The Forty Year Shuttle

SLS Core
image: Spaceflight Now
Land back engine module instead of water recovery to make the SLS what the shuttle should have been?

On 17 August 1943, under a full Moon, 560 British bombers attacked the German V-2 rocket facility at Peenemunde. Ten months earlier Nazi SS officers Walter Dornberger (later Vice President of Bell Aircraft Corporation) and Wernher von Braun (later Director of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center) had toasted the flight of “the first spaceship” on this isolated Baltic island with the first successful V-2 launch.  The person who designed the critical elements of the V-2 engine, Walter Thiel, was killed in the air raid along with his wife and children, having resigned from the project the day before. Dornberger, von Braun, and other Nazi notables such as Hitler’s favorite female test pilot Hanna Reitsch escaped death, while up to 600 slave laborers in a nearby camp and 245 airmen in the 40 bombers shot down that night did not. If German night fighters had not been successfully decoyed the bomber losses could have been doubled and the next day the second in command of the Luftwaffe shot himself.

It was 14 years before the next spaceship successfully launched, the Soviet R-7, and it was likely Thiel’s work that made it possible. The 56,000 pound thrust chamber and steam driven turbopump used in the V-2 engine is very similar to the thrust chambers and turbopumps used on Soyuz, 77 years later with over 1700 launches into space.

image: Universe Today                                                                                                                              63 years, 1700 launches, and more to come


Thiel had resigned from the V-2 project because he considered mass production of the rocket to be impractical. Ironically, Hitler was a true believer:

“I have had to apologize only to two men in my whole life. The first was Field Marshal von Brauchitsch. I did not listen to him when he told me again and again how important your research was. The second man is yourself. I never believed that your work would be successful.

— Adolf Hitler, Apology to Major-General Dornberger, 8 July 1944[14]” (wiki)

It was later calculated the time and resources wasted on the V-2 program did much to lose Germany the war. Hitler’s misguided faith in wonder weapons turned out lucky for the Allies. If he had been as enthusiastic about nuclear weapons this might be a very different world. The Allied Bombing Campaign in World War Two was also determined to have been largely a wasted effort with hundreds of thousands of civilians killed in the raids with little effect on the outcome. Postwar, the liquid fuel rocket engine was found to be less useful despite the amazing stainless steel balloon tank design of the first U.S. nuclear missile- the Atlas. The solid fuel Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and Polaris Sea Launched Ballistic Missiles became the primary cold war nuclear weapon delivery systems.

The liquid oxygen and kerosene Atlas ICBM would carry the Mercury Astronauts into orbit while the Hypergolic Titan II would carry Gemini. image: Air Force

Hypergolic propellants had allowed the Titan II ICBM to be fielded in silos but these were eventually phased out. Along with liquid oxygen and kerosene, hypergolics, and solid fuel, a fourth development of interest during the cold war was the failed attempt to field a liquid hydrogen fueled spy plane called Suntan; using the propellant which would ultimately enable humans to leave planet Earth and visit the Moon.

After that cold war battle known as the Moon Race was won the next step was… possibly the worst thing that could have happened. And the damage is accumulating to this day.

The Shuttle probably would have had this config except for…Utah. The giant 260 inch SRB on the model would have been prepared in a now-abandoned Aerojet facility in the Everglades.

The decision to build a largely reusable space shuttle and build an orbital infrastructure with it was the worst wrong turn NASA ever made. It was, essentially, NewSpace in disguise with a vehicle that would “pay for itself” and replace all other expendable launchers. The absurdity and inevitable failure of this program was somehow only apparent after several decades of service and the loss of two crews. In hindsight, we should now be able to identify what made the shuttle such a terrible mistake. Unfortunately, what we should do we are not and the very same mistakes are being repeated. Mars and LEO are still being hyped when they are complete dead ends.

Project Orion, which made available a practical method for Human Space Flight Beyond Earth and Lunar Orbit (HSF-BELO), made it plain the Moon was the place to go to launch human missions to the outer solar system as fallout from nuclear pulse engines made operating them in the Earth’s magnetosphere a non-starter. Instead, because there was really no easy money to be made doing this, the U.S. retreated from the Moon to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The first space age lasted just short of 4 years and ended in 1972 and after nearly a half a century using Nuclear Pulse Propulsion in the vicinity of the Moon is still the only practical path to any kind of human missions into deep space. And the public is almost completely unaware of this.

Apollo 17
Apollo 17 marked the end of the first space age: Will the SLS begin the second?

The pair of 5 segment Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB’s) and four RS-25 engines of the SLS would seem to make the Space Launch System just a continuation of the Space Transportation System except for two fundamental differences: first it is not going to LEO and second it is not reusable. While the first is good news it might not make up for the second. Making the SLS a “Forty Year Shuttle”, and most importantly making it into what it should have been to start with, is not as impossible as it might seem. The ISS has proven to be a 4 billion dollar a year albatross and is one of the main obstacles to any progress. Scheduled for decommission in 2028, immediately splashing the ISS would make that 32 billion dollars available for expanding production of an improved SLS.

If ever a government program was a metaphorical Albatross it is the International Space Station.

Anyone making their living off the ISS might be upset at the suggestion of just dropping it in the ocean. Sadly, the SLS enables the building of a fleet of Lunar Cyclers using wet workshop upper stages and would employ far more. The original space shuttle took into account our gravity well and the efficiency of chemical rockets and came up with expending the external tank as the solution. Interestingly, by just landing back the engine module instead of the 737 size orbiter, the tank could have been the ideal wet workshop and a hundred space stations, each many times the size of the ISS, could have gone up. Of course this would not have accomplished much because, as I stated, LEO is a dead end and not even really space. The ideal place for a space station is in Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) at an altitude of 22,236 miles up. The 250 miles up where the ISS goes in endless circles is an order of magnitude less useful.

22,236 miles up and with a massive water shield it is a good idea, but you have to assemble it in lunar orbit and transit it back to GEO. Unfortunately it needs to spin too fast for 1G and the only practical way to do that…
astounding stories feb 1937
…is with a tether, as foreseen by writer    Willy Otto Oskar Ley

I remember quite well 40 years ago sitting in a GI bar near the Korean DMZ watching the shuttle lift-off on the Armed Forces Television Network. I was just not that interested. Now I would be very interested in seeing it finally work the way it was supposed to. For it to enable fleets of Lunar Cyclers and GEO telecom platforms it is going to have to fly 6 to 8 times a year and be mostly reusable. In my view the best path to achieving a cislunar infrastructure is with SLS upper stage wet workshops utilizing lunar water for cosmic ray shielding. The SLS first needs to have a core engine module that is reused while expending the tank structure. The second absolute need is better boosters and the prime candidate to replace the 5 segment SRB’s is a pair of New Glenn 1st stages.

A mix of methane burning F-1B class engines and BE-4’s would lower the total number of New Glenn engines and might even feature oxidizer cross-feed to the core stage to provide well over 130 tons of lift.

Perhaps the SLS with reusable core module, liquid fuel boosters, and a wet workshop upper stage will still be flying a half century after it enters service- a full century after I watched the first shuttle launch. If the R-7 can keep going so can the SLS.

Published by billgamesh

Revivable Cryopreservation Advocate

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