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Commercially available NASA can signal a paradigm shift for in-depth travel

NASA now launches the idea of ​​using commercial rockets to launch a critical mission around the moon next year instead of using the massive rocket that the agency has built over the last decade. Such a drastic change would not only increase the aircraft for this mission, but it could also have major consequences for how ambitious space travel programs are implemented in the future.

The holding of this new commercial focus is to maintain the agency's launch schedule. NASA's rocket, Space Launch System or SLS takes a long time to do, and is probably not ready to fly with its current target launch date June 2020 while other commercial vehicles already on the market are ready to fly right now.

Making this revision would not be a simple change. NASA does not need a commercial rocket but two to get the mission done. The agency will also need to develop new technology and figure out how to split some vehicles into space to ensure that its mission can actually make it all the way to the moon.

It is a process that will take a lot of time and effort, and there is no guarantee that it can happen next year. But if NASA can pull off this monumental transition to commercial vehicles, the agency can only show a new method of deep space travel based on multiple launches of smaller vehicles and does not necessarily require massive rockets to succeed. It can ultimately save NASA lots of time and money, freeing up money to do more ambitious things.


For this upcoming mission, NASA wants to send two heavy spacecraft out on a three-week trip around the moon next year: an empty crew capsule called Orion and some cylindrical hardware that provides power and support to the canister called the European Service Module. Together, the two cars need a lot of fuel to break out of the earth's gravity and reach the extreme distance of the Moon. SLS is so powerful that it will be able to send the couple all the way out to that distance in just one launch.

But if NASA decides to fly commercially, there isn't a vehicle available right now that is powerful enough to send both Orion and its module together to the moon's proximity. The two most powerful commercial rockets in the US include SpaceX's Falcon Heavy and Delta IV Heavy from United Launch Alliance. While both are impressive vehicles, it can't match what SLS should do when it's finished.

SpaceX and ULA

Therefore, two rockets are needed. A rocket would launch Orion and the European Service Module together in the orbit of the earth where they would basically be "parked" too little. Another rocket would then launch what is known as a space tug, which is essentially another rocket with its own fuel and engine attached. The tugboat and Orion would hang in orbit, and the tugboat would ignite and drive the vehicle all the way to the moon. "It is much like a tractor on a farm that pulls trailers or agricultural equipment," said Dallas Bienhoff, founder of the Cislunar Space Development Company, which focuses on expanding space infrastructure, The Verge . "It's a propulsion unit."

This concept of using spacecraft for deep space travel has been appreciated for decades. NASA began studying the concept in the 1960s and 70s, with a NASA official describing those needed to "speed up other bodies in space". Finally, the upper parts of rockets can be regarded as space boats, since these vehicles push payloads to their intended paths. However, spacecraft can be launched on their own, remaining in space to attach to other vehicles and drive them where they need to go.

Spaceships can change how NASA has been doing its deep space mission for decades. "One of the problems we have as a space industry, which has led us to the space launch system, is that we insist on putting all mass per mission at a single launch," says Bienhoff, who also researched technology needed for space tugboats at Boeing . Starting all your hardware in this way can be difficult. Earth's gravity is quite strong, so sending heavy equipment far from our planet requires a lot of extra power, and in turn much extra fuel. Getting all the fuel in space requires a large rocket, and the larger your rocket gets, the more fuel you need to lift both the rocket and the payload from the earth. Then the bike runs with larger and larger amounts of cargo which requires larger rockets for deep space.

An artistic presentation of future SLS.
Image: NASA

When rockets grow in size, they become more complex and more expensive to start. And the expense has really become a problem for SLS. It is estimated that NASA has spent $ 14 billion over the last decade to develop the rocket, and the vehicle is still not ready. Clearly, it is only expected to be launched once or twice a year for about $ 1 billion per flight. In comparison, the Delta IV Heavy costs about $ 350 million per launch while Falcon Heavy starts at just under $ 100 million. Only two launches of any of these vehicles cost well during a launch of SLS.

Spaceboats can also help save on costs in the future by simply staying in space when they are finished with their tugs. For example, a tug that pulls hardware into the moon can travel back to low ground and wait for a refill. Another rocket can then collect fuel from the soil, dock with the tugboat and transfer fuel over. It would allow space to tow another object into deep space, which is a task it can do over and over again, saving extra launches.

In-space assembly

Of course, another capacity needed for all this is to work a way to dock with these tugs. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has acknowledged that the crew caps Orion, as it is now constructed, does not have the ability to rendezvous and dock with a tugboat. "Between now and June 2020, we have to make that reality," he said during a late-night hearing, referring to docking.

But this type of space-docking is not a new practice. Russia's Soyuz capsule has long been automatically docked with the International Space Station, giving crews to the orbiting lab. SpaceX's Crew Dragon showed only its ability to dock with the ISS on a test flight without inspection, using a series of sensors and lasers to get close and careful to a port on the outside of the station. "The LIDAR and machine vision systems used for the Crew Dragon to autonomously dock with the station are some of the sensors you can use to make manufacturing and assembly in space," Andrew Rush, CEO and President Made Made, a developing company . The Verge .

However, SpaceX's Crew Dragon is automatically docked with the International Space Station for the first time on March 4.
Photo: NASA

Attaching critical bits in space allows engineers to get around large rockets as well. Rather than sending everything in one piece, you can start smaller pieces and then connect the hardware together when it is in circulation. That way, you don't have to completely build your spacecraft first on the ground. This has been a problem for some complex missions, such as NASA's future space observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, which doesn't exactly fit perfectly within the rocket it launches. The spacecraft is as large and complex as it must launch into space folded up and then unfurl for two weeks. If it goes wrong, the telescope cannot work properly in space, leading to an end to a mission of more than $ 9.66 billion.

But with built-in or additional production in space, one need not completely build a vehicle on the ground first. "By spreading the equipment over a couple of launches and then using manufacturing and mounting in space, we can actually achieve this in a much more cost-effective way than if we launched that type of monolithic spacecraft," says Rush. [19659026] Risks

However, all these changes come with a price. Docking and space mounting are considered risky maneuvers, according to Bridenstine. "Docking crew members in the Earth's orbit to get to the moon gives complexity and risk undesirable," he wrote in a memo to NASA employees. In addition, hardware launches in pieces several rockets would be needed for a deep space mission, and it does not fit well with some people. Some experts and legislators argue that carrying out more launches opens up more risk opportunities because one of the launches could fail and jeopardize the mission. "The committee's perspective is let's go, and let's go hard … as opposed to piecemeal," Rep said. Frank Lucas (R-OK) this week during a hearing by the House Science Committee.

Using commercial launch vehicles will also not be easy for this mission either. At present, engineers at Orion are verifying for the upcoming launch, driving simulations based on the SLS design. To switch to commercial vehicles, they would have to pay tribute to all this work and start running new simulations based on data from the new cars. It would also completely change the flight profile, which would require extra work to prepare. "If the mission profile changes, which seems inevitable given the smaller capabilities of each other vehicle compared to SLS, much of this work is no longer relevant," a Lockheed Martin employee who worked at Orion, who did not want to speak publicly in case of retaliation, The Verge . It is therefore unlikely to meet the launch date of June 2020.

Then there is political resistance that will surely prevent this change from owning room. The laws of the congress, especially those from Alabama where SLS is being built, are likely to struggle to hold the Orion vehicle on the massive NASA rocket. And since Congress ultimately approves NASA's budget and dictates how the agency can use federal funds, legislators could say that Orion lives on SLS.

By making this change, NASA has the opportunity to show a whole new type of approach to sending people to deep space – one that has never been used before. While launching in pieces can be more complex, it can save money and time, which is two things NASA does not have in abundance. Perhaps NASA's future mission to the moon will not depend on massive rockets, but smaller vehicles that start more often and perform the same tasks.

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