Blue Origin and O’Neill

200106-marquee-scaledGeekwire photo- Alan Boyle

I had a spark of hope some years ago when I read Jeff Bezos was looking for a Saturn V F-1 engine in the ocean. What was that all about? It made me wonder if he was actually going to build that piece of hardware so critical to Human Space Flight Beyond Earth Orbit (HSF-BEO). An engine in the 2 million pound thrust range is the basic requirement for a Super Heavy Lift Vehicle (SHLV). Perhaps it might be more accurate to say in the 4 million pound thrust range when considering a single turbopump driving a pair of 2 million pound thrust bells would be even better. This item is of course nowhere to be seen. Instead, we have clusters of smaller engines adding complexity and killing that K.I.S.S. feature so desirable in a SHLV. A sustainable HSF-BEO program must have these “fewer-bigger” engines.

There are essentially two approaches to building a partially reusable SHLV and the 1981 Space Shuttle went with the “big dumb booster” concept being parachuted into the ocean and recovered at sea.

Grumman Space Shuttle

The NewSpace flagship company has demonstrated a redux of the 1993 Delta Clipper and landed back the first stage of their hobby rocket and this second  Vertical Take-off/ Vertical landing (VTVL) approach is now seen as more efficient. Whether it is actually cheaper to land back instead of dropping the hardware in the ocean remains to be seen as those numbers are not made public. Far more powerful Aerojet monolithic solid fuel boosters might have made the Space Shuttle more of a success but that did not happen. A separate engine module with some kind of VTVL recovery system combined with different boosters would have definitely seem the Shuttle system still in use with no end in sight.

This “should have been” Space Shuttle is somewhat like the SLS in that it would have been a vertical stack putting different payloads on top. Not putting the payload on top was the worst feature of the Shuttle design. If the Orbiter had turned out to be a bad idea, which in hindsight it absolutely was, then NASA could have gone back to a capsule. With reusable liquid fuel boosters and a VTVL RS-26 module detaching from the core tank the SLS could become essentially what the Space Shuttle should have been. Over half a century ago in 1969 serious design work began on the Space Shuttle and now we have a new expendable Saturn V instead of what should have been developed then. I do not think Blue Origin is doing much better simply because they made that first cardinal mistake of not developing a powerful enough 1st stage engine. Now a word on O’Neill.

Gerard K. O’Neill was a visionary who led teams of smart young people to a set of simple conclusions explaining the best path for expanding humankind into the solar system. The goal was improving our species quality of life and prospects for avoiding extinction in the immediate future. The first conclusion was that living in space instead of on Earth is indeed the practical solution to almost all the problems humanity was dealing with in the 60’s and 70’s and to this day, including climate change. The second conclusion was that no other natural bodies in the solar system are likely to be practical as a second home for humanity leaving only space habitats. The third conclusion was that Space Based Solar Power (SBSP) is the ideal economic engine to build space infrastructure and enable the mass production of miles-in-diameter-artificial-spinning-hollow-moons.

Having mentioned an “economic engine” and inferred the involvement of NewSpace by headlining Blue, which is ostensibly a NewSpace company, I now have to point out Jeff Bezos appears to be riding a neoliberal wave  that is in reality a stumbling block to space colonization. This is bad news but not all bad. Billionaire hobbyists are wasteful but then the nature of capitalism and competition is a severely inefficient process. If one of them can get just one thing right then it might make up for all of the damage already done. This ruinous ideology has already set space exploration back at least a decade and that wreckage is accumulating. The primary villain in this story is not Bezos, not yet. It is the other one.

There is no cheap. Smaller rockets using fuel depots are not the miracle that makes everything easy. Mars is not the second home of humanity. Shiny starships and tens of thousands of pieces of space junk are not the future. “Entrepreneurs” are not going to expand humankind into the solar system. This Ayn-Rand-in-Space neoliberal ideology is poison to any progress and all of it is in fact the opposite and enemy of space advocacy. Since the company is using O’Neill’s name on their headquarters, let me make my “O’Neillian views” crystal clear for the leadership at Blue Origin;

  1. Only state sponsored public works projects on the scale of the Panama Canal and Hoover Dam can succeed in expanding humankind into the solar system and effecting an insurance policy against the threat of extinction. Nuclear Pulse Propulsion is a prerequisite and by itself precludes entrepreneurship.
  2. The Public-private Partnership is a guarantee of failure in regards to space exploration as evidenced by the failure of the Space Shuttle, which was sold as a commercial launcher that would “pay for itself.” In contrast, Apollo closely controlled the design and production of the Saturn V and did succeed.
  3.  The profit motive is poison to the survival imperative as insurance against extinction is the over-arching goal of space exploration and colonization. While contracted private companies operate to turn a profit this completely corrupts space exploration when the goal becomes exploiting space ONLY for profit.

In my view two New Glenn lower stages could likely replace the present SLS 5 segment SRB’s and this would enable a 150 metric ton payload, even with a stretched SLS core stage modified to allow the RS-25 engine section to separate from the tank structure and VTVL back. As stated at the beginning of this entry, the pressing need is for much larger liquid fuel engines and future SLS boosters should have at most 4 large thrust bells and a central smaller engine for steering and landing. Likewise the core stage tankage might eventually be replaced with a tile-shielded tank like the shiny starship and land back the entire structure. The major stumbling block is the no-escape-system-shiny-starship and tens of thousands of pieces of space junk snake oil now being sold to the public.

What nobody gets is that VTVL and bringing back the second stage are old ideas. Philip Bono of Douglas Aircraft proposed several VTVL vehicles in the early 60’s and the Delta Clipper accomplished VTVL in the early 90’s. Among the first Space Shuttle design concepts in the late 60’s was a winged first stage and second stage with both returning for reuse. It is a farce that the NewSpace flagship company is taking credit for what was done or concepts originated many decades ago- as if it all came straight from the mind of the great one himself. The crew dragon and starship are fundamentally flawed and are following the cheap and nasty path to failure, as shown by the explosion of the former. NASA would be crazy to risk people on a small capsule packed with a ton and a half of hypergolics.

As I continue to relate on this blog, LEO and Mars are both complete dead ends and need to be abandoned in favor of total commitment to a lunar return. I will not go into my disdain for suborbital tourism and instead hope Blue goes forward with Landers incorporating the technology and their tourism enterprise is seen for the very bad idea it is and ends.



Published by billgamesh

Revivable Cryopreservation Advocate

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