Lockheed Martin’s asteroid gambit

24 09 2010

Orion capsule docked w/ Orion Deep Space Vehicle modification. (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

The Obama Administration’s recent space initiative scraps former President Bush’s Orion moon program and planned moon base in favor of three basic components: Private industry, an asteroid rendezvous by 2025, and a manned Mars orbit by 2035.

Not wasting any time on nostalgia, aerospace industry giant Lockheed Martin, who had been helming the all-but-cancelled Orion spacecraft development, has seized on the suggestion and released a comprehensive proposal for how NASA can make the next off-world visit using their existing (or nearly-existing) Orion technology.

Citing a trinity rationale, “Security, Curiosity, and Prosperity,” Lockheed Martin’s proposal details how two Orion capsules and service modules (or one standard Orion capsule plus a SuperOrion they call the Orion Deep Space Vehicle,) can rendezvous with and explore one of a small class of Near-Earth-Objects (read: asteroids) that happen to swing close to Earth.

Orion spacecraft parked in orbit of an asteroid. (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

So, what does, “Security, Curiosity, and Prosperity” mean?  Lockheed Martin ventures that security is a reason to visit an asteroid so that we can develop necessary interception know-how and experience should we ever have to try and divert one.  Curiosity is reason to visit according to the plan because of the potential scientific boon exploring an asteroid would be for solar system formation research and planetary geology.  Lastly, they mention prosperity due to the fact that there is a very real possibility that “mining” an asteroid for natural resources could be quite lucrative.

What are the pitfalls?  The primary added risk of the asteroid mission over a lunar mission is distance.   Should something mechanically or medically go wrong, the shortest possible emergency return trip is on the order of months instead of days.  There is also a more prolonged exposure to radiation to consider.

However, the risk of an asteroid mission is also significantly reduced compared to a lunar mission in that two return capsules are taken along, so if something goes wrong with one, astronauts can still use the other to get home.  More importantly, there is no landing module, no landing and launch logistics to manage, and therefore no real chance of crashing.  Because an asteroid of this nature is so small (and its gravity weak), astronauts could literally park their Orion spacecraft next to the asteroid and spacewalk over to it.

Personally, I think this is fantastic.  This may just the geologist in me talking, but I think Lockheed Martin’s “Security, Curiosity, Prosperity” concept is a home run.  We really should be developing skills necessary in case we find an inbound asteroid with a high probability of a strike.  (Else, why are we spending so much time and effort looking out for asteroids that might hit us?)  The curiosity factor is a given, and I have personally been championing the “resourcing” of asteroids, (if I can make that a verb,) for years as a way of enabling larger space endeavors while reducing the “resource load” on Earth…

It’s also worth noting that the general experience of traveling through deep space would also be very, very useful experience for future trips to Mars.

So, will NASA go for it?  I think they’d be wise to.  They’ll be hard-pressed to find a more well-motivated mission with acceptable risk, redundancy, and potential payoff.

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NASA’s Orion spacecraft escapes doom

12 05 2010

Successful firing of the Orion capsule launch-abort system from the White Sands Missile Range, N.M. Credit: AP/Craig Fritz

A quick, bittersweet post: NASA recently tested the launch-abort system for their all-but-cancelled Orion spacecraft, rocketing it into the air under its own power and letting it parachute to a safe landing.  Orion, which was intended to be the replacement for the retiring Space Shuttle, is modeled after an Apollo-style teardrop-shaped capsule atop a booster rocket. 

New Orion crew capsule parachuting to a safe landing after the launch-abort test May 6th. Credit: AP/Craig Fritz

The launch-abort system is designed to save astronauts on the launch pad or during the ascent to orbit, and while it was not actually attached to a rocket booster, the system was “live” tested as if it were attached to a malfunctioning rocket.  As it would appear, the test was a complete success – a triumph for the Constellation and Orion program workers, but bittersweet in that now, Orion will likely never splash down carrying astronauts fresh from leaving boot tracks on the Moon.

Certainly a nostalgic sight, the triple-parachute style carries over from the Space Race era, conjuring feelings of heroes returning from the Moon.  However, with the recent cancellation of the Constellation bid for the Moon and Mars, Orion is no longer a full-fledged replacement for the Space Shuttle.  Instead, under the new Obama directive, Orion has eeked out an existence amidst private space corporations vying for NASA launch contracts as a crew escape vehicle for astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

With images like these, it’s hard not to imagine the Orion that might have been.





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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