Thursday, January 15th, 2009

The other rocket revolution…

Just to follow up on my earlier post about post-shuttle alternatives (written really as a way to sort it out in my own head), Popular Mechanics posted this bit about the Jupiter Project, the rocket NASA engineers kitbashed in the spare time.

Here’s the intro, for a taste:

Late one evening in August 2006, Ross Tierney logged on to the chat room at nasaspaceflight.com, an unofficial cyberspace water cooler popular among NASA engineers. Tierney, a wiry 34-year-old space buff in Cocoa Beach, Fla., makes his living selling exquisitely detailed models of spacecraft and launchpads. He had been mulling over the design of the Ares I, the new NASA rocket that’s slated to launch astronauts into orbit after the agency retires the space shuttle in 2010. Though NASA has been working on the Ares I since 2005, the new vehicle won’t be ready until at least 2015. That leaves a five-year gap when there will be only one way to boost U.S. astronauts into space: Rent a Russian Soyuz rocket. And if Russia’s current conflict with Georgia or some other international incident disrupts that arrangement, the U.S. manned program will be grounded.

Tierney wondered whether the Ares I is really the best way to keep the U.S. in the spaceflight business. What if, instead of building a largely new rocket, NASA created a new configuration of proven space shuttle components and placed a crew capsule on top? Sitting on his living room couch, hunched over a laptop computer, he posted the question to the chat room. A dozen replies came back supporting the idea. “I was shocked,” Tierney recalls. “Here I was, just a nobody enthusiast asking a dumb question, and a bunch of NASA engineers are telling me I was absolutely right. They said they’d been pushing the same thing for years and that they’d been threatened with their jobs if they kept talking about it.”

Tierney’s innocent query mushroomed into a credible challenge to NASA and its Ares I, which is already under construction. His original chat network has grown into an underground coalition of NASA engineers and contractors who, working on their own time, have come up with an alternative rocket design they call Jupiter Direct 2.0, or simply Jupiter Direct, because it is more directly based on shuttle components than the Ares I. The dissident moonlighters argue that their launch vehicle, the Jupiter 120, would be more capable and less expensive than the Ares I. Furthermore, they say their lifter could fly in 2013, trimming the impending gap caused by the shuttle’s retirement. As a new presidential administration enters the White House, the insurgent engineers see a chance for change.

Last year NASA released a three-page, step-by-step critique of the Jupiter Direct proposal that challenged its claims. The dispute goes beyond engineering: Detractors’ doubts about NASA’s objectivity and professionalism strike at the foundation of the agency’s repu­tation. Last October, NASA administrator Michael Griffin felt obligated to defend the agency during a speech at the American Astronautical Society. Regarding press coverage that implied NASA was capable of using “unfairly skewed” data, Griffin asked how it could be “presumed that NASA does not act with integrity … is that what some people really believe?”

NASA bashing is  a hobby for some folks, something I really don’t take part in doing.  It is a government agency and has its limitations, of course, but the battle is over such a small slice of government money, that there are bound to be these sorts of criticisms. What was that quote about academic politics being so vicious because the stakes are so small? Could that be part of it.

I’d imagine that most of the people that get into the space industry do so because they have that essential space dream. The regular public only taps into it occasionally, whenever something particularly awe-inspiring or tragic happens. There is a hardcore group of people in the space world — and I’ve met a few here and there — that live and breath this stuff. Sure, there are people who behave poorly. There are petty folks as concerned more with the safety of their own project than the collective dream, undoubtedly.

But I can’t help but believe the vast majority of these people are in it for the dream. These are the people who work for NASA, who build space start-ups, who start space advocacy groups, and who, like Ross Tierney, argue so passionately for their cause.

They’re the oddballs looking to pick a fight, and I’m pulling for all of them, regardless of which side they take.

Look at me, I’m getting all misty.  Geez…