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What Should Be the Next U.S. Space Rocket?

NASA’s launch of its Ares test rocket has Buzz Aldrin questioning the vehicle’s design and outlining the need for better rockets.
November 18, 2009

The launch of NASA’s new rocket, Ares I-X, on October 28 was the first test flight of a new launch vehicle since the Apollo missions. The flight was spectacular and historic, but the famous Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin says it was little more than a half-a-billion dollar political show.

In an editorial in The Huffington Post, Aldrin calls the rocket for “fake”, because the Ares I-X was a prototype rocket built to look like the rocket designed to replace the aging space shuttles and take humans to the moon and beyond, Ares I. For example, its four-segment solid rocket boosters were taken from the space shuttle and the fifth segment was a mock, made of steel cylinders. The rocket’s upper stage was also a mock-up (the final will include the J-2X engine and Orion crew capsule), but it used real parachutes for recovery of the boosters. The Ares I-X flight objectives were to gather data during the first two minutes of ascent, when the rocket is most likely to fail, to help engineers better design and development the Ares I.

Aldrin writes that technical problems have “haunted the Ares like leftovers from Halloween,” and says that, “to stave off critics, three years ago the Project Constellation managers conceived of the 1-X flight to supposedly show some progress.”

The concept of the Ares I-X flight, however, mirrors the development of the Saturn family of rockets that carried the astronauts, Aldrin included, to the moon. During the development of Saturn IB, for example, many test flights were conducted when different segments and parts of the rocket were engineered.

NASA’s current plan is to use two rockets to return humans to the moon–Ares I for crew and Ares V as a heavy lifter, carrying things like a lunar habitat. Aldrin notes that it took just one rocket during the Apollo missions, and says that two rockets in development means “two price tags. Two ways for failure to occur. Or delays to develop.”

Worse yet, neither rocket alone can accomplish a deep space mission. And deep space, such as Mars is, as our friends in the recent Augustine report stated, our destination in space … Ares 1 is too small, barely able to lift the crew space capsule. And Ares V is too weak to boost all of the elements together.

What do we need? One rocket for all our deep space missions. Save the taxpayer’s money by canceling the Ares 1 and V. And go “back to the future” in designing the big beast.

Fortunately, Aldrin has a plan: use the commercial sector for transportation to the space station–which would save money–and start building a heavy lifter “worthy of Saturn V’s successor.” He says the moon should be an international affair, opening up the design competition outside of just NASA, and our efforts should be on Mars.

If we bypass a foolish Moon race … we will have time to refine the super booster to make sure it is compatible with our deep space goals, like missions flying by comets or asteroids – or to the moons of Mars. Such a rocket would be ready when the time comes to colonize Mars. No more false starts and dead end rockets.

One thing the Augustine Panel’s final report pointed out is that we should be building infrastructure in space, such as refueling technology, so that rockets that are smaller and cheaper could be used for missions that would otherwise be outside their weight class and larger rockets would have their capabilities enhanced.

The decision is still out on what the next U.S. rocket for space travel will be, but whatever it is (and Aldrin confesses he has his own design), he says, “heavy lifting doesn’t have to be heavy spending, if we do the right job.”

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