Supersonic Man

May 10, 2017

no Apollo

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 9:21 am

If NASA had not been hurried into building the Apollo mission by the “space race” against the USSR, how might we have arrived at the Moon?  Space development might have proceeded a good deal more slowly and less expensively, building on the X-15 rocket plane experiments.  I think that program would eventually have arrived at something fairly close to the Space Shuttle.  If you solve all the problems of the X-15 one by one to make it orbit-worthy, it would have had to be much larger and blunter, because any adequate heat shield is going to be around four inches thick, and that doesn’t scale down for something skinny or pointy.  That sounds a lot like the shuttle to me.

So let’s say we were trying to send a mission to the moon using space shuttles.  The shuttle itself can’t go there even in you fill the cargo bay with fuel, and that would be wasteful anyway, as you don’t need most of its bulk.  So I think the bits that actually go to the moon would be much as they historically were in Apollo: a lunar module, command module, and service module.  Why not just stick those into a shuttle bay?

Well, it turns out that you can’t fit all three into one shuttle-load, but they’ll go in two loads, if you make the lander less broad and gangly.  One would be the command module and lunar module, and the service module would be the other.  And we might have to trim a bit of weight from the service module.  This means the service module would have to be mounted to the command module by shuttle astronauts in space suits, which would be inconvenient, but doable.  Alternately, you might cram the three modules into one flight, if their fuel were in another.  This would mean at least six operations of astronauts pumping dangerous fluids into various tanks spread throughout the modules.  It might also mean assembling the lander’s legs from some inconveniently compact from.

Now you need a rocket to send the set toward the moon — one very like the third stage of Apollo, which used most of its fuel to lift the three modules out of low orbit and fling them toward the moon.  This rocket is a bit too large to fit into a shuttle bay, but it’s not too implausible that there could be a way to make it fit.  Its weight is no problem, if it’s empty.  But the fuel would take at least four shuttle loads!  (Historically this rocket weighed 10 metric tons and pushed a 40 ton payload.  The required delta-V is 3.1 km/s.  It burned nearly 100 tons of hydrogen and oxygen to accomplish this.  It used a bit more to circularize Apollo’s Earth orbit, which would not be needed in this case.)

So the mission would require seven shuttle launches, starting with one to put up the booster with the first splash of fuel in it, and four more to fill it up.  Then the service module would be brought up, and maybe attached to the booster.  The command and lunar modules would come up last, along with the astronauts who will ride in them.  That last shuttle could stay in orbit to await their return.

Since the empty “third” stage might not fit easily, and since it’s probably better to bring the fuel up in the tanks that will be used instead of needing to pump it from one tank to another, maybe the booster would just be a framework that fuel tanks would be bolted into.  Such a framework could be folded smaller for transport.  This would require additional assembly in space, possibly employing double digit numbers of shuttle astronauts over several flights.  But if everything were prepared well on the ground, the task should not be difficult or dangerous.  And if the orbits were well planned, the booster stage could be recovered into Earth orbit, and either refueled for another mission, or if necessary flown back down for refurbishment.  As SpaceX has demonstrated with their Falcon landings, once a booster is detached from its payload and has mostly empty tanks, a small amount of remaining fuel can accomplish quite a lot of maneuvering, so I don’t think it’s implausible that its engine could return to low orbit, especially if it discards some empty scaffolding.

The command module wouldn’t necessarily need to splash down into the ocean.  But it might still need a heat shield, just to brake in Earth’s atmosphere enough to slow down into an Earth orbit, so a shuttle can pick it up.  Or, this somewhat risky air-braking could be avoided by giving the service module more fuel.  (Perhaps it also could use bolt-in tanks.  Add one more fuel-hauling flight to the schedule in this case.)  An ocean splashdown might be the emergency backup option if the rendezvous fails.  But if it succeeds, they could even have the option of recovering the upper stage of the lunar module, and flying both modules down with the astronauts in one shuttle landing.

I’m sure this sounds a lot more awkward and inconvenient than the Apollo’s simple process of just launching one big rocket, but it would have been vastly less expensive.  Most of the parts would be reusable instead of disposable.  The only part that absolutely could not be reused is the bottom stage of the lunar module.  Apollo cost us at least $20 billion per landing, in today’s money; this would cost perhaps a quarter of that — and I’m sure if we made this a continuing operation, we would have found ways to lower the costs further.  Instead of just six trips to the moon, we might have continued doing dozens.  We might never have stopped.

However, I do worry that this process might have exposed astronauts to greater risks.  Lots of opportunities for something to go wrong up in orbit, and lots more shuttle flights.  As we have seen, those shuttles were not the safest things to fly in.


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