Tuesday, August 12, 2008

DIRECT Is Worth More Study

There's an interesting article in The Space Review this week, "Saving America's space program" by Stephen Metschan. This relates to the DIRECT team's proposal for an alternate launch vehicle approach for NASA's Constellation program, one that is based more directly on existing shuttle and other launch vehicle technology and infrastructure. The DIRECT team claims that this approach can result in more capability, with faster and cheaper development and better safety margins, than NASA's currently planned approach, which includes the Ares I and later Ares V launch vehicles. NASA of course claims that they studied the DIRECT approach (among others) and found many flaws with it. They claim that the Ares I/V plans are better.

You can read the materials on the DIRECT site and find all sorts of discussion on nasaspaceflight.com and other places on the web (the main Ares contractors' line is here). I frankly have not followed the debate that closely, but I am disturbed by some things said in Metschan's latest article, especially the suggestion that NASA plans to start destruction of the tooling and fabrication facilities for space shuttle external tanks as early as next month. I even wrote to my congressman and senators to ask that they look into this.

If there is even the slightest chance that these facilities will be useful in the development of future launch vehicles, it seems crazy to destroy them now. I saw a TV special some months ago that showed some current NASA engineers visiting a California company that collects space hardware (bought largely as government surplus or scrap). They were searching for things like pumps from Saturn V rocket engines because the blueprints and tooling for these things had been destroyed when the Apollo program ended! I don't believe the government should save everything, but it would seem that design data for the only moon rocket we ever built would be worth preserving. I think there is a lesson in there somewhere! Let's hold on to the ET design and fabrication stuff for a while longer so we can be really sure we won't need it.

It also seems very reasonable for Congress to order an independent design review of the DIRECT 2.0 approach to see if it really does have advantages over NASA's current Ares plans. I'm not saying who is right here - I'm sure it's not as simple as the PowerPoints and forum discussions may suggest. But the people involved are smart, they seem quite sincere, and they have put tremendous effort into promoting this alternative idea. I think the DIRECT approach is worth some more study.

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