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Ad Astra
Volume 15, Number 4 September/October/November 2003

Guest Space

Capsules:
Cost Effective and Capable
By Congressman Dave Weldon, M.D.

With the release of the CAIB Report and NASA’s Return to Flight efforts well under way, human space flight supporters need to help NASA get the Shuttles back into service so we can complete ISS. This will be a mission that will require the best and brightest of NASA and the Shuttle contractor family. Mission safety must come first; we must never loose another Shuttle and crew.

That said, there are other issues we need to grapple with on the horizon. First and foremost will be OSP. Like the Shuttle decisions of the early 70’s the design and engineering decisions made now will have a major impact on the human spaceflight program for decades, and it could affect people’s lives.

Congress and the American public are clearly supportive of continued human space flight, but as always, Congress and the public will take a long hard look at the costs of OSP. As a long time supporter of developing new systems for human space flight, I am sick and tired of spending billions on systems that never left the ground, let alone some that never left the drawing board.

This led me recently to state my support for an expendable capsule system in a speech to the 2003 Space Congress in April. It was not an easy decision for me to reach since I was under the belief that anything after Shuttle must have wings and must be reusable. I will again make my case for the system that will be the safest, has the most promise for non-LEO missions and the most affordable to develop and operate: an expendable capsule.

Capsules by their very design entail less risk. An example is the fact that the Service/Propulsion Module protects the Thermal Protection System throughout the entire mission profile until re-entry (including the mandatory several months docked at ISS). A capsule also offers robust abort modes in all phases of ascent. This was proven in Mercury, Apollo and Soyuz.

A capsule design has no concerns about if enough lift is available at the time of emergency separation from the stack, as would a winged vehicle. Speaking of wings, wheels and the related subsystems, they will all have failure modes that a capsule will not.

The absence of wings, wheels and the mandatory added weight can allow for more cargo or crew to be launched. Not to mention the absence of wings allows for the possibility for a derived vehicle to execute missions beyond LEO. A modular/upgradeable approach allows modules to be “stretched” and modified to handle different missions. This is a concept that is not new. One only has to look at the Apollo Applications Program and the Apollo “X” program to see a whole myriad of missions planned using the basic Apollo design.

There would not be as many launch constraints since a capsule without wings is not as dependant on weather at abort landing sites that a winged system would require. Of course there will still be weather concerns for launch and emergency recovery, but having to worry about the rain in Spain would not be one of them.

A capsule system will enjoy a less complicated test program than winged vehicle. This happily results in less time and money to qualify the system and results in quicker deployment.

From a financial perspective the mission requirements and proposed flight rate for OSP is not nearly high enough to justify an RLV. An RLV will require all kinds of costly R&D that an expendable capsule will not. As well, an expendable capsule system will benefit from the economies of scale of a running assembly line and a less costly and more expeditious introduction of upgrades and improvements. Also a running assembly line keeps component producers in business. No more NASA or contractor employees searching eBay for spare parts no longer manufactured.

The aforementioned lack of wings will result in no time and money spent on qualifying a winged vehicle atop of EELV since we already have plenty of experience accommodating a capsule. An expendable system will also be spared the expense of after each mission having the vehicle inspected, worked on and prepared for the next flight.

From a national industrial base outlook, as with Apollo, we can have a “national team” with all major contractors working different aspects of the system. One company can be the launch provider, another can develop the command module, another can develop the service module, etc. I am hesitant of a “winner take all” program.

To date I have not received any irrefutable counterarguments against an expendable capsule system. At best I have heard small talk about cross range or worries about how it will ‘look’ old fashioned. Well, for the billions my colleagues and I on the appropriations committee will be asked to spend and in some cases will have to fight for, those reasons are not good enough. I am not saying that a capsule system will be flawless and foolproof, but considering the alternatives it makes the most sense.

With a new, robust, safer manned spaceflight system, we also need from the White House some long-term vision and direction for where we need to go. Along with this vision is the need for NASA to get a real budget; a budget that all of NASA will view as an increase. I think raising NASA’s budget 25% over three years is realistic, affordable and achievable.

America remains solidly behind manned space exploration because our people know that to stop exploring space would be to lose a big part of who we are and what we are. If our leaders at NASA and in Washington make some smart decisions today, we can look forward to a vigorous human space flight program from many years to come. a
Congressman Dave Weldon represents the 15th District of Florida, called the Space Coast, which encompasses Cape Canaveral Air Station. He has served on the House Science Committee, and is currently co-founder and
chairman of the Congressional Aerospace Caucus. Congressman Weldon also sits on the House Appropriations Subcommittee which oversees NASA’s funding.

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