By Joe Pappalardo
WASHINGTON—A group of renegade space vehicle designers, including NASA engineers bucking their bosses, today got their chance to make their case to the next presidential administration. During a morning meeting at NASA headquarters in Washington D.C. with Obama administration transition team members, a handful of advocates today pitched an idea to scrap NASA's existing post-shuttle plan.
Instead, they want to create a different launch vehicle from space shuttle parts that could reach the International Space Station and, eventually, be used for a return to the moon. According to the current plan, NASA's launchers are slated to fly in 2015, five years after the shuttle is retired. The alternative plan, called Jupiter Direct, promises to trim that date by two years and tens of millions of dollars.
"We were received well, but they were very clear they are offering no opinions at this point," says Ross Tierney, a collectible space model kit designer from Florida who presented the alternative plan. "To get what is essentially a presidential level meeting is an honor and privilege for us. We hope something comes of it."
NASA is now depending on the Ares I launch vehicle, currently under development, to replace the shuttle for manned trips to the ISS. Moonshots and other long missions would require a second launch vehicle: the massive, unmanned Ares V, the construction of which has not started. Critics charge that the design, which was supposed to draw heavily on converted parts from the space shuttle, now relies on too many made-to-order parts, driving up development costs and lengthening the time to launch. Defenders of the Ares program say that the changes became necessary, as happens during many complex engineering projects, and that restarting a man-rated launcher program would likely cause more delays and invite a redistribution of NASA's budget.
With the inauguration less than two weeks away, many are hoping that Obama will present a new space exploration plan soon. The current NASA administrator, Michael Griffin, is not expected to stay; the announcement of his replacement may come next week. Changing the hardware blueprint for the organization presents a deeper problem: A wrong step now could cost jobs, waste multiple millions of dollars and increase the gap during which the nation will have no way of launching people into space.
Spokesmen for the Obama transition team refused to comment on the meeting—since the election they have not offered any public comments on the new administration's plan for NASA. During the campaign, Barack Obama changed his position, first promising change at the agency, suggesting that the government mine NASA's budget for other programs, then backing away by promising that space-related jobs (particularly in Florida) would not be threatened.
To weigh the options, the transition team is quietly holding a series of meetings to chart the course of the space agency. Last week, transition team members reportedly were suggesting the conversion of military Atlas V or Delta IV rockets, currently used to launch satellites, to carry astronauts.
This morning, the transition team, including senior advisor to private space company Virgin Galactic George Whitesides and former NASA associate administrator Alan Ladwig, met to hear the Jupiter Direct plan, which was formed by moonlighting NASA employees, retired engineers and a couple of space buffs. It's been a long, strange trip for Tierney, a model-builder who helped kickstart the Jupiter Direct proposal by gathering support from engineers on Internet chat rooms in 2004. "They told us, ÔWe're here to just listen. We're giving all interested parties a hearing'," Tierney says.
Proponents of Jupiter are hoping that the Obama administration is willing to keep an open mind. The engineers behind Jupiter Direct say their plan would be faster and cheaper because it uses a new configuration of proven space shuttle hardware. To replace Ares I, the Jupiter Direct advocates want to use a single-stage launch vehicle, Jupiter 120. The heart of the system is a modified external tank from the shuttle powered by two RS-68s, the reliable liquid-fuel engine currently used in the Delta IV satellite launcher. The initial kick is provided by two four-segment solid rocket boosters lifted directly from the shuttle.
While the Ares I would be limited to missions only to low Earth orbit, the Jupiter 120's extra power would enable it to launch Orion on a lunar flyby or a visit to a near-Earth asteroid. Lunar landing missions would call for a pair of medium-size, two-stage Jupiter 232s: One would carry Orion and the Altair lunar lander into orbit; the other, the Earth Departure Stage. The Jupiter Direct plan leaves the Orion capsule and lunar lander plans unchanged.
By reusing shuttle parts, NASA and contractor employees can keep their manufacturing jobs. If the plan is quicker, the shuttle can retire safely and the embarrassing manned flight gap can be shorter. If it's cheaper, Congress might be more willing to allow a restart.
That is a lot of "ifs," but Tierney says was happy to take his long shot at influencing space history. "We got a full hearing today," he says. "If they're interested, they'll call."