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Space United States Science

The Return of Apollo? 653

Posted by michael
from the flyboy dept.
hpulley writes "Bell bottoms are back, the Stones are still touring and Time has a piece on how NASA's _new_ space vehicle may actually be the return of a very old friend, a highly modified and modernized version of the Apollo Space Capsule. Manned spacecraft might actually leave low earth orbit again! Initially they'd fly with Delta and Atlas but more powerful boosters could be developed. We could go to the Moon again, and perhaps to Mars but I'm getting ahead of myself. Does that mean the last 30 years of space flight have been for naught? Expensive steps backward?"
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The Return of Apollo?

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  • Are you kidding me? (Score:1, Interesting)

    by wawannem (591061) on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @01:43PM (#6912272) Homepage
    Didn't they just come off of serious embarassment with the Columbia disaster and now they are going to re-instate 50-year-old technology?
  • Yay! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by PD (9577) * <slashdotlinux@pdrap.org> on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @01:45PM (#6912292) Homepage Journal
    I'm a big fan of capsules to go into space. There's no reason why a capsule can't be reusable. They sit on top of the rocket, the best place for a payload. A rocket can be attached to the top for an escape option. They are a lot cheaper. On and on. NASA can still work on reusable boosters, without having to change the basic capsule design.
  • by stratjakt (596332) on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @01:47PM (#6912317) Journal
    Does that mean the last 30 years of space flight have been for naught?

    No, it doesn't. We've learned a LOT about spaceflight in the last 30 years, from both successes and failures. The shuttle program had both hits and misses, and a lot of important research was conducted regardless.

    And I don't think anyones going to mars in one of those little tin cans. Imagine a year in that thing?
  • Why not? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Ars-Fartsica (166957) on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @01:49PM (#6912343)
    It worked. Also a space craft with wings seems to complicate most flight operations as opposed to simplifying them. Is it really more efficient to have the shuttle land than to just fish a capsule out of the water? It seems that numberous take-off and flight issues are created by the addition of wings simply so the craft can land like a plane.
  • by chiph (523845) on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @01:51PM (#6912368)
    Atlas, etc. are good rockets, but they can't beat the sheer power and relatively low G forces of the Saturn V. Since they'll (mostly) be going to LEO, as well as building a capsule that is 5-8% larger to accomodate a 4th passenger, why not take another look at the Saturn series of rockets?

    They could use the upper stage as a cargo hold -- arrive in orbit and unlock/unbolt the sides (can't use explosive bolts that close to the ISS) to remove your stuff. Anyone know the diameter of the Saturn V third stage compared to the shuttle's cargo bay?

    Chip H.
  • what would better: (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Ralph Spoilsport (673134) on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @01:52PM (#6912385) Journal
    a more nuanced approach where both capsule and space planes work.

    The capsules are fine for moving people, but space planes would be better as "trucks" hauling materials into space to build upon the ISS.

    An active capsule system will also allow for better and more frequent moon visits and (wildly overdue) MOON BASES which could be visited by SPACE PLANES.

    Then we'd be Rockin'... If we can build Moon bases, we can then look at Mars bases... We really need to rationalise this who space enterprise thing, and I think developing a multiplicity of space vehicles is a smart idea - capsule people movers, Spaceplane trucks, it all makes sense...

    RS

  • by ducomputergeek (595742) on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @01:55PM (#6912409)
    By the time the shuttle was designed, it became a tool that did a lot of things okay, but nothing all that great. It has always been more expensive than the rockets it replaced and now with no more Soviet Russia (no jokes) we may be able to co-develop better booster technology. Russia has always had more powerful rockets and seem to be able to hit orbits more accurately than the US.

    Also, I honestly think this Single Stage to Orbit (SSTO) idea is foolish and stupid. Most of what I have read seems to indicate that a dual stage system would lower the cost per pound from USD 100k to about $6k and one could have two pieces that are reusable. To me that makes a lot more sense and by all acounts more doable.

    If we are serious about keeping the ISS up there, the next generation of space craft could save space to be a delivery and construction/repiar work on satelites and the ISS, then save expiraments for the ISS.

  • Re:Yay! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by mrtroy (640746) on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @01:56PM (#6912425)
    "The most critical mistake: designing a spaceship to fly horizontally like an airplane but launching it vertically like a rocket. That one decision saved $5 billion in the 1970s but led directly to the loss of both the Challenger and Columbia. "

    I agree with you, and the experts, why the hell does a spaceship need wings?
    Launch the damn thing with a rocket, and once its space its ideal to have a capsule, not a shuttle.(which cant get above low orbit anyways).

    Lets advance the space program instead of exploiting it for commercial satellites.
    What happened to the lust for exploration? Lets go to Mars. There is a need for a president with ambition that will set a goal like that.
  • Back to the Past? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ChuckDivine (221595) * <charles.j.divine@gmail.com> on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @01:56PM (#6912438) Homepage

    Not quite.

    We're finally seeing an admission from the aerospace establishment that the shuttle has failed as an experiment. Wings on space craft are essentially a burden. Mercury-Gemini-Apollo demonstrated that you could come back to earth -- even in a controlled fashion -- without wings. Shuttle had wings to meet an Air Force requirement on cross range capability. Now the Air Force doesn't even use the shuttle.

    So, the immediate future of vehicles intended to reach orbit looks like something that's been proven to work for both the United States and Russia. It's good to see people actually looking for something that works well.

    In other ways, though, this development is a further criticism of the NASA culture. Much has been reported about the suppression of dissent in the safety culture. This is one aspect of a larger suppression of independent thinking in aerospace culture. The lack of new ideas shows another aspect. The unwillingness to examine things outside the industry (the "not invented here" syndrome) demonstrates still another.

    New ideas and technologies thrive in free atmospheres. People are more willing to try new things. Good ideas get promoted. Faulty ones, even if held by people with power, are more likely to be challenged. For the aerospace industry to succeed, such a model must be embraced, not shunned.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @01:57PM (#6912446)
    oh right, forgot that for some people world = US

    Manned spacecraft might actually leave low earth orbit again!

    Again? What again? Soyuz is capable of this all the time (it was meant for moon missions initially)
  • by RevMike (632002) <revMike AT gmail DOT com> on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @02:01PM (#6912502) Journal
    I don't think anyones going to mars in one of those little tin cans.

    Those tin cans are great for the few hours it takes to ride out of and back into the planet's gravity well. Any reasonable Mars mission profile would entail assembling an inter-planetary ship in earth orbit and then flying that ship to martian orbit.

    Imagine, if you would, a few dozen Saturn V launches of equipment and supplies. The space station crew would assemble the pieces. Then a few capsules would bring the mars crew to their ship from earth.

  • by poptones (653660) on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @02:02PM (#6912504) Journal
    Now, a capsule alone might not make it to mars, but I doubt ANYTHING launched in one piece from earth would make it that far. Thus, the space station, the robotic arm - all that stuff is tech we needed (and still need) to prepare us. So what if we use a small capsule to go back and forth? You think we could have done what we did with Hubble using one of those lead kettles the FSU uses to shuttle people back and forth?

    The capsule system was inherently "modular" thus the inspiration for this bit of classic SF [space1999.net]. The only irony I find in all this is how accurate SF may have once again proven to be.

    Just don't tell anyone in Hollywood. After seeing what they did with Lost In space, I don't want even a chance of them getting hold of my fave SF series for one of their ticky-tacky plotless rehashes.

  • by gaijin99 (143693) on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @02:03PM (#6912517) Journal
    The biggest problem with the US Space Program is that ever since we got to the moon they've been thinking small. Nothing really works well, or does much for you, until you scale it up to a decent level. Imagine if post-Columbus the various European nations had sent out a couple of row boats every few years...

    As with so much in life an investment is necessary to get the returns. To really benefit from space we must spend tens of billions on basic infrastructure. The ROI will be worth it. Big projects. A catapult for bulk loads would be a good start and possible with off the shelf technology.

    Even better would be a genuine attempt to build a space plane. All the half-assed three or four million dollar projects to date were nothing more than a waste of time.

    Best would be to immediately begin work on an elevator. Current best estimates say that an elevator could be built in about ten years, with a budget of six billion. Considering that the US is spending more than $8 billion per month in Iraq, I'd say we obviously have $6 Billion to spend over the course of ten years...

    When you think small, you get small results. I don't care if its NASA, or a private corporation, or a group of various space agencies and corporations, but we must begin thinking big or else nothing will ever happen.

  • This is the solution (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @02:05PM (#6912540)
    Why have a shuttle of both men and equipment? Capsules have been historically safe. There are very few moving parts, a SMALL area of heating surface, and can be disposable (lower cost?).

    Have a seperate vehical for taking materials up, that is unmanned.

    Have the manned vehical go up seperate, and reduce RISKS.

    Now, the final word: Why have astronaughts go up for such a short time? If they risk their lives, make them stay up their till they can't stand it anymore.

    This issue is all about risk, and a capsule solution for taking people into space is the right answer.
  • Re:Escape velocity (Score:5, Interesting)

    by WolfWithoutAClause (162946) on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @02:06PM (#6912547) Homepage
    I refuse to believe that the best way to get into space is to fill a monstrous tube with combustibles and light it all up, just to get a few tons of gear in orbit.

    A few tonnes?

    Saturn V could lift the best part of 100 tonnes into orbit. It could have lifted the whole ISS in 2-3 launches, pretty much. (Skylab was huge compared to the ISS, and was at a much higher altitude).

    By way of contrast, the Shuttle has only just got up to 30 tonnes, and the Shuttle is more expensive per tonne; and can't achieve the same altitude, and certainly isn't capable of lunar missions.

    So what's the point of the Shuttle anyway? Because it's partly reusable so therefore it's cheaper isn't it? Umm, actually...

  • by Dawn Keyhotie (3145) on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @02:17PM (#6912675)
    It was big enough to put an entire space station up in one shot: Skylab [nasa.gov]!

    This baby would still be up there if NASA hadn't let it fall to Earth due to orbital decay. There was talk at the time of sending up a booster rocket to raise Skylab's orbit, but due to Shuttle development sucking up every penny NASA had in the late 70's, it never got past the 'good idea' stage.

    Luckily, due to random chance, Skylab's molten remains mostly impacted in the Indian Ocean and Australia, where no one lives. =).

    I say resurrect the Saturn program lock, stock, and barrel, and leave the fancy schmancy space planes to the DoD, who can afford it.

    Let's finally go back to space, damn it! I miss the future.

    Cheers!

  • Re:It's about time (Score:5, Interesting)

    by fgodfrey (116175) <fgodfrey@bigw.org> on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @02:19PM (#6912697) Homepage
    We actually *have* brought stuff back from space many times. There have been a number of large orbital experiment platforms that were taken up and down on the Shuttle. One, in particular, was taken up right before Challenger and was retrieved sometime in the 90's on a different shuttle flight (I forget the name and am too lazy to look it up). Also, there was one instance where a commercial satelite that didn't make it into orbit was retrieved. I'm not saying that those limited instances justify the design, but it *has* been used.
  • Re:Yay! (Score:4, Interesting)

    by AJWM (19027) on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @02:28PM (#6912786) Homepage
    How you you rather land back on Earth: parachuting into the ocean or landing smoothly like an airplane?

    Those aren't the only two options. Russian and Chinese spacecraft parachute onto land. One could land smoothly like an airplane, without the ridiculous wings, by using a parafoil (indeed, such was seriously studied -- well, a similar idea Rogallo wing -- for the Gemini program). Or one could land smoothly yet vertically like a helicopter, Harrier jet, or Bell rocket pack.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @02:36PM (#6912871)
    Our space program invested time and money to invent an ink pen for our astronauts that had a pressurized ink cartridge that could still write in both zero gravity and at varying degrees of gravity while held at all pitch angles with respect to the direction force of gravity.

    The Russians sent pencils into space with their cosmonauts to write with.
  • For naught? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by bs_02_06_02 (670476) on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @02:40PM (#6912936)
    If you think the space shuttle was for naught, you might look at what the shuttle was designed for? Why do we have pickup trucks, 4 door sedans, station wagons, sports cars, buses, tractor-trailers, and trains? Different vehicles, different purposes. Maybe you should have asked, "What if NASA had split time, money, and resources between two big projects over the past 30 years?" Or, maybe you should have asked, "What if NASA has spent MORE money on two big projects? Would we still have the USSR and the cold war?" Now that technology has advanced, we might see some gains from moon visits. However, the liberals will not like "wasting" money on frivolous trips to the moon. They definitely won't like non-reuseable rockets. They'll whine and complain. A trip to Mars? Bah!
  • by Unknown Poltroon (31628) * <unknown_poltroon1sp@myahoo.com> on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @02:41PM (#6912943)

    "Say Columbus took the Apollo route to the New World. He starts off with three ships. Along about the Canary Islands he sinks the first ship, just throws it away, deliberately. And it's his biggest ship. Come [163] to the Bahamas, he throws away the second ship. He reaches the New World ... but his third ship can't land there. He lowers a lifeboat, sinks his third ship, and rows ashore. He picks up a few rocks on the beach and rows right back out to sea, across the Atlantic ... and at the Strait of Gibraltar he sinks the lifeboat and swims back to Spain with an inner tube around his shoulders.
    "If that's what it took to cross the Atlantic, this part of the world would still belong to the Seminoles."

  • by adagioforstrings (192285) on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @02:47PM (#6913015)
    Don't forget about this [space.com] from last year. This was a modified Soyuz rocket (not capsule), I think. One soldier was killed on the launch pad. Actually, I stumbled onto a nice chronology [alertnet.org] of space accidents. To your point--the Russians make good (capsule) and not quite as good stuff (booster). Looking over that chronology, the lesson seems to be that space travel is dangerous.
  • by Ratphace (667701) on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @02:50PM (#6913044)

    Correct me if I am wrong, but the design plans were lost for the Saturn V rockets that powered the Apollo mission and none of the designers are alive anymore.

    I remember watching a documentary on Discovery Channel about how the design of the rockets were lost and the only thing left is a rocket or two on display at Kennedy Space Center (or some other Nasa Branch).

    That being said, this is why they completely abandoned the rocket for any future use, even though it was the most powerful one ever made, they simply didn't have the schematics to replicate it and I guess reverse engineering the ones on display isn't an option since they were of course hollowed and setup for display purposes.
  • by The Lynxpro (657990) <lynxproNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @02:52PM (#6913070)
    The Russian Shuttle was built like a tank. Since it was built after the majority of our own shuttles, isn't its heat tiling superior? Perhaps NASA should acquire it...
  • Re:Yay! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by eriko (35554) on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @02:56PM (#6913117) Homepage
    "The most critical mistake: designing a spaceship to fly horizontally like an airplane but launching it vertically like a rocket."

    I agree with you, and the experts, why the hell does a spaceship need wings?

    To land in a specific place? The Apollo capsules had a whole fleet spread across the Pacific to retrieve it and the crew.

    The problem with the Shuttle that flies today is simple -- the specifications, part NASA, part DOD, specifiy a mission that requires the use of attached booster rockets. Namely...

    1) The cargo bay is too large, and,

    2) The cross range capability is extreme.

    Why? The Air Force insisted that the Shuttle be able to, in one orbit, take off from Vandenburg AFB, put a KH-11 or similar sat into orbit (or retrive one) and land back at Vandeburg. The problem with this is that in one orbit, Vandeburg moves quite a way, since the earth is rotating.

    So, the huge bay was needed to handle the KH-11s, and the very large OMS engines were needed to get the Shuttle back to Vandenburg in one orbit.

    Drop these two requirements, and you can cut the OMS system by a half, the payload bay by at least a third, and, suddenly, you don't *need* the SRBs anymore. Indeed, the flyaway liquid fueled boosters become a possibility. You can drop one of the SSMEs off the craft, as well -- and lose the structure needed to hold it. And so forth -- or, even better, ride flyaways almost all the way up, and just have one SSME take you to orbit. Less OMS means less fuel tankage to deal with. And so forth.

    NASA wanted about 10 Billion in 1975 to build the Shuttle. They were told that they were getting 5. They said that they weren't even going to try -- it wouldn't work. DOD said that they'd be interested in the Shuttle as a military craft, with a few modifications and a couple of extra mission requirements, and wouldn't protest the extra budget money. So, the deal was made -- DOD got the huge cargo bay and the cross range capability, and NASA got the money to build it. Alas, they ended up with an impossible spec to build to -- and were only able to make it work with the SRBs and 3 SSMEs.

    NASA's biggest mistake with the Shuttle was taking that deal.
  • by tgd (2822) on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @03:15PM (#6913340)
    Except officially NASA still has all of them, a fact that can be easily found in a couple Google searches. NASA can't rebuild the Saturn V because there are no sources for most of the electronics it used any more, and there are no launch pads left that can launch them, since they were all converted for Shuttle use. Given the expense in rebuilding the pads and redesigning the flight electronics, they might as well start with a new design. The rest of it isn't rocket science.
  • by JohnnyCannuk (19863) on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @03:16PM (#6913348)
    Remember this? [nasa.gov]

    The people here who bellyache about cost and danger and whether it should look like a plane or not, should look at this. It was a very serious contender for the X-33 program. It is a SSTO vehicle which is far more manueverable than the shuttle and far safer. And until an unfortuneate accident in 1997, the US had an actual working model. It is used to carry people into orbit. You want payload? Use a Detla V or an Arriane. You want a reusable work horse for people? Strongly consider reserecting this.

    Oh and BTW
    Space travel will be dangerous for the forseeable future. People will die. Maybe less people would die if we are more concerned about discovery and science and exploration than about cost. It's going to be expensive, but as one earlier poster pointed out, we are likely to get more out of a few billion spent on space exploration than we do out of the 8 Billion per MONTH spent in Iraq.

    There. I feel better now.

  • Re:It's about time (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Cpt_Kirks (37296) on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @03:50PM (#6913745)
    The only rationalization for the design is if you're going to bring stuff back from space

    Nixon signed off on the shuttle because he was told we could use it to steal Soviet satellites. He thought it was a cool idea.

    Like the Russians wouldn't rig the satellite to blow up. Guess he watched "You Only Live Twice" too many times...

  • by scosol (127202) on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @03:57PM (#6913835) Homepage
    What happened to this idea?
    Very long railgun on the ground, gently ascending up a hill?

    Sure its a big initial capital investment, but after that you're just paying for the power.
    And the vehicles can then basically just be gliders.
  • So, basically... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by mbbac (568880) on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @04:01PM (#6913881)
    ...we're back to following the Russian's lead on spaceflight? Kennedy is rolling in his grave.
  • by Darth Hubris (26923) on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @04:21PM (#6914143)
    It was called Buran, it most definitely flew in space. It was an unmanned flight, a few orbits, then back again for a remote op landing. It worked, but the Russians realized it was too expensive. I was all for the shuttle, but if all we're doing is moving personnel, Apollo is the way to go. If it was built to today's standard's it would be a robust, reliable system, without Too much of the complexity that was necessary 30 years ago.

    BTW, the Buran's been converted to a restaurant, and resides in Gorky park now.
  • by NotClever (635709) on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @04:26PM (#6914208)
    Hey, serious question - do you have something to back up that comment about the Soviets being able to hit orbits better than American rockets? It's something I've never even thought about, and it would be interesting to read more about that particular issue. Thanks!
  • by sjames (1099) on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @05:39PM (#6915002) Homepage

    The space shuttle was originallt speced out to be a REUSABLE spacecraft, just check the tires, top off the fluids, and it's good to go again.

    In part, that changed during it's design when it turned out that reusable in that sense just wouldn't work out for some of the parts.

    In other cases, we found out that in practice, various other componants were not really reusable.

    Instead, the shuttle was actually REBUILDABLE though it was mostly designed to be reusable.

    It probably would have worked a lot better had it been designed to be rebuildable from the start, and it certainly would have been cheaper than rebuilding a craft that wasn't designed to be rebuilt.

    For an example, replace the very expensive and fragile (as it turns out, too fragile) heat tiles and carbon panels with a cheap ablative resin. On landing, sandblast the char away and re-apply. Instead, since it had to be reusable, they went with the much more expensive and risky tiles and panels.

    Another interesting idea might be to leave parts of the thing in orbit. Each flight could dock with the service module and use it for the duration of their mission, then disconnect and leave it for the next crew. The part that returns would need to carry the expendibles, and have the self contained capability to return should something go wrong. That may or may not be useful (after all, space is a hostile environment, so unpowered equipment may not be durable enough to use again without serious work and time that is not available or worth it), but it's an interesting concept to consider.

    That would also shift the burden of redundancy somewhat since it would no longer be necessary to trade off capacity vs. more redundancy. In theory, the entire service module could be replaced in orbit if it came to that. Even life support provisions could be provided. At the end of a mission, just before seperation, any reserves that were not used in the mission could be transferred to the SM for use on a later mission.

    Another interesting option after further research is to actually use tethers to transfer momentum from the returning capsule to the SM in order to get what amounts to a boost for nothing.

    I don't think that NASA has done absolutely NOTHING in the last few decades, it's just that by sticking with the shuttle as-is, it hasn't been able to take much advantage of the things it's learned. A more modular system is in order so that they don't get stuck again with an all or nothing technology update. Capsule, booster and SM should be seperate projects which are updated and improved more or less seperatly.

  • Re:Yay! (Score:2, Interesting)

    by arthurh3535 (447288) on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @08:19PM (#6916353)
    So, (this begs the question) they can hit within three+ miles of a *fleet*, does that mean that they could have hit with three miles of a single ship in the ocean?

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