Ditch the space shuttle orbiters. Stretch their rocket boosters. Add more main engines. Put a capsule on top. What do you have? Franken-ship — the quickest route to a new rocket for NASA.
Briefing charts obtained by the NASA Watch website show a new vehicle that puts three disposable shuttle main engines on a shuttle fuel tank, a pair of solid rocket boosters on either side of the tank, and a capsule on top, replacing the side-mounted shuttle orbiter.
That incarnation can carry 70 tons into orbit, says the Human Exploration Framework Team, an in-house NASA advisory panel.
Add a fifth segment to the shuttle boosters and two more hydrogen-fueled main engines and you have a 100-ton lifter. Version 3.0, the 130-ton option, adds an upper-stage engine, a different propellant in the solid-fuel rockets and lighter-weight booster casings instead of steel.
A Senate blueprint for NASA — up for a vote by the House of Representatives today — directs the agency to begin work immediately on a new rocket, with the aim of flying in 2016. After testing, it would be used to fly astronauts into deep space, fulfilling the Obama administration's goal of sending a crew to an asteroid and then to Mars.
John Olson, who is overseeing the NASA's Human Exploration Framework Team that is fleshing out future space mission plans, says the shuttle-derived rocket is one of several options under review.
"There's pros and cons to all the variants we're looking at," Olson told Discovery News. "We still have some key studies to do."
Using elements of the space shuttle in different ways is not a new idea. Shortly after the shuttles began flying in 1981, NASA started looking at ways to morph the elements into unmanned cargo launchers, a program known as Shuttle-C.
The version under consideration by Olson's group is similar to a family of rockets known as Jupiter, developed over the past few years by an ad hoc group of engineers who recast shuttle parts in a configuration that could fly directly to Mars.
NASA had planned to follow up its retiring space shuttle program with a rocket known as Ares, part of the moon-bound Constellation program that would end under the NASA blueprint now pending before Congress.
Ares was built around a shuttle booster as well.
In addition to a NASA-developed rocket, the pending bill expands government investment in aspiring commercial launch firms.
With the shuttle program ending, crew transport to the space station has been turned over to Russia, which currently charges the U.S. government $51 million per person.