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NASA going commercial could signal a paradigm shift for deep-space travel

NASA is now reflecting on the idea of ​​using commercial rockets to launch a critical mission around the Moon next year, instead of using the massive rocket that the agency has built in the last decade . Such a drastic change will not only reduce flight plans for this particular mission, but could also have great implications on how ambitious future travel plans will be conducted.

The impetus for this new business goal is to maintain the launch of the program agency. The NASA rocket, Space Launch System or SLS, takes much longer than expected and will probably not be ready to fly for the current launch date scheduled for June 2020, while other commercial vehicles already on the market are ready to fly in this moment.

Making this revision would not be a simple exchange. NASA would not need one commercial rocket, but two to make the mission happen. The agency will also have to develop new technologies and figure out how to put together some vehicles in space to make sure that its mission can actually reach the Moon.

It is a process that will require a lot of time and effort, and there is no guarantee that it can be done within the next year. But if NASA can carry out this monumental shift to commercial vehicles, the agency could simply demonstrate a new method of deep space travel that is based on multiple launches of smaller vehicles and does not necessarily require massive launches to succeed. . This could eventually save NASA a lot of time and money, freeing up funds to do more ambitious things.

Space tugs

For this upcoming mission, NASA wants to send two heavy spaceships on a three-week trip around the Moon next year: an empty crew capsule called Orion and a piece of cylindrical hardware that provides power and support to the capsule called the European Service Module. Together, the two vehicles need a lot of fuel to free themselves from the Earth's gravity and reach the extreme distance of the Moon. The SLS is so powerful that it will be able to send the pair up to that distance in one launch.

But if NASA decides to fly in advertising, there is no vehicle available at this time that is powerful enough to send both Orion and its module along with the vicinity of the Moon. The two most powerful commercial missiles in the United States include the Falcon Heavy SpaceX and the Delta IV Heavy of the United Launch Alliance. Although both are impressive vehicles, neither can match what the SLS will do when it is complete.

SpaceX and ULA

That's why two missiles would be needed. A missile would launch Orion and the European Service Module together in the Earth's orbit, where they would remain essentially "parked" for a while. Another rocket would then launch what is known as a space tug, which is essentially another rocket with its own fuel and engine attached. The tugboat and Orion would have gathered in orbit, and the tug engine would have turned on, pushing the vehicles up to the Moon. "It is very similar to a tractor on a farm that pulls trailers or farm equipment," says Dallas Bienhoff, founder of the Cislunar Space Development Company, which focuses on building deep space infrastructure, says The Verge . "It is a drive unit".

This concept of using space tugs for deep space travel has been publicized for decades. NASA began to study the concept in the 60s and 70s, with a NASA officer describing them as necessary to "impart speed to other bodies in space". Ultimately, the upper parts of the rockets can be considered space tugs, as these vehicles push payloads to their intended orbits. However, space tugs can be launched on their own, remaining in space to attach to other vehicles and push them where they need to go .

Space tugs could change the way NASA has carried out its human missions in deep space for decades. "One of the problems we have as a space industry, which led us to the Space Launch System, is that we insist on putting all the mass by mission on a single launch," says Bienhoff, who also researched the technologies needed for the tug space at Boeing. Launching all your hardware in this way can become cumbersome. The gravitational force of the Earth is strong enough, so sending heavy equipment away from our planet requires a lot of extra energy and, in turn, a lot more fuel. Getting all that fuel in space requires a big rocket, and the bigger your rocket gets, the more fuel you have to lift both the rocket and the payload from the Earth. So the cycle continues, with ever greater quantities of goods requiring larger rockets for deep space.

An artistic rendering of the future SLS.
Image: NASA

As rockets grow, they become more complex and more expensive to start. And spending has certainly become a problem for the SLS. It is estimated that NASA spent $ 14 billion in the last decade to develop the rocket, and the vehicle is not yet finished. Once completed, it is scheduled to launch only once or twice a year for about $ 1 billion of flights. In comparison, Delta IV Heavy costs about $ 350 million per launch while Falcon Heavy starts at just under $ 100 million. Only two launches of one of these vehicles cost much less than an SLS launch.

Space tugs could also help save costs in the future simply by staying in space when they are done with their tugs. For example, a tugboat that drags hardware on the moon could then return to the low earth orbit and wait for a refill. Another rocket could then lift the propellant from the Earth, dock with the tug and transfer the fuel. This would allow the spatial tug to drag some other object into the deep space, which is an activity it can perform over and over again, saving on extra casts.

Assembly in space

Of course, another feature needed to make this work is a way to hook these tugs. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine acknowledged that the Orion crew capsule, as designed now, does not have the capacity to meet and dock with a tugboat. "Between now and June of 2020, we should make it a reality," he said at a Senate hearing, referring to the berth.

However, this type of docking in space is not a new practice. The Russian Soyuz capsule has long been automatically docked with the International Space Station, bringing the crews to the orbiting laboratory. SpaceX's Crew Dragon has also shown that it is able to dock with the ISS in a recent test flight without crew intervention, using a series of sensors and lasers to approach and climb gently up a door to the outside of the station. "The LIDAR and machine vision systems used by Crew Dragon for autonomous anchorage with the station are some of the sensors that can be used for production and assembly in space," Andrew Rush, CEO and president of Made In Space, a company that develops ways to print in 3D and build in space, says The Verge .

SpaceX & # 39; s Crew Dragon automatically docked with the International Space Station for the first time on March 4th.
Photo: NASA

pieces in space also allow engineers to bypass large rockets. Rather than sending everything in one piece, you can throw smaller pieces and then connect the hardware together once in orbit. This way, you don't have to completely build your spacecraft on the ground first. This has been a problem for some complex missions, such as the future NASA space observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, which doesn't fit inside perfectly. The spaceship is so large and complex that it must be launched into the folded space and then unfold over two weeks. If that process goes wrong, the telescope may not work properly in space, ending a mission of over $ 9.66 billion.

But with assembly in space or additive production in space, it is not necessary to build the first of all a vehicle on Earth. "By distributing the equipment on a couple of launches, and then using fabrication and assembly in space, we can actually make it in a much cheaper way than if we had launched that sort of monolithic spaceship," says Rush. [19659026] The risks

All these changes come at a price, though. Anchoring and mounting in space are considered risky maneuvers, according to Bridenstine. "Manned vehicles in Earth orbit to reach the Moon add complexity and risks that are not desirable," he wrote in a memo to NASA employees. Furthermore, the launch of hardware in pieces means that more missiles would be needed for a mission in deep space, and that it does not fit well to some people. Some experts and lawmakers argue that the execution of more launches opens up more opportunities for risk since one of the launches could fail and jeopardize the mission. "The perspective of the committee is to go and go hard … rather than piecemeal," said representative Frank Lucas (R-OK) this week during a hearing of the Chamber's scientific committee.

Using the commercial launch also vehicles will not be easy for this mission. Currently, engineers are testing Orion for this upcoming launch, running simulations based on the SLS project. To switch to commercial vehicles, they should put aside all this work and start running new simulations based on data from new vehicles. It would also completely change the flight profile, which would require extra work to prepare. "If the mission profile changes, which seems inevitable given the reduced capacity of any other vehicle compared to the SLS, much of that work is no longer relevant," a Lockheed Martin employee who worked on Orion, who didn't want to speak publicly. in case of retaliation, says The Verge . So meeting the June 2020 launch date seems unlikely.

Then there is a political opposition that will surely prevent this change. Congress legislators, particularly those at the Alabama where the SLS is under construction, will probably fight to keep Orion's vehicle on the massive NASA rocket. And since Congress ultimately approves NASA's budget and imposes how the agency can use federal funds, legislators could force Orion to stay on the SLS.

By making this change, NASA has the opportunity to demonstrate a completely new type of approach to sending humans to deep space – one that has never been used before. While tearing apart can be more complex, it could save time and money, two things that NASA does not have in abundance. Perhaps the future mission of NASA on the Moon will not be based on massive missiles, but on smaller vehicles that launch more frequently and perform the same tasks.

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