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Competition to Build the Space Shuttle's Successor 345

Neil Halelamien writes "The competition for the prime contract to build the Crew Exploration Vehicle, the successor to the Space Shuttle, is ramping up. Currently, 11 different companies are creating preliminary designs for systems and vehicles which could be useful in implementing NASA's Vision for Space Exploration. By the end of the year, NASA will select two teams to independently develop and build a CEV design. The two teams will launch competing unmanned prototypes in 2008, at which point NASA will award a final winning contract. Aerospace giants Boeing and Northrop Grumman have formed one team. Another "all-star" team, announced a couple of days ago, is headed by Lockheed Martin. A third team in the running is underdog t/Space, a company with a free enterprise approach to space exploration, which includes notable figures from the commercial spaceflight arena, such as Burt Rutan and Gary Hudson. There is concern that a NASA budget boost to help pay for the exploration program could draw some opposition, as most other government programs are anticipating budget cuts."
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Competition to Build the Space Shuttle's Successor

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  • Re:Well well well (Score:2, Insightful)

    by The_Mr_Flibble ( 738358 ) on Wednesday February 02, 2005 @09:53AM (#11549873)
    No doubt the underdog will come up with a far cheaper design that would save Nasa millions, however how many congresional panels will the underdogs be able to control to win this ?
  • by Illserve ( 56215 ) on Wednesday February 02, 2005 @09:53AM (#11549877)
    "However, it is likely that the CEV will follow the module and capsule design principles used in the Apollo, Gemini, Soyuz and Shenzhou systems, instead of the reusable spaceplane design principle used in the space shuttle system"

    Hoo-ray for NASA! There's hope for them yet.

  • by bigtallmofo ( 695287 ) on Wednesday February 02, 2005 @09:54AM (#11549886)
    Is NASA putting the cart before the horse here? Don't we need a coherent goal to shoot for before designing a vehicle? The goal as stated on NASA's site is:

    "The fundamental goal of this vision is to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program."

    Could they be any more vague? Whatever happened to the days of "land a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth." You know, goals that people actually knew what the heck you were talking about?
  • by Dagny Taggert ( 785517 ) <> on Wednesday February 02, 2005 @09:57AM (#11549901) Homepage
    A replacement for the Shuttle is needed, but is NASA working on our heavy-lift capabilities? It seems to me that there is still a need for a Saturn V-type rocket to put the big stuff into orbit. After all, while orbital assembly may seem cool, it doesn't seem very cost-effective yet.
  • by __aagujc9792 ( 787517 ) on Wednesday February 02, 2005 @10:04AM (#11549941)
    The primes (Lockheed, Boeing) know only how to burn money and koff koff manage customer relationships koff koff. I should know, I watched them do it on the X33 up close & personal. We should select Rutan as our stand in for old man Harriman. (obRAH reference) -- OPh
  • by TheKidWho ( 705796 ) on Wednesday February 02, 2005 @10:10AM (#11549984)
    Umm... I dunno, but I doubt scaled composites has the resources to design a successor to the spaceshuttle. Especially one that is going to have to have as many roles as the CEV.
  • by essreenim ( 647659 ) on Wednesday February 02, 2005 @10:10AM (#11549985)

    We should select Rutan as our stand in for old man Harriman. (obRAH reference) -- OPh

    Be carefull. Rutan and Scaled Composites are better than Nasa because they are cheaper, no government intervention to screw everything up.

    I think rutan would be making a mistake getting in bed with anything that is even remotely government sponsored. He should keep working on private ventures. et la Virgin etc.

  • by OwnedByTwoCats ( 124103 ) on Wednesday February 02, 2005 @10:19AM (#11550035)
    The shuttle had a mission: drive the cost of getting to Low Earth Orbit down by reusing the vehicle. To be a "space truck". At that, it failed miserably.

    The mission for the CEV, "to boost national security by providing a presence in space" is so bland, so wishy-washy, so unmeasurable, that there will never be an accounting.

    Oh, and Bush says we need to hack $300 Billion out of the budget to cut the deficit in half without raising taxes or undoing his precioussss tax cuts. Oh, and Defense is excluded. How big is the discretionary, non-defense budget? $440.9 Billion.
  • Benefits (Score:1, Insightful)

    by RasendeRutje ( 829555 ) on Wednesday February 02, 2005 @10:21AM (#11550059)
    What I've never understood: what are the benefits of space exploration? Sure it gives information about space, but what's the use?
    Is there anything they discovered that improved the qauality of life, in return for the zillions of dolars?
  • Military (Score:3, Insightful)

    by jeffkjo1 ( 663413 ) on Wednesday February 02, 2005 @10:28AM (#11550113) Homepage
    I can only hope that NASA is allowed to make the final decision on this spacecraft, and is not forced to make concessions to every government department under the sun like happened with the shuttle.
  • NASA Budget (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ibm1130 ( 123012 ) on Wednesday February 02, 2005 @10:33AM (#11550163)
    The total NASA budget ( $15+ Billion ) is a very small sub 1% fraction of US Gummint spending. Unfortunately it is in the discretionary category and lumped in with some agencies that often have a rancorous debate attached to their estimates. If other gummint agencies' budgets had been constrained the way NASA has been for the last 15 years or so, we probably wouldn't have a deficit, War On Terror notwithstanding.
  • by mattdm ( 1931 ) on Wednesday February 02, 2005 @10:36AM (#11550190) Homepage
    If the goal is just scientific exploration, robots are 1000 times more cost-effective.

    Not to mention slightly safer.
  • by Waffle Iron ( 339739 ) on Wednesday February 02, 2005 @10:41AM (#11550214)
    It took the guys at Scaled composites to show you that they could build a cheap light, ingenious low-earth-orbit vehicle and launch it cheaply from its mother plane.

    From an energy standpoint, Space Ship One only got 3% of the way to low-earth-orbit. They still have 97% more work to do. It design is totally unsuitable for going into or out of orbit; at hypersonic speeds it would snap apart like a toothpick an burn up. Scaled Composites is basically at square one with respect to an orbital vehicle.

  • by Illserve ( 56215 ) on Wednesday February 02, 2005 @10:44AM (#11550236)
    Whatever happened to NASP (National Aerospace Plane) and all the high-tech and, more importantly, affordable to orbit vehicles that were under development before the rampant budget cuts?

    Hopefully those designs have been put in the circular file drawer where they belong. 100 years from now, our fascination with space-planes will be seen as a great folly of the later 1900's.

    Capsules are a superior re-entry vehicle in every way, and cheaper too, when you factor in maintenance costs on reusable space vehicles (with the exception of the suborbital "toys" that we hear so much about, but they won't get huge wings into LEO and back again cheaply).

    NASA knew this simple truth back in the day when they were the crackinest aerospace research agency in the world. They had blank checks for designing ugly but functional space vehicles and boy did they. Aesthetics didn't enter to into the design of the capsule and LEM then, and shouldn't now.

  • Re:Well well well (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Dashing Leech ( 688077 ) on Wednesday February 02, 2005 @10:50AM (#11550274)
    "No doubt the underdog will come up with a far cheaper design that would save Nasa millions"

    Cheap only accounts for one small criterion in the selection. I would imagine that experience would be of far greater importance. Not that the underdog shouldn't win, or doesn't have any experience, but if you were hiring someone to manage a critical huge project for your company would you hire somebody with 20 years experience doing this type of work or a new kid out of school who built a toy model of what you need for a science fair?

  • Space Tug Boat. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Doverite ( 720459 ) on Wednesday February 02, 2005 @10:51AM (#11550282)
    Why not build a small powerful space tug boat instead of a truck. Large payloads could be launched into space unmanned. Then the tug could pull them over and attach them to the ISS and leave them there, or drop them over the ocean when done if need be. The ISS gets completed faster and we have a small reusable space plane that could be used more efficiently and more frequently and it wouldn't need crew quarters or sleeping quarters it would use the ISS as a base station. It could be fitted with a smaller crew and quarters for higher missions such as to the Hubble if it is still there or whatever. We don't have to keep dragging tons of equipment back and forth to orbit. Part of the danger of the shuttle is its size so keep the reusable part smaller and safer. We could even build an unmanned parachuting return vehicle for bringing large equipment back down.
  • by FireIron ( 838223 ) on Wednesday February 02, 2005 @10:55AM (#11550313)
    Unfortunately, neither the new Bush space initiatives, nor a new spaceship design will fix all the things that are wrong with the federal space program. Key among these problems is the lack of clear leadership and good management on NASA's Board of Directors, a.k.a. the US Congress.

    Congress has never been able to give NASA a set of clear goals, and then provided it with the long-term funding to meet those goals. This has forced NASA into sort of bureaucratic survival mode, lurching along from fiscal year to fiscal year, trying to keep moving the ball forward without a long-term roadmap to follow.
  • Awesome... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Chanc_Gorkon ( 94133 ) <{gorkon} {at} {}> on Wednesday February 02, 2005 @11:00AM (#11550354)
    FINALLY! This will be some exciting times in the aerospace community. I don't hold hope for Burt Rutan to be able to top Northup Grumman/Boeing or Lockheed Martins team but I sure as heck hope that the follwing things are considered:

    1. Modern, yet tested hardware for the flight computers and a way to upgrade them easily should they be needed. I still like the idea of multiple redundant computers and a voting structure that the shuttle uses for it's flight computers.

    2. Reuseablity is nice, but can be expensive as the shuttle has pointed out. If we do go reusable, I hope we find some new heat shielding that is less fragile.

    3. Ejection seets for the crew or a crew module rescue system of some sort.

    4. Sensor the HECK out of it. Put little cameras in the superstructure and have one monitor cycle through them on both launch and landing. If teh crew sees something the least bit suspicious, they can initiate a emergency eject.

    5. Make it FAST to launch another incase there's damage to one crew module. Maybe make it so that we launch 2 at the same time with both being capable of holding the whole crew in a emergency landing situation. You could even make sure one is always on orbit and is in good shape(docked at ISS or whatever).

    6. Make it REPAIRABLE in space either via ISS assistance or a small repair kit heald on board.

    I could go on, but this is the opportunity to make a funcitonal system that is much safer then the shuttle. Consider that the shuttle's design is almost 30-40 years old and BOTH planes and cars are MUCH safer today then ones designed that long ago.
  • Re:Well well well (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Firethorn ( 177587 ) * on Wednesday February 02, 2005 @11:38AM (#11550692) Homepage Journal
    Depends. Did he win the competition, including safety benchmarks?
  • by R.Caley ( 126968 ) on Wednesday February 02, 2005 @11:41AM (#11550730)
    Hoo-ray? In a sense it seems like a giant step backwards to 1960s technology.

    No, to 1960s design rather than technology. There is nothing wrong with this if the 1960s design turns out to still be the best anyone has come up with. You do the same kind of design with more modern technology and get the best available solution to the problem.

    Just because Buck Rogers had space planes, that doesn't mean they are actually the best engineering solution, silver jump suits are not practical streetwear either.

    Look at bridges, the fundamental designes of modern bridges are really nothing a Roman would be supprised by, it's the details of the technology applied to the basic designs which makes them better.

  • by digitalgimpus ( 468277 ) on Wednesday February 02, 2005 @11:44AM (#11550785) Homepage
    I admit I love human exploration, but after the Mars Rovers have had such success, I wonder if it's cheaper to consider researching that more.

    Leave Human exploration to harder goals (Mars). But for experiments in orbit, repair missions, etc. Why not consider robotics?

    The Mars rovers have done a very impressive job. I'd bet if NASA put the effort into robotics that it did into the Moon Launch effort.... they would be 10000X better.

    They can also work more, don't suffer from fatigue, don't need life support systems, etc.

    I'd like to see the human/robot space exporation roles change. Save humans for stuff like going to Mars, or the Moon, or other places where the goal is to get a person there. But lets use Robots for the most dangerious stuff, and situations where a Robot can easily do the job.

    IMHO a shuttle should be looking at Earth --> Mars.
  • by Illserve ( 56215 ) on Wednesday February 02, 2005 @11:54AM (#11550920)
    Incorrect, spaceplanes are inefficient in general principle. The problem is the fuel required to lift those wings and flight control mechanisms into orbit. They do you no good in space, they are only used in re-entry, so why not use a design for which you get controlled reentry dynamics(ie keeping the heat shields down and the parachute port up) for free?

    Look at what you what you need for re-entry:

    A hugely increased heat shield
    Hydraulic motors for flaps
    landing gear
    more hydraulics
    more sensors
    more wiring
    more computer control
    more everything

    The weight just spirals up and up until you have a fuel tank the size of the Good Year and achieve at best a moderately safe vehicle.

  • Re:Benefits (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Darth Maul ( 19860 ) on Wednesday February 02, 2005 @12:12PM (#11551164) Homepage
    We should go into space and explore simply because it is there.

    Where has our Manifest Destiny gone these days? We all would rather watch American Idol than ponder the real stars. What a shame.
  • Re:NASA Budget (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Idarubicin ( 579475 ) on Wednesday February 02, 2005 @01:13PM (#11551812) Journal
    Especially considering that space exploration is in the long run the most important and beneficial government program of all (with military being the second).


    I suspect that there might be some rather important things going on in some other [] agencies []. Just a thought. I suppose it depends how one chooses to define 'important' and 'beneficial'.

  • by oblivionboy ( 181090 ) on Wednesday February 02, 2005 @01:16PM (#11551841)
    People who talk about space programmes (at least at Slashdot) seem to fall into two sets of camps.

    1) Send rockets into space with a space capsule (reusable or not, we really don't care).

    2) Use a reusable space plane.

    Now the people in the first camp will argue about efficiency, and cost, and reliability. They've got a million reasons, much like those that advocate only sending robotic space probes into space, and forget manned space flight.

    Because I don't agree with them, and also to bring a smile to my face, I like to believe they like this idea because rockets resemble a big penis (something they may be lacking themselves), and that the "capsule" at the end is like the ejaculation of sperm into space. But again this is just my personal opinion.

    What the people in the first camp DO lack is efficiency of the imagination. Thats for sure. They see a short term solution which forestalls a long term one.

    The people in the second group, are more visionairy, and understand that in order to make space really accessible and interesting to humanity, you need something thats more like a space plane. Something that does not need to be manufactured for each flight and transported to a certain location (rocket). Something that can be turned around maintenance wise within 24-48 hours, and is preferably SSTO. Its no coincidence that Scaled Composites space ship that won the X-Prize was a space plane. And its no coincidence that Richard Branson signed up with Scaled Composits right away to start Virgin Galactic -- a service to take people up into outer space for around $250,000 a flight. It matches all of these qualifications, and more than just some metallic cylendar sitting on a launch pad, it captures the imagination.

    Also with a rocket you lack the pushing of technology forward. Building something that does SSTO and goes from Tokyo to New York in an hour, will require serious advances. And these advances could have (and probably would have) a huge impact in other areas. With a rocket, you just use refined 50s and 60s technology. In fact, if you consider that most rocket designs are still based on the V2, this would in fact be 40s technology. Sure reliable and cheap. Save it for Arianne Space. But for NASA, who's initial setup was to push the envelope as it were in space and space related technologies, its a bit disappointing to take a BACKWARDS step.

    Anyways here's a neat little page [] that talks about past and future launch vehciles. Notice that there aren't alot of rockets. :)
  • by RatPh!nk ( 216977 ) <ratpH1nk@gMail . c om> on Wednesday February 02, 2005 @01:17PM (#11551868)

    I am very optimistic about this endeavor. Is anyone else going to be disappointed with a vehicle that is not a standard takeoff and landing vehicle (instead of a multiple rocket/stage, shuttle like vehicle)? It would seem to be the next logical step. Apollo was rocket launched and uncontrolled descent. The shuttle was multi-stage rocket launch, but a controlled, gliding descent, re-usable vehicle. The next logical step, to me, woud be a vehicle that is more aircraft like, losing the rocket launch all together. Is the technology there? Will it be in 10 years?

    Just a thought........

  • by Rei ( 128717 ) on Wednesday February 02, 2005 @01:21PM (#11551918) Homepage
    Hey, my cousin Vinnie is really cheap, and doesn't mess with the government at all. He's flown in a MiG, so he has experience with space. He's built ultralights at his bike shop, and manages a team of three people. He almost crashed his last one because he took off in a thunderstorm, but look - he's got guts! He'd be perfect!

    What, you say? Vinnie would be horrible for the job? He doesn't have experience dealing with *real* space missions? He's only managed tiny teams, and this is a huge project? He'd probably just run it into the ground?

    Well, Scaled Composites is no different. They built roughly the aerial equivalent of a rocketsled. They built the bloody thing out of epoxy :P. They had an irrelevant amount of heat to dissipate, and used an engine which was extremely simple at the cost of low ISP and high tank mass, because SpaceDev had no hope of producing a *real* rocket engine (i.e., one that can scale to orbit) for a reasonable amount of money.

    Not to demean what Rutan did, mind you. It is a very impressive example of what a small group of people can do with a couple tens of millions of dollars, modern design software, a lot of dedication, and a lot of guts. And while they had significant stability problems on acceleration, their supersonic deceleration is a great testament to how well you can design a craft nowadays using computer models. But that doesn't change the fact that SS1 isn't even remotely in the same league as real spacecraft, and Rutan's experience isn't in the same league as real spacecraft design/construction experience. Just like my cousin Vinnie.

    P.S. - I don't actually have a cousin Vinnie. :)
  • by Vellmont ( 569020 ) on Wednesday February 02, 2005 @03:38PM (#11553789) Homepage

    However, the one thing that humans can give is their perception of what they see and feel. This sort of information is something that no robot can possibly provide us.

    And how is seeing and feeling worth multi-billions of dollars?

    We honestly have no idea how much we would learn from being out exploring, but most of the advances of our race have come from exploring the unknown and taking risks.

    Exploring has with few exceptions been driven by economics and need, not wonder. Columbus was looking for gold and a cheaper spice route. The people who crossed the land bridge into North America were looking for food. I suspect the same thing will occur for space. Mining operations for rare elements like Helium 3 will be what likely creates the colonization of space. Science needs, like you say are far cheaper to do with robots.
  • Maintenece (Score:0, Insightful)

    by jameskojiro ( 705701 ) on Wednesday February 02, 2005 @06:08PM (#11555513) Journal
    That doesn't stop NASA from basically pulling each shuttle apart and putting it back together after every mission.

  • Perhaps, but it's better to have 1,000 $350M probes that one $350 BILLION mission.

Our business in life is not to succeed but to continue to fail in high spirits. -- Robert Louis Stevenson