July 14, 2008
NASA Engineers Design Alternative Moon Rocket
Several engineers working on NASA's new Ares moon rockets believe they have created an alternative rocket that would be safer, cheaper and easier to build than the two Ares spacecraft that will replace the space shuttle.
The project, called Jupiter, is the brainchild of engineers and other NASA retirees and space enthusiasts. The engineers involved in the project from the Marshall Space Flight Center and other NASA facilities have been working on the project mostly anonymously and on their own time.
Their design is little more than a sketch on a napkin that won't work, said one key Ares project manager.
"Concerned engineers at NASA and some contractors want a review of the Ares plans but can't speak out for fear of being demoted, transferred or fired," said Ross Tierney, a spokesman for the competing effort.
Tierney said the Jupiter design is being reviewed by a team of 57 volunteer engineers, from line engineers up to NASA middle managers. In comparison, NASA's Ares workforce has thousands of government workers and contractors.
"I can't rule out the possibility that some of his people are involved with the underground program," said the head of the Ares office at Marshall.
"I don't know what people do on their own time," said Steve Cook.
But Cook said he is familiar with the Jupiter project, and he's not impressed. NASA informally reviewed plans for the rocket last fall and determined the idea to be a flawed scheme based on shaky numbers.
Cook said the design was "not feasible" and determined that it would not work and moved on.
Meanwhile, he said, work on the Ares I rocket is so far along that the first test flight is less than a year away.
"We're down to the nuts and bolts ... on this rocket. This is not a napkin drawing," he said.
As NASA prepares to retire the shuttle in 2010, such debate reflects disagreement over the direction of U.S. spaceflight.
By 2015, the agency plans to begin orbital flights with Ares I and a companion heavy-lift cargo rocket, Ares V. NASA officials are looking to return astronauts to the moon by 2020.
NASA astronauts will be carried into orbit in a capsule aboard the Ares I, which will have a modified shuttle booster rocket at its core. They will dock with a lunar stage that was carried aloft separately by an Ares V rocket and head to the moon.
Two separate launches would be needed for the Jupiter design to get to the moon, but its rockets would both rely on a shuttle external tank at their center. Some of the design concepts go back to proposals floated at Marshall in the early 1980s. Others date to the early '90s, when Marshall worked on a new rocket system that never flew.
The Jupiter rockets, besides being a simpler, more powerful system, would save NASA $19 billion in development costs and another $16 billion in operating costs over two decades, according to backers.
The Government Accountability Office last year raised questions about the cost of NASA's current plan for returning to the moon, which a report estimated at $230 billion over 20 years. NASA said it already has spent about $7 billion on Ares.
The upcoming presidential election could change NASA's plan, said Steve Metschan, an engineer and former NASA contractor who supports the Jupiter team. He accused NASA of suppressing information that shows Jupiter would perform better than Ares.
Metschan is concerned that by the time everyone figures this out, they will have destroyed their heavy-lift system. "At the end of the day, all we're asking for is an independent review of all this stuff."
Cook said all the estimates on Jupiter were preliminary, and he denied critics' claims that NASA did a full-fledged study of the Jupiter rocket or the engineers' alternate moon-mission program, which they call Direct 2.0.
He said NASA looked at "all sorts" of proposed designs and none was as powerful or safe as Ares.
Image Caption: Concept image of the Ares V Earth departure stage in orbit, shown with the Orion capsule docked with the Altair lander. Image credit: NASA/MSFC
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