5 Things NASA Should Have Never Cancelled

NASA has a long history of cancelling the most exciting and promising projects in its portfolio, instead opting for the safer and less expensive options (which invariably develop ballooning budgets and dismal success records). While I don’t mean to bash the totality of NASA in this post, I do want to lament a few of the best ‘could-have-beens’.

AAP Venus Flyby Schematic

Schematic for the S-IVB wet workshop.

The first is the Venus flyby of the Apollo Applications Program. This would be similar to the Skylab missions, except that instead of launching a pre-built laboratory, the third stage of the Saturn V would be converted into a ‘wet workshop’ living space after using all of its fuel. This would enable the spacecraft to be launched on a trajectory to pass by Venus and then free-return to Earth. I’ll be the first one to point out that manned flybys are not particularly useful scientifically; nonetheless, having the achievement of sending humans into interplanetary space under our belt would be really cool. Then again, being able to say that we’ve ‘already done it’ may have tempered our drive to do it again — much in the way that sending people to the Moon holds less appeal now. For better or for worse, the AAP got dropped along with the rest of the Apollo program in favor of the the Space Shuttle.
NERVA mockup

A scale mockup of the NERVA rocket.

In any case, I’ve always believed that the Apollo program took a fundamentally flawed approach to space travel. Instead of scaling up existing technologies, we need to develop more efficient methods that aren’t rooted in the old ‘stick a tin can on an ICBM’ method. This is why the cancellation of NERVA research was so disappointing. NERVA was a nuclear thermal rocket, meaning it used a nuclear reactor to heat up hydrogen propellant. The program was highly successful, and showed great promise in enabling manned missions to Mars without significantly larger rockets than we already had at the time. However, the NERVA program got dragged down with the demise of the Apollo program, and only recently have we seen the rise of a possible replacement technology (electric propulsion).


But why settle for the 154 ton payload promised by the NERVA-augmented Saturn V? That’s peanuts compared to the 10,000 TONS to LEO made possible through nuclear pulse propulsion. Yes, I’m talking about Project Orion. While, I’ve never been a fan of the concept, I have to admit that 10,000 TONS for (at most) $5 billion is really appealing. Even one such launch would basically make establishing a Mars colony trivial. However, Project Orion never got off the ground (so to speak), because nobody really liked the concept of propelling a spaceship with nuclear bombs. Go figure.

Project Orion Concept Art

One of the longer Orion designs

So after Apollo got cancelled and most beyond-Earth projects got trashed, we were left with boring stuff like Single-Stage-To-Orbit completely reusable spacecraft built with off-the-self components. Wait, WHAT?! Yeah, that’s right. In 1985 we had the ability to build a reusable SSTO with almost entirely low-cost commercially-available components.
Delta Clipper Experimental

Sure it looks weird, but it’s awesome!

However, nobody was interested in funding the project. Eventually it got picked up by the DoD’s SDIO (Strategic Defense Initiative Organization), and a team of engineers built a scaled-down version of the craft called the DC-X. It was created to test the concept of a propulsive vertical landing, fast turnaround, and other novel concepts. The project was wildly successful, and showed huge amounts of promise. Perhaps because of this success, it never got much funding, and eventually the SDIO was closed down and NASA reluctantly picked up the DC-X project. With minimal funding and personnel, the DC-X team continued to make fabulous advances and show promise. When the test spacecraft finally had a mishap and caught on fire, NASA refused to front the mere $50 million repair bill, mostly because the DC-X conflicted with their own SSTO project, the X-33.
VentureStar size comparison

The VentureStar is one of the fatter spaceplane designs.

Oh yeah, NASA had its own SSTO in development. The X-33 was a suborbital scale version of the proposed VentureStar. The VentureStar was an entirely reusable spaceplane, unlike the Space Shuttle. It launched vertically, landed horizontally, and only used hydrogen-LOX, unlike the Space Shuttle, which required toxic SRBs to get into orbit. The only roadblock to the X-33/VentureStar’s development was the fuel tanks, which were a tricky dual-conic shape. The materials science necessary to construct the fuel tanks was still in its infancy, and so the program got axed (although soon after cancellation, a group of engineers actually constructed a fuel tank which fulfilled all the necessary constraints).

Most of the programs mentioned here were, in one way or another, dropped in favor of the Space Shuttle, which slowly became an embarrassing farce and regrettably set back spaceflight by a good 20-30 years by causing the cancellation of these promising programs. The saddest thing is that we now have the technology to easily solve most of the technical hurdles faced by these programs, but with NASA’s limited budget and vision, we are stuck paddling around LEO with conventional, non-reusable chemical rockets. Even SpaceX’s innovation and drive pales in comparison to the 100% reusable SSTOs mentioned here.

On the SLS

NASA has always built its house on political sand, not rock. While they can get lots of funding at the political high-tide, they can also get bogged down to failure. For instance, the ill-fated Space Shuttle program (or STS) was a result of shifting goals and influences on design from disparate sectors.

Similarly, the new Space Launching System (or SLS) is the brainchild of political forces. Its first stage is an extended Space Shuttle External Tank, and its first-stage engines are Space Shuttle Main Engines. Its solid boosters are STS-derived. This means that most of the STS tooling can be kept, and thus constituencies keep their jobs. I have to admit, this re-use reduces design times, but it is not the most efficient way to build a heavy launch vehicle, especially since the technology is more intricate than it needs to be (jacking up production costs).

The SLS is designed to launch the Orion capsule, which was designed as part of the under-funded Constellation program. The Orion spacecraft uses the Apollo architecture, and NASA helps this comparison by painting the SLS with white-and-black roll patterns reminiscent of the famous Saturn V rocket. Combined with the use of STS systems, the SLS threatens to become one big nostalgic mash. Unfortunately for NASA, this means its shortcomings will be overlooked in the future, much like the Space Shuttle program.

For instance, nobody is quite sure what to do with the damn thing after we’ve designed and built it. NASA has recently released that instead of a circum-lunar flyby, the first manned mission of the Orion/SLS will visit an asteroid that will be tugged into orbit around the Moon. After that, everyone seems to throw up their hands and say, “Mars? I guess?”

Criticisms aside, its good that we are developing any sort of heavy-lift manned capacity, because eventually it will enable deep-space missions. I’m just worried that the SLS program isn’t coherent enough to survive shifts in funding or vision. Not that NASA is particularly gifted in either of those departments. With their limited funding, I’m more interested in their robotic missions (or potential thereof — submarine to Europa, anyone?), because any manned program in the near future will consist of paddling around in the metaphorical kiddy pool.

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