Apollo Reborn, almost

“The Apollo programme got it right”, NASA chief Mike Griffin said on 19 September at NASA head quarters, as he explained why 46 years after the first man stepped out onto the lunar surface the return trip to the Moon was going to be done the exact same way.

What he didn’t say is that the other aspect of that Cold War race to the Moon the Apollo programme got right was funding. From 1961, when President John Kennedy announced the plan, to the historic flight that was Apollo 11 in 1969 NASA spent about $105 billion, with one lunar flight in 1968 and two surface missions following the first landing in 1969.

In comparison Griffin’s agency will only have four hundred million dollars this year and its budget for Exploration Transportation Systems, the catch-all term for the new launchers and spacecraft, will not increase substantially until the Space Shuttle fleet is retired in 2010. Then the agency will have about six billion dollars to play with. Even with that much money, and don’t forget Apollo was spending, on average, $13 billion a year, the original NASA plan to put astronauts on the Moon by 2015 and have a first test flight of the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) in 2008 have been dropped.

Now 2018 for lunar return is the target date. But surely with 13 years, instead of Apollo’s eight, that’s possible? Griffin admits that development of the Saturn V-class 125t to low Earth orbit (LEO) launcher will not begin until the CEV and its launcher are in place. They are supposed to fly by 2012. With six to seven years to develop the CEV, with its Apollo command capsule and service module, which will ride atop a five segment solid rocket booster (SRB) with a Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) powered second stage one has to wonder how developing the 125t heavy lifter and the manned lunar lander with its ascent module could be accomplished in the remaining six years.

Griffin was once NASA chief engineer but these sums just don’t add up. Talking to NASA engineers the inside story is very different. The 125t launcher is far more problematic than people like Griffin will say. Its not just an extended shuttle external tank (ET). Now it has five SSMEs beneath it and the Earth departure stage and lunar lander atop it. This radically alters the forces the structure will experience during its two minute seven second ride to LEO. The reality is that this vehicle will only superficially be like the shuttle ET.

The other major cost that no one is mentioning is the launch pad. Of course the CEV and its launcher needs one, and at Kennedy Space Center Space Launch Complex 39B is for shuttle launches. One upside is that 39B’s sister pad, 39A, could be modified in the meantime for CEV. But what about the 125t behemoth? It needs a totally different launch pad to the shuttle’s. The reality check is that the pads alone could cost billions to modify. Then there is the vehicle assembly building, where the shuttle stack of ET, SRBs and Orbiter is put together. That is said to be the behemoth’s new home.

This is why NASA personnel know that the return to the Moon will not be in 2018, or 2020 but 2025 at the earliest. Griffin even hints at its in his speeches when he talks about a pay as you go plan. Thirty five years ago the original Apollo programme’s flight director Gene Kranz famously said during the Apollo 13 mission that “failure is not an option”. For Griffin’s agency, to even have a crack at getting back to the Moon, his mantra will have to be “budget cuts are not an optioin”.

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One Response to Apollo Reborn, almost

  1. John Walker 12 March, 2008 at 6:09 pm #

    One small quibble: Gene Kranz never actually said “Failure is not an option” durring the Apollo 13 mission. That was put into the movie and Gene loved it so much that he used it as the title for his autobiography. I think this was explained in a making-of documentary on the dvd.

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