by Marcel F. Williams
On December 17th 1935, the Douglas Aircraft Company introduced an new airplane that revolutionized commercial air travel in America and around the world, the DC-3. Before the introduction of the DC-3, transcontinental flights entailed short range flights in smaller aircraft during the day combined with rail travel during the night. The DC-3, on the other hand, was able to cross the American continent completely by air with just three fueling stops and could take passengers from one coastline to the other in less than 18 hours. More than 16,000 DC-3s were built during its history. And 400 DC-3s are still in operation today!
Boeing Phantom Works has introduced a new shuttle derived heavy lift concept that is very similar to the DIRECT concept. An inline 8.4 meter in diameter core vehicle is used with either SSME (space shuttle main engines) or RS-68 engines. But instead of using the existing 4-segment SRBs (solid rocket boosters), there vehicle would use the 5-segment SRBs that are currently being developed for the Ares I rocket, a program that President Obama intends to terminate. However, unlike the DIRECT concept, Boeing has also proposed utilizing the inline booster without the SRBs as a crew only vehicle. Coupled with a manned space capsule and a stretched SM (service module), there would be no upper stage. And this would require the service module to perform the 2nd stage burn in order to achieve orbit.
NASA has recently (May 3rd) issued a request for information regarding potential heavy lift architectures that could be utilized by both NASA and commercial industries. Boeing's new heavy lift concept would seem to meet that criteria. With the SRBs and an upper stage, the core stage could be used by NASA or the DOD to lift up to 113 tons into low Earth orbit or send up to 45 tons to TLI (translunar injection). A dual launch scenario could transport up to 87 tons to TLI, a substantial increase over the 65 tons sent to TLI using the Ares I/V architecture.
But, additionally, without the SRBs and the upper stage, the LOX/LH2 core booster could be used by NASA, the military, or a private commercial company to transport up to 20 metric tons into orbit when utilizing a stretched SM (service module) to perform the second stage burn to achieve orbit. Such a hydrogen-oxygen fueled single stage booster could provide NASA and private industry with the simplest, safest, and most environmentally benign manned space rocket ever invented. And such a vehicle could usher in a new wave of space tourism!
There are polls that suggest that there may be thousands of wealthy individuals that would be willing to pay $20 million or more to fly into space to a space station. If such polls are even close to being accurate then manned launches for space tourism could greatly exceed government commissioned manned spaceflights to orbit with possible annual demands for space launches in the hundreds.
Such a high level of traffic into space would require the manufacturing of several hundred rocket engines every year. And such a high demand for rocket engines could introduce the serial mass production of rocket engines into US industries. Economies of mass production could substantially reduce the cost of rocket engines in the US. And polls have shown that lowering the cost of space travel would increase the demand for space tourism even higher!
A NASA heavy lift vehicle based on the same core vehicle would of course greatly benefit from the lower cost due to the high demand for the core booster by private industry. Eventually, the low cost of the core vehicle might become so attractive that NASA might contemplate replacing the SRBs with two additional core vehicles for heavy lift launches in a configuration similar to what is seen with the Delta IV heavy. This would be similar to one of the National Launch System (NLS) proposals of the 1990s.
It is also interesting that Boeing Phantom Works also produces the unmanned reusable X-37 experimental spaceplane for the US military which is currently in orbit after being launched into orbit by the ULA on top of an Atlas V rocket. Although the X-37 weighs about 5 metric tons, it has the basic Space Shuttle configuration. It uses a Rocketdyne AR-2/3 rocket engine, fuelled by JP-8 jet fuel and hydrogen peroxide. If Boeing decided to build a larger-- man rated-- version of the X-37, it could be the perfect compliment for the shuttle derived core vehicle also proposed by Boeing.
So America might retire one winged space vehicle, the space shuttle, while introducing a new winged manned space vehicle that can be used by NASA, the military, and private commercial industry. And a new era of manned space travel for government and private industry will have begun!
References and Links
1. Heavy Lift Launch Vehicles with Existing Propulsion Systems (Boeing Phantom Works)
2. Ambitious Ares Test Flight Proposed for HLV Demostration
3. NASA Heavy Lift and Propulsion Trade Study
4. X-37 Orbital Test Vehicle
5. Boeing X-37
6. Space Commercialization and the Lunar Lotto
7. National Launch System
3 weeks ago