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The commercial launch of NASA could signal a paradigm shift for space travel

NASA is now considering the idea of ​​launching a critical mission around the Moon next year with commercial missiles instead of using the massive rocket that the agency has built over the past decade. Such a drastic change would not only improve the timetables for this particular mission, but could also have a major impact on the future implementation of ambitious space programs.

The impetus for this new business focus is maintaining the launch of the agency's schedule. The NASA rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), takes much longer than expected and is unlikely to be ready to fly at the current launch date in June 2020, while other commercial vehicles on the market are already ready to fly.

To make this revision would not be a simple exchange. NASA would not need a commercial missile, but two to implement the mission. The agency also needs to develop new technologies and find out how certain vehicles need to be assembled in space to ensure that their mission actually reaches the moon.

This is a process that takes a lot of time and effort, and there is no guarantee that this will be possible until next year. If NASA can pull through this huge shift to commercial vehicles, the agency may just be demonstrating a new method of space travel that relies on multiple launches of smaller vehicles and does not necessarily require massive rockets to succeed. That could ultimately save NASA a lot of time and money, and free up money for more ambitious things.


For this upcoming mission, NASA intends to send two heavy-duty spacecraft on a three-week voyage around the moon next year: an empty crew capsule called Orion and cylindrical hardware supporting and supporting the European Service Module capsule , 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 can take the couple to this distance in just one start.

However, if NASA decides on a commercial flight, there is currently no vehicle strong enough. Send both Orion and its module together near the Moon. The two strongest commercial missiles in the US include SpaceX's Falcon Heavy and United Launch Alliance's Delta IV Heavy. Both are impressive vehicles, but both can not agree with what the SLS will do after its completion.

SpaceX and ULA

That's why two missiles would be required. A rocket would put Orion and the European service module together in orbit where they would essentially remain "parked" for some time. Another rocket would then launch a so-called spacecraft, which is essentially another missile with its own fuel and engine. The tug and the Orion would band together in orbit, and the engine of the tug would ignite and bring the vehicles to the moon. "It's like a tractor on a farm pulling trailers or agricultural implements," says Dallas Bienhoff, founder of the Cislunar Space Development Company, which focuses on the construction of deep space infrastructure The Verge . "It's a propulsion unit."

This concept of using space tractors for space travel has been touted for decades. NASA began studying the concept in the 1960s and 70s. A NASA representative described it as necessary to "speed up other bodies in space." Ultimately, the upper parts of rockets can be considered as space tractors, as these vehicles payloads push their intended orbits. However, space tractors can be launched on their own and remain in space to attach to other vehicles and take them where they need to go.

Spacecraft could change the way NASA carries out its decades of human space missions. "One of the problems we have as a space industry and that has led us to the space launch system is to put the entire mass per mission on a single launch," says Bienhoff, who also researched space technologies for tugs at Boeing , If you start your entire hardware in this way, this can be awkward. The Earth's appeal is quite strong, so sending heavy equipment from our planet requires a lot of extra power and lots of extra fuel. To get all this fuel into space requires a big rocket. The bigger your rocket gets, the more fuel you'll need to lift both the rocket and the payload off the ground. So, the cycle is going on with ever greater amounts of cargo, requiring larger missiles for space.

An artistic representation of the future SLS.
Image: NASA

As the size of the rockets increases, they become more complex and expensive to launch. And the costs have certainly become a problem for the SLS. It is estimated that NASA spent $ 14 billion on the development of the rocket in the last decade and the vehicle is still unfinished. Once it's done, it's expected to start just once or twice a year for about $ 1 billion per flight. In comparison, the Delta IV Heavy costs about $ 350 million per take while the Falcon Heavy starts at just under $ 100 million. Only two launches of one of these vehicles cost far below a start of the SLS.

Space tractors could also save costs in the future simply by remaining in outer space when they are done with their tractors. For example, a tug that pulls hardware to the moon could travel back to Earth's low orbit and wait for a refill. Another rocket could then bring up fuel from Earth, dock it with the tugboat, and transfer fuel. This would allow the spacecraft to drag another object into space. This is a task that it can do over and over again, saving extra startups.

Mounting in Space

Of course, another feature that is needed for all of this is a way to dock with these tractors. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has acknowledged that the Orion Crew Capsule, as it was designed, does not have the opportunity to meet and moor on a tugboat. "By June 2020, we would have to do this," he said during a Senate hearing, referring to docking.

-space-docking is not a novel practice. Russia's Soyuz capsule has long docked automatically to the International Space Station and brought crews to the Orbita lab. SpaceX's Crew Dragon has just demonstrated its ability to dock with the ISS on a recent test flight without Creweing. Sensors and lasers were used to get close and gently ramble into a port outside the station. "The LIDAR and vision systems that allow Crew Dragon to dock autonomously at the station are some of the sensors you could use for spacecraft manufacturing and assembly," said Andrew Rush, CEO and President of Made In Space, a company The Path develops 3D printing and space building, The Verge .

The SpaceX Crew Dragon landed on the International Space Station ISS for the first time on 4 March.
Photo: NASA

Attaching Critical Parts Together in space, engineers can handle large missiles. Instead of sending everything in one piece, you can start smaller parts and then connect the hardware as soon as it's in orbit. That way you do not have to build your spacecraft completely on the ground. This has been a problem for certain complex missions, such as the NASA's future space observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, which does not fit exactly into the rocket it is launched with. The spaceship is so big and complex that it has to launch into space folded in two weeks. If this process goes awry, the telescope may not function properly in space, ending a mission of more than $ 9.66 billion.

However, when mounting in space or in additive manufacturing in space, there is no need to first build a vehicle on Earth. "By distributing the equipment over multiple launches and then performing the manufacturing and assembly in space, we can achieve this in a much more cost effective way than by bringing this type of monolithic spacecraft to market," says Rush.

] The Risks

All these changes come with a price. Docking and mounting in space are considered risky maneuvers, according to Bridenstine. "Occupying crew vehicles into Earth orbit to reach the Moon adds complexity and unwanted risk," he wrote in a memo to NASA staff. In addition, starting hardware in pieces means that several rockets are needed for a space mission, and that does not fit well with some people. Some experts and legislators argue that launching more launches offers more chances for risk, as one of the launches could fail and jeopardize the mission. "The committee's perspective is" let's go, and let's go hard … as opposed to piecemeal, "said MP Frank Lucas (R-OK) this week during a hearing of the House's science committee.

Commercial Introduction Vehicles will not be easy for this mission, too, as the engineers are currently reviewing Orion for this upcoming launch and performing simulations based on the SLS design, so in order to upgrade to commercial vehicles, they would have to postpone all this work and start new simulations It would also completely change the flight profile, requiring extra work in preparation. "When the mission profile changes, which seems inevitable given the lower capabilities of any other vehicle compared to SLS, much of this work is no longer relevant, "was an associate of Lockheed Martin at Orion employi gt, who did not speak publicly case of retaliation, tells The Verge . It is therefore unlikely that the start date for June 2020 should be met.

Then there is a political opposition that will surely prevent this change. Lawmakers in Congress, especially those from Alabama, where the SLS is built, will likely struggle to keep the Orion vehicle on the massive NASA rocket. And since Congress ultimately approves NASA's budget and dictates how the agency can use federal funds, the legislature could arrange for Orion to stay with the SLS.

With this change, NASA has the opportunity to show a whole new approach to sending people into space – one that has never been used. The start in pieces is more complex but can save money and time. These are two things that NASA does not abound. Maybe NASA's future mission to the moon does not depend on massive rockets, but on smaller vehicles that start more often and perform the same tasks.

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