"The effort required to resurrect the Delta Clipper program wouldn’t be very great. Many tests showing the proof that the concept works have already been conducted, and the vehicle’s capabilities have already been proven. Therefore, the Delta Clipper is simply a space vehicle nearly ready for use. All that remains is some final testing,building a full-size vehicle, and then putting the spacecraft to work."
Jason Moore & Ashraf Shaikh
Delta Clipper: A Path to the Future
Delta Clipper: A Path to the Future
In 1996, Vice President Al Gore and NASA Administrator Dan Golden announced to reporters that had been gathered at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California that the successor to America's Space Shuttle would be a revolutionary new Single Stage To Orbit (SSTO) vehicle dubbed “the Venturestar”, a reusable spacecraft designed by Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works. The triangular shaped Venturestar was to be designed to take off vertically, transporting astronauts and up to 27 tonnes of payload into low Earth orbit (LEO) while landing horizontally like the Space Shuttle upon its return to Earth.
But Gore and Golden's choice of the Venturestar came as a shock to many space enthusiast. Most people had expected the Delta Clipper SSTO to be the choice for America's next manned space vehicle especially since the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization in the Pentagon had already successfully tested a small Delta Clipper proto-type that had shown its capability of taking off and landing in a vertical position.
Unfortunately, after several years of technical difficulties attempting to develop the Venturestar and $1.3 billion in Federal expenditures, the project was finally canceled by the Bush administration in 2001.
Eventually, the Ares 1 was chosen by NASA as the successor to the Space Shuttle program and as part of the new Constellation program to return humans to the moon. The Ares 1 will be designed as a two stage vehicle capable of lifting astronauts and payload of 25 tonnes into LEO. The first stage will consist of a solid reusable rocket booster derived from the current Space Shuttle solid rocket boosters. The second stage will utilize a J-2X liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen rocket booster that will take the astronauts and their payload into orbit. The first human launch of the Ares 1 is scheduled for the year 2014. The last manned missions of the Space Shuttle are scheduled to end in the year 2010. So once the Space Shuttle program ends, there will probably be a 4 or 5 year gap before Americans return to space aboard an American spacecraft. Thank you George Bush!
Critics of the Ares 1 concept argue that we already have launch vehicles capable of doing the job that the future Ares 1 is supposed to do. Although they are expendable vehicles, the US military's Delta IV rockets are already capable of lifting up to 26 tonnes into LEO. Whether such vehicles can be man-rated (capable of safely lifting human passengers into low Earth orbit) is the question. However, there are also questions about whether or not humans would be able to withstand the vibrations that are going to be endured during the launch of humans above a single solid rocket booster aboard the Ares 1. NASA, of course, believes that the Ares 1 can and will be a man rated space vehicle.
This brings us back to the vehicle that Gore and Golden decided not to choose as the Space Shuttle successor, the Delta Clipper. The Delta Clipper was to be designed to take off vertically, go into orbit, and return to Earth by landing in a vertical position. Navigation for the spacecraft was to be provided by global positioning satellites.
In 2008 dollars, the Space Shuttle has been estimated to cost 1.5 billion per launch for 25 tonnes of payload in addition to up to 11 astronauts. But the shuttle was designed to land with only 20 tonnes aboard. If the payload cabin were designed to house an additional 40 astronauts then a round trip flight would cost approximately $29 million per passenger. However, when fully operational, the Delta Clipper was estimated, in 1990 dollars, to cost around $40,000 to 140,000 ($50,000 to $170,000 in 2008 dollars) per passenger. Why so low?
First of all, it takes over 30,000 people to prepare and launch the Space Shuttle. The DC-X test flights, however, only required 15 people to prepare and launch the reusable vehicle. Once it was fully operational, the Delta Clipper was to be flown almost like a typical commercial airliner. In fact, there were plans to have the Delta Clipper certified by the Department of Transportation, Office of Commercial Space flight and would be able to operate from 'spaceports' located in any state in the union. Sonic booms during take off would have been largely restricted to the spaceport area. And during its return to Earth, sonic booms would have been barely audible since the vehicle would have slowed down to sub-sonic speeds more than 20 kilometers above the Earth's surface. As far as safety is concerned, the fully operational vehicle would have eight or more rocket engines which would provide a safe return engine out capability. And unlike the Space Shuttle, the Delta Clipper would have been capable of landing on practically any flat surface.
The entire cost of developing the first flight certified Delta Clippers was estimated at $5.06 billion, including production of four flight vehicles. And if it had been fully funded in 1991, the first fully operational orbital missions would have began in 1997, and we wouldn't be having this discussion.
The Delta Clipper was originally designed to use liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. But there are new fuel concepts that could significantly lower the mass of this VTOVL vehicle. A 50/50 mix of liquid hydrogen and solid methane would require an 8% increase in additional fuel relative to an equal mass of liquid hydrogen which would be more than compensated by a 200% increase fuel density which would substantially reduce the bulk of the fuel tanks.
It would probably cost over 6 billion to develop four fully operational SSTO vehicles, if the Obama administration decided to resurrect the Delta Clipper program today. But the Delta Clipper would revolutionize manned space travel because it would give humans cheap and easy access to orbit. There have already been 6 space tourist that have payed close to or more than 30 million dollars each just to visit the International Space Station. Could you imagine how many wealthy individuals and companies would be willing to pay less than $200,000 to travel into low Earth orbit.
The Delta Clipper could serve as the first component of a cheap and reusable space infrastructure that would allow humans to easily travel to the Moon if reusable space tugs, fuel tankers and lunar landers were placed into orbit by the Ares V heavy lift vehicles. The Delta Clipper could also serve as a reusable Mars landing vehicle if combined with a drag plate to decelerate the vehicle during reentry into the thin Martian atmosphere.
Additionally, the Delta Clipper could serve as a sub-orbital test vehicle for larger future commercial passenger intercontinental rapid transit vehicles capable of traveling to any point on Earth in less than 45 minutes.
While the Ares 1 merely gets Americans back into space, the Delta Clipper would revolutionize manned space travel allowing both NASA and private industry easy and affordable access to orbit and to the rest of the solar system.
References and Links
1. Delta Clipper: A Pathway to the Future
2. DC-X (Astronautix)
4. The legacy of DC-X
5. McDonnell Douglas DC-X
6. DC-X Frequently Asked Questions
7. A New Constellation And Its Legacy
8. Single Stage To Orbit (SSTO)
9. HOW TO GET TO SPACE
10. Cryogenic Fuels
11. Rockets, not air-breathing planes, will be tomorrow's spaceships
12. Alternate Propellants for SSTO Launchers
13. Frontiers of Space
Philip Bono and Kenneth Gatland (1976)
14. The Constellation Program
15. The Ares 1
16. Cryogenic propellants and method for producing cryogenic propellants
17. A Single-Stage-to-Orbit Thought Experiment