Saturday, July 22, 2006

Return to the Moon -- Orion/Ares

Back in the late 1950s/1960s, Freeman Dyson worked on a theoretical study called Project Orion -- a concept for a nuclear pulse propulsion system.

Now, NASA has revived the Orion name for the Crew Exploration Vehicle, the spacecraft which will be the successor to the space shuttle.

Unfortunately, this new Orion will not be nuclear-pulse powered. Instead, it will be sent into space using an expendable launch vehicle.

The launcher will be named "Ares". The NASA illustration shows the two configurations -- the Ares I crew launch system on the right, and the Ares V heavy lift cargo launcher on the left. Ares is the Greek god associated with Mars, and the "I" and "V" designations pay homage to the Apollo-era Saturn I and Saturn V rockets.

The Ares I launcher will be used to put an Orion into orbit. The Ares V heavy lift system will be used to boost space station components or the hardware elements of a lunar mission into space.

It is clear from the illustrations that the Ares launcher is an evolved version of the space shuttle solid rocket booster and fuel tank system. Similarly, Orion is recognizably an enhanced version of the Apollo Command and Service Module combination.

The obvious comment is that this sytem is an extension of the 1950s brute force approach to getting out of the atmosphere. The romance of the rocket lives on, tinged with regret over what might have been.

Brute force rocket launches are what NASA -- and indeed every other space agency in the world -- knows how to do. The Orion/Ares combination may in fact return Americans and their international partners to the Moon. It may even take them to Mars.

But a true future in space requires that the price to send a kilogram of cargo into orbit be dropped from the current level of thousands to tens of thousands of dollars down to hundreds of dollars or less. Rockets are likely not the answer to achieve this goal, although systems like Orion/Ares need to be implemented until alternatives can be developed.

No comments: