Second Guessing NASA VSE

Five Alternative Visions for Space Exploration.

As concerns grow in some sectors over NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration, a new phenomenon has taken hold: the creation of detailed, alternative lunar exploration plans by outsiders to NASA.

ARES1 / ORION FORUM  ===== ARES V / MTV (Mars Transport Vehicle) FORUM



From Lockheed Martin to the Congressional Budget Office, it seems like everyone has a proposal for how to change the VSE. With a Congressional party change foreseen for the coming US elections, it seems plausible that elements of these alternatives may soon make their way to the House and Senate floors.

These alternative visions are backed by hard technical data and are vetted or created by industry experts. The plans attempt to solve or avoid the perceived budgetary and technical risks of NASA’s chosen path.

In this two-part series, we will examine five recently proposed alternatives to NASA’s VSE program. In this first installment, we will examine a Shuttle derived launcher alternative to NASA’s Ares I and V vehicles.


The latest example of a detailed alternative vision is Ross Tierney’s recently unveiled ‘DIRECT’ concept. Tierney’s DIRECT design attempts to address concerns that the NASA VSE Ares vehicles have lost too much commonality with Space Shuttle hardware, resulting in vastly increased costs, timelines, and risks.

DIRECT is pitched in a 33 page technical proposal, CG video, and computer simulation, at a level of visual and technical detail reminiscent of official NASA VSE announcements. All aspects of the project from 20 year budget projections to launch pad footprint specifications are presented.

The new concept would replace the Ares I and Ares V launch vehicles with a single shuttle-derived ‘Universal Launcher’, which would perform both roles and reduce the risks and costs associated with producing two boosters.

The ‘Universal Launcher’ would develop a single booster capable of lifting 70 tonnes in a baseline configuration or 98 with an upper stage (compared to about 22 tonnes for Ares 1 and 131 for Ares V). The Universal Launcher removes many launcher development costs, and consolidates all flight operations to one vehicle.

The booster uses 4-segment SRBs, eliminating 5-segment development costs and requiring minimal modification to existing launch infrastructure. This could potentially reduce the overall risk, cost and length of the Constellation program.

The DIRECT vehicle uses significantly more Shuttle heritage than the Ares system. The design uses two 4-segment Shuttle SRBs, and the core stage diameter would remain the same as the Shuttle’s existing ET. This Shuttle commonality translates into far fewer infrastructure changes than the wider core and the longer five segment SRBs NASA proposes.

The vehicle initially uses RS-68 engines, as used in the Delta IV. In later variants the RS-68s could be modified with a regeneratively cooled nozzle, increasing Isp and payload performance.

This single-vehicle approach would allow almost 50 extra tonnes of cargo to be launched on every crew flight. Instead of simple ISS crew rotation, DIRECT has the capacity to support Shuttle-like crew-supported payload delivery. It would simultaneously provide enough heavy-lift capability to easily fulfill lunar or Mars mission requirements. One vehicle also significantly reduces the risk of political cancellation faced by Ares V.

The DIRECT solution is projected to save over $35 billion over Ares through 2025. Non-recurring vehicle development savings alone are estimated at $19 billion, with over $1 billion in savings each year thereafter in operating and infrastructure costs. These savings could be applied either to accelerating Constellation or to re-energize the gutted NASA science budget.

The Constellation program has already been delayed to its first flight occurring late in 2014, as first reported by this website last week. The DIRECT launcher offers an opportunity to re-accelerate this schedule to Mike Griffin’s initially stated goal of fielding Orion in mid-2012 – and from a propulsion point of view, lunar missions would be possible at that time, not late in 2019.

The Universal Launcher approach claims to save time and money – two variables that NASA does not currently have in large quantities – and allows NASA to field a more capable and flexible launch system earlier than originally planned.

L2 Resources For Ares I, V and Constellation: Ares I-1 Test Flight Plan (full outline) Presentation. ARES I Reference Trajectory. Boeing’s STS to Ares – Lessons Learned Presentation. Latest Ares I and Ares V baseline Configuration image and data. CLV DAC-1C (Changes to CLV Upper Stage).

Ares I-1: Four Seg+Dummy ‘Tuna Can’ stage. Ascent Developmental Flight Test Presentation. CLV Pad 39B Handover Info and Latest. New images of CLV on top of new MLP and LUT. Lockheed Martin CEV/Orion Updates. Constellation news updates. ATK figures on the 5-Seg Booster weight for CLV.

90 Minute Video of Constellation all hands meeting. CLV TIM Meeting Information. CLV/CaLV Infrastructure, Timelines and Information. Escape System Trade Study Presenation.

CEV-CLV Design Analysis Cycle Review (DAC-2) Presentation. Constellation SRR updates. CLV Stick – Troubleshooting/Alternatives/Updates. New CEV Images (include abort mode). Flight Design and Dynamics Division CEV update. CLV Mono-propellant RCS system. CEV pressurisation system review. CLV/CEV Configuration Images. The 2×3 Seg SRB Crew Launch Vehicle Option Presentation…plus more.

** Job Opportunities** 

Related Articles