MPCV: Much ado about (mostly) nothing

25 05 2011

Pressure test of the Orion/MPCV capsule conducted 5-5-2011. (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

So, despite what the “milestone” wording in yesterday’s media alert seemed to suggest, the much-anticipated announcement from NASA did not declare a new exploration goal.  Instead, a “new,” “deep space” vehicle was announced: the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, or MPCV. 

The thing is, it isn’t really a new vehicle. 

As designer/manufacturer Lockheed Martin’s own press release admits, the vehicle is simply their Orion spacecraft (developed under NASA’s now-cancelled Constellation Program) reborn under a new name.

MPCV/Orion in Martian orbit. (Credit: NASA)

Why all the fuss?  Good question.  The rechristening of the vehicle indicates that NASA will continue to support its development, which should be a relief to all of the Orion personnel.  -And, while NASA did not come out and officially adopt the plan and timeline as I would have hoped, all of the subtext seems to indicate that they are embracing President Obama’s (and Lockheed’s) proposal to send human explorers to an asteroid, a Martian moon, and on to Mars.

If this delineation is real, and NewSpace is intended to take over LEO and lunar operations while NASA aims to send astronauts farther out, then I think this is a wonderful development.  There’s room for everyone.

It is my sincerest hope that this is not simply wordplay intended to loft a sagging program with no real defined end-use or objective.

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Following Lockheed Martin’s “Stepping Stones” to Mars

27 03 2011

Diagram and timeline of Lockheed Martin's incremental "Stepping Stones" proposal. (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

The wake of the cancellation of NASA’s Constellation Program has been devastating to Lockheed Martin’s Orion spacecraft plans.  They had been counting on the subsequently-canceled Ares series of rockets to loft Orion to the International Space Station (ISS) as a replacement for the retiring Space Shuttle, with eventual plans as the command module for future manned exploration of the Moon and Mars.

After emerging from beneath the Obama administration’s scalpel, (one that admittedly may have simultaneously opened a new channel for commercial space exploration,) all that remains of this once mighty program is the go-ahead to leverage the Orion testing already done so that a stripped-down version might be utilized as an ISS lifeboat.

A mockup of the Orion spacecraft docking with the International Space Station in Lockheed's new Space Operations Simulation Center. (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

However, instead of licking their wounds, it appears that Lockheed Martin has wasted no time in capitalizing on their salvaged Orion spacecraft-as-lifeboat.  First, they’ve recently unveiled a new facility designed for full-scale testing and integration of Orion with spaceflight hardware, called the Space Operations Simulation Center.

Secondly, and perhaps more intriguingly, they’ve release a document called “Stepping Stones,” which is a Lockheed Martin proposed scenario that includes a timetable for incremental missions from Low Earth Orbit to an eventual exploration of a moon of Mars (see image above).

Using tried techniques, the outline builds on their previously-released Plymouth Rock scenario and includes an earlier mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, a subsequent mission to the Lagrangian Point over the far side of the moon, a more distant asteroid rendezvous mission, and finally a mission to the moons of Mars, enabling astronauts to control robotic rovers on the Martian surface in real time.

Aside from the fact that logistically, scientifically, economically, and technologically there are very good reasons to visit asteroids, even the final objective sets very technologically realistic goals.  By not shooting to put boots on Mars to begin with, their very savvy scenario bypasses the need to utilize the risky, untried hardware that would be necessary to make a powered landing on the Martian surface and blast off again (presumably to a Martian-Orbit-Rendezvous) before heading back home.

I sincerely hope someone with vision and budget authority picks up this proposal – it’s a serious plan that continues to grow our experience and knowledge base by visiting (and mastering travel to-and-from) new destinations while minimizing risk.

With Stepping Stones, I think we’re looking at the future of manned space exploration.





Liberating Ares in commercial rocket fray

10 02 2011

Rendering of the Liberty Launch Vehicle. (Credit: ATK)

The NewSpace rocket environment is growing from a band of determined forerunners to a healthy platoon.  Salvaging what they could from NASA’s cancelled Ares I rocket, industry giant ATK (responsible for building Space Shuttle’s solid rocket boosters, a critical component in the Ares rocket design,) has teamed up with Eurpoean company Astrium (of Ariane 5 fame) to develop a new vehicle: Liberty.

Maiden launch of NASA's Ares I-X rocket in 2009. (Credit: NASA)

The vehicle, which will marry ATK’s bottom booster stages with an updated version of Ariane’s second stage and fairing, is the latest in an increasingly-heated competition for NASA contacts to ferry crew and cargo to the International Space Station after the retirement of the Space Shuttle.  Highly reminiscent of the Ares I design, Liberty joins the competetive ranks of commercial rockets such as SpaceX’s Falcon IX, Boeing’s Delta IV, the Russian Proton, and Lockheed’s Atlas V.

I am personally glad to see the Ares expertise utilized in a commercial design, and we who hope for widening access to space couldn’t hope for a better situation – one increasingly likely to stimulate competetive rocket vehicle pricing, innovation, and development.





Congressman Posey throws Space Smackdown ahead of Obama Speech

9 04 2010

Late last month, Representative Bill Posey (R-Florida) wrote an intense letter to President Obama, who is currently preparing to outline the nation’s new Vision for Space Exploration this Thursday.  Unnervingly, no one really knows what the President is going to say, except that we know he’s cancelled NASA’s Moon-Mars Constellation Program and the Ares-class of lifting rockets, but he is going to divert more money to the private sector instead.  Beyond that is anyone’s guess.

To that end, first-term Congressman Posey took it upon himself to snail-mail Obama and basically accuse him of:

  1. Being a hypocrite,
  2. Turning his back on his campaign promises with regard to space exploration,
  3. Needlessly sacrificing the Shuttle, (a worthy space vehicle according to the Augustine Commission,)
  4. Relinquishing our space superiority (and national security by extension) to Russia and China,
  5. Kicking Florida’s already-thrashed employees while they’re down by canceling NASA’s Constellation Program,
  6. Leaving our own astronauts in the cold by failing to propose or develop a new space vehicle while retiring the Shuttle.

He then asks for an invite to the speech this Thursday to participate.  That’s moxie.

On the whole, I really respect Representative Posey’s position, and the letter is definitely worth reading for those interested in the future of our space program.  Considering the points the congressman makes, unless Obama can deliver a strong message and instill a firm, clear, and captivating goal for U.S. space exploration, (Mars, asteroids… something exciting,) or unless private spaceflight steps up to the plate, I believe you, Bill.

We just might lose our edge.








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