NASA Studying New Launcher Architecture

The Orlando Sentinel’s Bobby Block is reporting some big news. NasaWatch, which linked the Sentinel’s story, seems to confirm the jist of the Sentinel story but adds no more details.

First, it seems that the Augustine Commission has tasked NASA to examine two items in the architecture to its Shuttle follow-on program, Constellation. One is to tweek the Constellation architecture, though it’s not reported what that constitutes.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, the Augustine Commission has asked NASA to examine a new launcher architecture, if you will one that is a twist on the Direct architecture. The new architecture would include two 5 1/2 segment SRB, Ares I second stage with its J-2X engine, thereby including the work that is already ongoing as part of the Ares I program, the 10 meter core and five RS-68 engines, which are taken from the Ares V. Like Direct, two almost identical rockets would be built, one for the Orion CSM and one for the trans-lunar stage and the lunar lander. Both launchers would be needed to support a lunar mission. But even Mike Griffin notes that this architecture will work, may get us into orbit sooner, and allow for more payload to the Moon, though at higher unit per mission cost since one of the new launchers would be more expensive than an Ares I supporting a lunar mission.

There are several advantages to a launcher architecture that resembles the Direct launch architecture. The first is that it’s based largely on the existing Shuttle stack. In fact, most in the industry thought this architecture would be the one chosen as a follow-on to the Shuttle program because there are so many knowns, very few unknowns, so costs and time to launch are reduced. By having two very similar, almost identical launchers operational costs are reduced as supporting one rocket is cheaper than two.

It has to be said that this new concept is likely beyond the current budget. Perhaps what the Augustine Commission will do is offer and low-budget and high-budget choice based on taking our medicine later (tweeked Ares I) or now (new architecture). Only time will tell.

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