U.S. space program is about to go through some dramatic changes.
President Barack Obama has moved ahead with plans to retire
the Space Shuttle in 2011. U.S. missions to the
International Space Station will be provided by Russia's aging Soyuz
modular spacecraft.Meanwhile, the U.S. government will work
to fill its manned spacecraft needs with more permanent replacements
from private sector companies like
SpaceX and will fill in the gaps with NASA technology.
On Tuesday, NASA made a critical step forward to filling one of those
gaps, completing a successful test of its DM-2 solid-fuel heavy-lift
rocket.Some may recall that NASA was contracting Lockheed
Martin to develop a Shuttle successor named the Crew Exploration
Vehicle, later renamed to the Orion. That project was slated
for cancellation by President Obama in February 2010.
The administration later recanted somewhat on that order, and in
April decided to repurpose
the Orion design for use as a rescue vehicle for the
ISS.Of course something needs to blast Orion into orbit.
That's where NASA's heavy-lift rocket comes in. The five stage
rocket is a marvel of engineering and is the largest solid-fuel
rocket in history. It can output 22 million horsepower and
generate as much as 3.6 million pounds of thrust. The
design is the result of a collaboration between NASA and an aerospace
contractor, Alliant Techsystems' (ATK) subsidiary ATK Space Systems.
The test was carried out amidst a desert backdrop in ATK Space
Systems' home state of Utah.Aside from the brand-new fifth
segment that helps the rocket set power records, the rocket also
features other significant improvements from past designs. It
includes a modified nozzle throat and upgraded insulated liner.
These refinements make the rocket safer and more efficient.The
first test was a resounding
success. All segments of the rocket successfully fired at
full power. Better yet, they did so after being chilled to 40
degrees Fahrenheit, simulating cold weather conditions from likely
launch locations like Cape Canaveral, Florida.The rocket
isn't slated to see action until 2015, so the program is well ahead
schedule and has plenty of time for additional testing and fine
tuning. Andy Schorr, first stage, five-segment
motor lead for Ares Projects at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center
in Huntsville, Alabama comments, "The successful DM-1 test
provided our team with great results. All performance
measurements were within specified limits and 46 total objectives,
covering each significant design feature of the motor, were
met.""Our team is responsible for developing a
robust propulsion system that can provide the thrust necessary to
escape Earth's gravitational well and safely deliver astronaut crews
and payloads to the International Space Station and beyond. As
we press forward, our goal is to optimize every aspect of the system
for peak performance." Some haven't been impressed
by NASA's recent direction, though. Rob Zubrin, President of
the Mars society in April lambasted President Obama's space
the Obama plan, NASA will spend $100 billion on human spaceflight
over the next 10 years in order to accomplish nothing"
called for sending a crew to a near Earth asteroid by 2025. ... Had
Obama not canceled the Ares 5, we could have used it to perform an
asteroid mission by 2016. But the President, while calling for such a
flight, actually is terminating the programs that would make it
current in-space propulsion technology, we can do a round-trip
mission to a near-Earth asteroid or a one-way transit to Mars in six
months ... Holdren claims that he wants to develop a new electrically
powered space thruster to speed up such trips. But without gigantic
space nuclear power reactors to provide them with juice, such
thrusters are useless, and the administration has no intention of
developing such reactors.
the successful engine test, there's significant uncertainty, even with regards to
the DM-2's purpose. Initially the design was slated to carry a
moon-lander called Altair for a mission by 2020. Under Obama's
new plan its left uncertain whether that mission will occur at all.
As there are no
plans to currently fund a lunar push (the focus is instead
on a Mars mission), it seems unlikely the DM-2 will every be put to
this use, barring a change in direction by a future
administration.As an interesting side note, the DM-2 shares
its name with the respectively diminutive Soviet Blok DM-2 rocket
engine, designed in 1982. That smaller engine has been used as
recently as 2009, alone with Proton M, for GLONASS
GPS satellite launches.