Opinion: Do We Need a Heavy Launch Vehicle?
The Space Review Download time: Jun 7 2011 1:15 PM ET
Access to orbit is the common problem shared by the entire space industry. In particular, for human spaceflight to low Earth orbit and beyond, access is the main bottleneck between current space activities and sustained, meaningful space development. The lack of cheap, reliable space launch is felt by human and robotic space programs alike. At best, its absence limits what can practically be accomplished with current space budgets, and at worst, its absence masks the true economic potential of space by preventing some activities in the first place. The access problem is significant—and nowhere, it appears, is there more turmoil regarding the future of space access than the debate over NASA's next launch system.
While the private sector has quietly (or not so quietly) been working to address the issues of affordable and reliable access, others have struggled to address the issue at all. While NASA for its part has increasingly been embracing and assisting private initiatives in developing cheaper launch systems, there remain contingents in the agency and especially in Congress that continue to dismiss existing and emerging commercial capabilities, and who remain fixated on the belief that a heavy-lift launch vehicle (HLV) is the right and only way for human space exploration to occur. Decades of studies have called for the development of such a rocket—from the first President Bush's Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) to the second President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration (at least through the now defunct Constellation implementation of the Vision). But none have come to fruition since Apollo.
The latest attempt at reviving heavy-lift is a congressional demand that NASA must develop a heavy-lift launcher by 2016 (which, as the Orlando Sentinel noted two weeks ago, will be "made of recycled parts of the shuttle"). Notwithstanding the fact that Congress has not authorized sufficient funds for the completion of such a vehicle, this latest attempt at forcing a large launcher into NASA's plans will consume at least $10 billion over the next few years, and—if history is any indication—will likely result in nothing more than another paper rocket. As Lou Friedman put it here two weeks ago, "the situation in the United States with respect to [space access] is no different than if we had a space czar whose motive was to keep the country grounded. Why does it seem like we can never get a rocket policy for civil space exploration right?" (see "The dangers of a rocket to nowhere", The Space Review, May 23, 2011)…
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