Friday, January 8, 2010
On Monday SpaceX had a successful test of the upper stage engine for their Falcon 9 rocket.
That completes the ground testing phase of the Falcon 9 and in one to three months they will be ready to go ahead with a full test flight.
While I can’t say enough about how I think having another launch system capable of lifting cargo into orbit is great for both America and humanity, I do fear many politicians will look on SpaceX’s success as a reason to abandon the work being done on Ares I.
One of the proposals that the Augustine commission gave President Obama was that NASA stop research on the Ares I and go straight ahead to the Ares V Super heavy lifter.
They estimated with that plan NASA could get by with a $2 billion budget increase instead of a $3 billion increase.
So far Obama has increased NASA’s budget by $900 million and people that I consider reliable sources tell me that people that they consider reliable sources have heard from people they consider reliable sources that Obama is going to increase NASA’s budget by another billion.
If this third hand information is correct, that would have the budget right for NASA to return to the Moon, relying on the Falcon 9 only.
On paper the Falcon 9 should be the most reliable launch system to date. It uses liquid oxygen- kerosene rockets like Atlas launchers that were used in the Mercury space missions, which are stable and reliable. These are still complex pieces of machinery that have thousands of interacting parts.
The biggest problem NASA has had in the past has been relying on only one way to get to orbit. After the Challenger disaster a lot of unmanned missions were postponed because they were designed so that they could only get to orbit by the Space Shuttle, when there were other rockets that could carry them to orbit.
While I’m excited that the Falcon 9 program is going well and I hope that it and other commercial rockets are successful and eventual replace NASA in taking smallish commercial payloads into orbit, I think switching all of NASA’s manned activities on to one launch vehicle, their own or someone else’s, is setting them up for the same problem they had with the Shuttle.
If they use only the Falcon 9 to get people into space and there is a problem with it, they have no alternative other than to stop activities until it is fixed. With manned missions going on both the Falcon 9 and the Ares I, which are based on different architectures, if there is a problem with one the other can be used to until it is fixed.
With two American alternatives for humans to get into space as well as using the Russians or Chinese programs, manned commercial ventures in LEO get less risky. As a manned commercial presence develops in LEO more companies will develop their own rockets, making it even less risky.