I just got an email on deep background from an employee of a NASA contractor:
NASAWatch linked to a story today that NASA has an exploration plan they intend to announce shortly. Here’s a possible starting point for this plan, based on tidbits that I’ve assembled. Think of it as a “tin foil hat” scenario.
The first piece that fell into place was at “Technology Day” at JSC. One of the exhibits was about using propellant depots as an enabler for exploration space missions. The booth was manned by the civil servant that was responsible for the depot study that was leaked earlier this year, where JSC Safety & Mission Assurance endorsed depots as a safe, reliable way to enable low cost access to space. In discussion with him, he said that the past NASA opposition to them was based on a view that you had to have an unbroken string of successful flights to the depot, thus lowering mission success. However, S&MA has proposed an “n of m” model, where the probability of success for a full depot can be higher than the probability that the vehicle to be fueled gets there. He elaborated on this to say they had even pitched this as a way to bootstrap the commercial launch providers by reserving up the deliveries to them. He said they had suggested that the “m” deliveries be divided up among the two cheapest two bidders, the cheapest getting more launches. By having two providers, you guard against a vehicle being grounded for an extended time, you just exercise an option with the other provider for more missions. He also said that NASA would only pay for successful deliveries. Finally, he said that HQ had been “receptive” to the pitch.
Second, this triggered a memory of some briefings I had seen on cryocoolers for cryogenic propellants. Remember that initially, Orion was supposed to have a Methane/Oxygen main engine, the better to support ISRU at the Moon and Mars, and has a 6 month loiter time in LLO. Obviously you need good cryocoolers for that. There were hints that there was a classified program that had an LH2 cryocooler that had been tested or even flown and would work for this. So, now you have the possibility of being able to store LH2 and LOX in a depot for a long time.
Third, at an Orion program review this past summer, [a high NASA official] asked if Orion could produce two vehicles per year. (The answer was yes, btw.) He also said that NASA HQ had an exploration mission plan worked out, but it wouldn’t be released until after the election so that it wouldn’t be a political football.
Let’s put this together:
- There is no way that NASA can afford two launches per year of SLS/Orion, they can barely afford the one every 4 years in the current plan.
- NASA HQ receptive to depots. Possible off-the-shelf cryocooler available.
- The Obama administration is very supportive of SpaceX and other commercial providers. Elon Musk has said that a couple of missions/year to ISS is not enough to keep them going.
- Recent public discussion of how there is no money for payloads on SLS due to the high cost.
- Leak of L-2 orbital base idea.
My tinfoil hat leads me to believe that NASA[HQ] wants to:
- Cancel SLS and launch Orion on Delta/Atlas/Falcon
- Divert the savings from SLS to propellant depots and mission equipment
- Launch the depot and missions on commercial heavy lift launchers
- Do some kind of deep space exploration mission
While MSFC will be enraged by SLS going away, give them the propellant depot, refueling mission management, and deep space upper stages and they have cutting edge R&D work to keep them busy. It also gives the NewSpace companies something to keep the assembly lines open, and gets NASA out of the trucking business. [My emphasis]
None of this would surprise me. Here is my response:
What you’re saying is that HQ is coming or has come to their senses (assuming that they’d ever believed in SLS), and that this may become administration policy. My concern is that the money coming from SLS won’t go to the depots but will instead just be the cut for the sequestration/budget deal. The flip side of that is that any money going to Marshall for depots will be down the usual rat hole anyway. What NASA should be doing for depots is tech demos (and if they want to give a sop to Shelby to allow them to waste billions, that’s fine), but the business model should be like COTS/CCDev: have private industry build/operate the depots, and NASA pays for propellant and storage.
BTW, the argument that a depot-based approach increased mission risk was always insane, and generally just FUD to defend HLV, unless promulgated by someone technically clueless. Such people will remain nameless, except one example has the initials of MW…