Since even before the recession, people have continuously searched for opportunities to save money. Hunting for grocery coupons and exercising haggling skills stand as best practices in the lives of many. Tuesday, another approach at cutting costs was announced through the Associated Press; this attempt targeted the price tag on moon travel.
John Shannon, NASA's shuttle program manager, recently presented a plan for cost-saving moon travel, known as the Shuttle-Derived Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle, to an independent panel. The panel, which holds responsibility for reviewing NASA’s expensive space travel plans, reacted positively to Shannon’s proposal.
According to the Associated Press, Shannon’s plan revolves around a concept that has been around NASA for decades: the shuttleless shuttle. Under NASA’s permission, Shannon has been informally toying with this concept with a group of others over the last three years.
The model Shannon proposes would be comprised of the old space shuttle system, equipped with its large orange fuel tank and twin solid-rocket boosters, only with no shuttle. Instead, the rocket would have two items sitting on the external fuel tank: a generic cargo container, which would be the only new component, and an Apollo-like capsule, which would be located inside the cargo carrier and allow for astronaut travel. The capsule in this model would be the same as the new Orion crew capsule being designed for Constellation, NASA’s new moon program.
The cost-cutting model calls for hardware that already exists, which would save both time and money. For example, if NASA were to move forward with the plan, they would not have to reconfigure the Kennedy Space Center launch site and use shuttle flight control systems, according to Shannon.
“The new system could also launch a year earlier, and fewer space workers would have to be laid off because of that,” Shannon said.
Although the proposed design is not as powerful as current designs, the new shuttle would still enable two astronauts to travel at one time to either the moon or the international space station. (Current architecture can hold around three to four astronauts.)
NASA is currently on course with a 4-year-old plan which costs $35 billion and is aimed at both constructing new rockets and sending astronauts to the moon over years to come. Shannon’s proposal provides an alternative to this plan and would cost roughly $6.6 billion.
Shannon’s plan does not stand as the only one of its kind. One panel chairman and longtime aerospace executive, Norman Augustine, mentioned liking a similar proposal from approximately 20 years ago.
Additionally, Michael Curie, a NASA spokesman, said that Shannon was encouraged to present in the spirit of sharing the options NASA has studied in the past.
Curie assured that Shannon's presentation does not reflect a lack of backing toward current NASA plans: "NASA believes the best plan is to fully fund the current architecture... This does not indicate a lack of confidence in or support for the current program," he said.
According to space experts, however, the plan illustrates that top officials in NASA do have concern regarding their chosen moon travel plan. As the Associated Press reports, experts are convinced that the panel’s reaction, along with the upper-level management’s fingerprints on Shannon’s proposal, suggest that NASA management may be shifting gears, or at minimum, signaling doubts regarding the more expensive plan.
Keith Cowing, a former NASA engineer who heads the Nasawatch.com web site, explained, "It clearly reflects some doubts among senior agency folks in the overall veracity of their current approach."
While all of this is occurring, the whole program of human spaceflight has been undergoing evaluations from an outside board, due to President Barack Obama’s science policy.