

It seems to me that as long as you build a cargo module with the same weight and aerodynamic properties as the shuttle, all you would need to do is bolt it on and it would fly. No tiles to worry about, and no humans. Humanizing Delta IV for the Orion capsule would be the only development that wouldn't be a slam dunk. The launches Ive seen of the Delta sure seem to fly nice. These are my thoughts. But I'm not a rocket scientist, I just help pay for all this stuff.

Anonymous said...

Delta IV all the way! Save time on both development time/costs and operational cost. It would require a much smaller standing army of personnel than Ares I.

Anonymous said...

Watch out, John. You have made the most serious of errors. You had disparaged DIRECT!

"Direct is just far less real than any alternative on the table. What's more, most of the engineers behind it refuse to identify themselves out of some threat (real or imagined) from superiors at NASA or its big contractors."

Haven't you heard? There's "blood in the water" according to them! Put on your tin foil hat and get with their program, already! Resistance is futile!

Anonymous said...

Ohmygosh I can't believe all this Delta IV hoo-hah. The freakin rocket has on;y flown three times and one on of those, the darn thing put RINKERSAT into the wrong orbit. Mission Control to crew: "Oops. We left you guys about 200,000 miles short of the moon. Sorry. Hope to see you on the deck."

Anonymous said...

Shuttle RSRMs 202 for 202 since Challenger. Delta IV one for three in its history. This is a no-brainer, folks.....

Gaetano Marano said...


just posted my suggestion #8 for the Human Space Flight Plans Committee and NASA:

"resize the Orion to 4.5 meters and its crew to three astronauts"


Anonymous said...

Ares I is mostly a power point rocket as well to be honest while your at it. Its barely out of Preliminary design reviews - where DIRECT is largely based on NASA's work in the 1990s on the ALS and NLS the inline shuttle alternative, which passed PDR back then. It is as mature as Ares I and a sounder more robust proposal than staying the course on a useless 14.4 bln dolar stick and pray for the Ares VII later yielding a 5-10 year gap if SpaceX doesnt deliver to a degree neccesary for HSF and no funding is given to HR EELVs.

WTF John?! You seem to be drinking the same sauce as NASA' current management and defending the senseless status quo, if it were acceptable we wouldn't need a review of HSF. WAKE UP.

Ed Tessmacher said...

You have a responsibility to your readers, if you wish to claim yourself as a serious journalist, to have a little integrity and not publish outright lies about the DIRECT proposal. You obviously don't really care, and don't know what you're talking about, or you wouldn't be spouting the NASA Party Line so vigorously. Frankly, I'm disappointed that you would do this, unless of course you're also on the payroll somewhere else.

Ed Tessmacher said...

Oh, you have to get APPROVAL to post comments? So much for free speech. If you only publish the things you like to hear, then you're not getting the full story. Journalism 101, Mr. Kelly. You must have stayed home sick that day.

RayGun said...

Hi John. I've followed Direct for about 2 years. While yes it is a paper rocket, most of the components exist. 4 segment Solid Rocket Booster, SRB and Space Shuttle Main Engine, SSME. This was the great part of the original Ares I, use existing hardware, "Safe, Simple, Soon". It all went bad when they couldn't air start the SSME. Now NASA is building 5 segment SRB and J2-X for the upper stage. Its my belief that ESAS was a sham, NASA knew the SSME couldn't air start. So it has evolved into, Not safe, Not simple, Not soon, and most of all not affordable. Classic bait and switch. I'm hearing that it will cost $3 Billion dollars per Ares I launch. In the spirit of Vision for Space Exploration, VSE, this is just not affordable. The Ares rockets will eat NASA's entire budget. VSE calls for affordable space access.

Anonymous said...

Not a bad article.

If Ares is a finished product why is it taking so long to fly? Was not Ares meant to be "Safe, Simple, Soon" in 2005? I guess 12 years is soon to fly a rocket to you??? I noticed that you did not mention a few things:

1. How many jobs will be lost between when the Shuttle is shut down in 2010 and when Ares I starts flying? There will be no manned flights under the Ares program for at least 5+ years=people without jobs.

2. How much Ares I is meant to cost to develop ? Last time I heard, $20 billion and rising.

3. How much is Ares I going to cost to fly?

4. How many safety features have been left out since Ares I cannot lift the spacecraft?

5. How Ares I has been scaled back to lift 4 astronuats since it cannot lift 6.

6. Even from this Ares test flight, please mention to the public that NASA is still at least 7 years away from using it for the ISS.

And the list goes on....

You also failed to mention that Falcon 9 is in the class of an EELV meant to lift approx 20 tons. The early version of Direct will be able to lift over 60 tons.

In addition, how will mantain the ISS if it need replacement parts. Some of the things like the solar arrays volumewise, are going to have some difficultly fitting on an EELV or Falcon.

One last thing, please check the ESAS study and look at what Ares is meant to be flying in September. Then come back and tell us all how similar or dissimular the two are from each other.

Anonymous said...

DIRECT is actually far more mature than any alternative rocket proposed, simply because it relies on actual shuttle hardware. The solid rocket boosters and the main engines, both with a flight history of nearly thirty years, are transplanted DIRECTly from the shuttle without modification. The core stage is very similar to the current space shuttle internal tank.

In contrast, the Ares main engines, first stage, and second stage are still being developed and share no flight history with the shuttle. They have to be designed, built, tested, and flight-qualified.

You're right that NASA doesn't have time (or money) to go back to the drawing board. That's the very reason why they shouldn't reinvent the wheel with Ares. DIRECT is not only closer to flying than any alternative (save Delta IV and Atlas V), parts of it have *already* been flying for the entire history of the shuttle program.

Bruce said...

Maybe this will be the first real test of the Obama administration. If they can pull this off, all that would be left is to get rid of all the tree-huggers at NASA.

John Kelly said...

Dear Ed,

Thanks for the comment. Yes, we clear the comments because we typically can't get everyone to avoid using vulgar language or launching personal attacks against one another here in the blog. Our goal is for civil discourse, so we want to make sure we're not letting it get out of hand. As you might imagine, kids read this blog and there's no need for them to hear language like that. Besides, I've often found that someone who has to lace their opinions with a four-letter curse word is usually doing so because they can't formulate a rationale argument. That said, your comment's up. I don't people beating up on me. I just try to keep them from using nasty words to call each other names. All we filter out is about the same as what television filters out to protect kids and to promote civil argument. We don't delete comments we don't agree with, so there is a free and open debate here.

In any event, we're always interested in opinions and feedback. I'm curious what the audience thinks. We can turn off comment moderation. Is the trade-off of seeing filthy language and nasty attacks on each other by anonymous posters worth seeing your comments go up undisturbed and instantly?

Let me know.

John Kelly said...

Rinkersat. True. It's definitely worth noting that the D4 Heavy left its first payload short of target orbit and that's certainly unacceptable for human missions. It was the first flight, a failure regardless of Boeing's repeated attempts to call it a success. That said, the rocket's problems appear to be corrected. Trust me, I'm no advocate of the Delta IV Heavy for this job, at least not without some serious scrutiny of the fixes to its early flight problems. I'm advocating for a fair, apples-to-apples analysis of the alternatives (including DIRECT) instead of a review where the outcome is not predetermined. I just don't think DIRECT wins that battle, but I'm willing to be convinced. I see lots of arguments here that DIRECT would save jobs. I think people are missing a key point: the new architecture is to be designed, on purpose, to eliminate jobs. The new program has to fit into a slimmer funding profile and one of the only ways to reduce costs on these programs is to reduce the size of the workforce. That's sad, but unless Congress appropriates billions more for the human space flight program, then there will be jobs lost. If one of the arguments for DIRECT is going to be that it will employ more people, the concept is dead as a competitor without a serious change in national policy when it comes to how much we spend on space.

Greg Zsidisin said...

I don't understand this reporter's bias against alternative Shuttle-derived systems.

Ares is hardware only by virtue of "the world's largest model rocket" - Ares-I-X, a standard four-segment Shuttle SRB with a mass/mold-line simulator on it. Earth to Kelly: it may be "hardware" but it ain't a space program. Data may be gotten - but it's pretty useless if Ares-I doesn't get built.

Given that none other than Sen. Bill Nelson told the panel Ares is way out of the project NASA budgets, something's got to give. Any alternative beyond LEO (SpaceX Falcon-9, ULA Delta-IV) is going to be paper and PowerPoint at this stage. And that includes the interesting "side-mount" vehicle NASA presented, not just DIRECT.

Unfortunately, simply due to the budget, we're more back at square one than John Kelly seems to realize.

Greg Zsidisin said...

For John Kelly: on the jobs front (7:43 AM post), jobs will be lost no matter what due to the move away from the labor- and engineering-intensive Shuttle Orbiter. If an architecture such as DIRECT or John Shannon's "Shuttle-B" concept (basically, the two classic inline vs. side-mount Shuttle-derived vehicle approaches) is used, Florida jobs are saved because the remaining processing routines are largely unchanged.

In any scenario, I think no one disagrees that the next program will employ fewer people overall.

Ed Tessmacher said...


Thanks for your honest reply.

With regard to the above comment about DIRECT "employing more people" I don't think you have it right. DIRECT doesn't claim to "employ more people." What they claim is to not lay off all the workers who are building the shuttle stack (less orbiter) and in these tough economic times, huge job losses are a critical thing. I'm sure you can see that. Perhaps you should actually go to the DIRECT website, and read what they have to say, rather than relying on second-hand disparaging gossip?

Jim McDade said...

Thanks to the saturation of internet connectivity, we are suddenly blessed with a over-abundance of "rocket scientists", including the DIRECT jokers who embarrassed themselves at the Augustine panel hearing with their wild conspiracy claims.

NASA's real problem is not bad engineering, it is bad funding. The generous funding of NASA during Apollo was driven by Cold War competitiveness. NASA has been poorly funded in recent decades. Ares I could have been ready quicker if NASA possessed the money and resources to work faster and better.

The EELV alternative movement is motivated by the desire to redirect tax dollars to company coffers. For want of a big contract, ULA wants to use the Russian rocket engine on the Atlas V to send NASA astronauts into space. I don't know what ULA see,s determined to agitate its biggest customer.

Anonymous said...

Quote: Delta IV "It would require a much smaller standing army of personnel than Ares I"

Do you think for a second, if NASA did go with a Delta IV, that they are not going to be COMPLETELY in charge of launching it. It won't be ULA engineers sitting in the LCC, maybe a couple of tokens, but that is NASA's bread and butter and they are not giving it up. And to become good systems engineers to work the launch consoles, you need to be an expert on the hardware - you’re not going to get that from sitting in the office so they are going to have to go in the field. Since they are in the field, they might as well take over some of the systems. Take over the system and you don't need ULA personnel - which doesn't make much sense since they are the experts. So you will STILL have a standing army on both sides - NASA and ULA.

On the other hand, ARES 1 is being developed by NASA - with of course their major subcontractors. However, they are the experts with the integrated systems - however flawed that might be. You don't see ATK issuing vibration date. NASA is right in the middle of it. They will decide what their contractor level is, they know what their NASA personnel level will be.

So, the bottom line is if you think NASA is going to snap their fingers, certify a Delta for human flight, and then hand ULA and check and say go do it you are heading WAY down the wrong path. Trying adding 2500 NASA employees plus NASA procedures and safeguards into your plan and you get closer.

Anonymous said...

@ John Kelly

To understand the implications for your readership, please look at the Direct vs Ares workforce comparison located here:

Direct calls for fewer short term cuts @ KSC by decreasing the manned space flight gap with a vehicle that requires neither a new first stage engine nor a new second stage engine.

In the long term Direct calls for a slightly smaller total number employed than required by the standing armies for either Constellation or STS.

Both Constellation and Direct remove the need for Orbiter and SSME refurb. But if a lunar program is funded, both plans will require operations staff for Orion, Altair, and the EDS, in addition to the launch vehicles. The difference is that Constellation plans to develop and operate two launch vehicles on NASA's budget, while Direct plans for just one. One of those plans has a chance of fitting into the budget. One does not.

Anonymous said...

OK, replying to several comments here...

"Do you think for a second, if NASA did go with a Delta IV, that they are not going to be COMPLETELY in charge of launching it."

Oh, I'm sure that's what they'll want. But then again, they also "want" to stick with Ares I/V. If they are ordered to switch to EELV, they are already doing something they don't "want" to do, but are being directed to do so. That said, any direction to switch to EELV should come with the direction to minimize duplication of existing capabilities. Yes, another pad will likely have to be built, but ULA should still be the operator of that pad since they already have the knowledge and experience. Operationally, an EELV for launching Orion should be handled no differently than when NASA buys EELVs for unmanned spacecraft. In fact, these launches could be managed by the same NASA LSP office. Meanwhile, NASA would still retain the same control over the Orion spacecraft (spacecraft, not launch vehicle) as they would any other spacecraft.

The money saved on reduced launch operations workforce would be diverted towards bringing other critical CxP systems online.

@John Kelly

You stated, "Not far from my bureau at the spaceport, I can see the first version of the Ares being readied for a test flight."

This statement is so inaccurate that I'm not sure where to begin.

Ares I-X is not a "first version" of Ares I-X. It shares so little commonality with Ares I that it is really little more than a PAO stunt at this point. It has a 4 segment SRM, while Ares I uses a 5 segment SRB. It uses a different TVC system and different avionics. It has a totally inert dummy upper stage and Orion. Its Outer Mold Line (OML) is also completely different.

At this point, Ares I is barely any less a paper rocket than DIRECT or Human-Rated EELV.

I also think the DIRECT presenter did a great job. Not sure why a previous commenter thought that the DIRECT Team "embarrassed" themselves.

A comment was also made about NASA having to deal with arm chair rocket scientists and increased scrutiny because of the internet. Well, a good portion of the people that follow this stuff and comment on it are in the aerospace profession, and many of those who are not are pretty darn knowledgeable. You see this increased visibility as a bad thing. I see it as a good thing and a driver from NASA to be more transparent and accountable. After all, they are a taxpayer funded civilian (yes, CxP serves no military purpose) space program.


The Augustine Committee should really take a second look at what NASA refers to as "Human Rating". I think even Mike Griffin stated that nobody wants to lose a multi-billion dollar unmanned spacecraft any less than they'd want to lose a manned spacecraft. Yes, you need to add the right sensors and software to enable an automatically initiated abort, but there's more to Human Rating than just that. Certainly, that does not take 7 years to implement like Aerospace Corp. claimed. Luckily, I could kind of see that even Augustine though the 7 year claim was B.S..

Anonymous said...

Whatever they decide to do, we need to do it efficiently, with
the latest technology...not mothballed ideas from 25 or 20 years ago AND we need to retain as many if not more jobs than
before. Lets have some VISION folks. The technology investment made into the Space Program has allowed this country
to advance so much in the last 40 years and we need to ramp that up even more. I am more than willing to kick in more of my taxes to that end. The question is, ARE YOU?

Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous posting at 7:18PM

Orion is not technology that was "mothballed from 25" years ago. Capsules are well-suited towards missions beyond low Earth Orbit. Lugging a pair heavy wings, landing gear, control surfaces, actuators, and increased airframe structure to the moon is just an inefficient and ridiculous waste of performance. It is also much more expensive, and much more complex. Added complexity = increased likelihood of failures.

A 2009 Bugatti Veyron has 4 wheels, a combustion engine, a stearing wheel, a windshield, etc., just like an old Ford Model T does. Do the Veyron's superficial similarities to an old vehicle make it obsolete also?

You are focusing on the superficial. You fail to acknowledge Orion's newer materials, newer manufacturing methods, avionics, power systems, life support systems, etc.

Also, the choice of architecture/launch vehicle should not be made for the sake of saving long-term jobs. The "flight gap" should be bridged to preserve those jobs that will be needed, but the chosen architecture/launch vehicle should be based on overall efficiency for meeting human spaceflight goals. Operations costs should be minimized such that development of the other necessary systems for actual beyond-LEO missions can be accelerated. Jobs will be needed, but less for operations and more for development. Once CxP is in full swing (Lunar Missions, NEO Missions, etc.) the number of development jobs will naturally give way to operations jobs. In the end, the program has to be sustainable, or it will provide no jobs.

Bruce said...

Another thought - Saturn Is have already been developed and certified. Just build a few more of them and there we go. Don't improve this or improve that, just build them as certified, and there should be more than enough capacity to get a modern light-weight capsule up to the Space Station or Low Earth Orbit

Anonymous said...

Space Elevator!