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More Back To The Future
If this story is true, Orion is becoming even more Apollo-like:
Previously, the Orion was designed to land on large airbags at a landing range, although earlier hints that was no longer going to be the case came via documentation that showed a water landing - off the coast of Australia - for the Orion 3 unmanned test flight in September 2012. The first manned flight, Orion 4, was due to land at Edwards Air Force Base.
This has many program implications. Water landing has an impact on the trade as to whether to expend or reuse the crew module. Previous trades assumed a land landing, and indicated that both life cycle and per-mission cost would be much lower for reuse, assuming a certain number of flights. But if they land in water, they may not have as much confidence in their ability to refurbish. If this means going to an expendable, they just increased the marginal flight costs quite a bit. And going to hypergolics continues to delay the day that we get propellants that are both clean, and (relatively) easy to manufacture off planet, such as methane and LOX. Of course, if they're not going to refurbish, then at least they don't have to worry about servicing a hypergolic system as part of turnaround, which has always been one of the ops-cost drivers for the Shuttle.
In addition, water landing means that they have to deal with a fixed-cost recovery fleet, for a low flight rate, because I don't think they're going to get free aircraft-carrier service, as they did in Apollo.
These are the same short-sighted types of decisions that killed the Shuttle program--pinching pennies up front with potential large increases in operational costs. And all because they chose to oversize the system, and
[Update a couple minutes later]
[Update in the early afternoon]
Keith Cowing reports that PAO denies that a decision has been made. Make of that what you will...Posted by Rand Simberg at August 06, 2007 06:28 AM
Bad news on the hypergolics. I don't see why a whole carrier group is needed to recover the capsule. Could they do it with a much cheaper vessel?Posted by Gavin Mendeck at August 6, 2007 09:00 AM
I agree 100% with your sentiments. How many people are going to have to point out to NASA that the Ares-I is underpowered, before they figure it out?
And why anyone at NASA can't suck it up enough to tell ATK to go pack sand is beyond me.
They need to get the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 ready to carry Orion. They could have two launchers for the price of one.Posted by Dave G at August 6, 2007 09:05 AM
Just curious, if a carrier group recovers it, would the costs be part of the Navy's budget or NASA's?Posted by B.Brewer at August 6, 2007 09:05 AM
I don't see why a whole carrier group is needed to recover the capsule. Could they do it with a much cheaper vessel?
Perhaps they could. Keep in mind that a carrier group (carriers don't operate alone as a rule) is pretty self-sufficient with radar tracking, helicopters, cranes, medical facilities, etc. It would be possible to put all of that on a single ship to handle the recovery but how much would that cost verses using existing ships?
Many of those early Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions weren't all that accurate at hitting their designated landing zones (especially Mercury). Would going with a single ship lead to longer response times (or will Orion be significantly more accurate than those earlier capsules)?Posted by Larry J at August 6, 2007 10:05 AM
Maybe they could make the landing target Clear lake in Houston? A lot closer to home then in the middle of the Pacific.
And yes I'm joking.Posted by tps at August 6, 2007 11:23 AM
Rand, I don't understand this statement:
But if they land in water, they may not have as much confidence in their ability to refurbish.
Why so? Is salt water really that much more damaging to the hardware than, say, re-entry itself? Is it really not possible to make the capsule pretty resistant for the few hours it would have to stand up to the stuff?Posted by Carl Pham at August 6, 2007 12:57 PM
Also: why do they need a fleet to recover the craft and crew? For Apollo, it was a national prestige thing, there were worries about Andromeda Strain space bugs, plus there were nontrivial national security issues surrounding the craft and the bigshots who would meet them, so OK they sent a whole carrier group. But why does that apply now?
I understand you need to get the crew out fairly expeditiously, but why does that need more than a Coast Guard cutter with a helicopter pad on the back? Plus a converted freighter with a big hoist to haul up the capsule.Posted by Carl Pham at August 6, 2007 01:04 PM
I understand you need to get the crew out fairly expeditiously, but why does that need more than a Coast Guard cutter with a helicopter pad on the back? Plus a converted freighter with a big hoist to haul up the capsule.
Just because they needed a fleet of ships back in the old days doesn't necessarily mean they need that many ships today. Modern Navy ships are a lot more capable today. Depending on where they splash down, a Coast Guard cutter might not be the best choice (I'm thinking deep blue water instead of relatively near the coasts). A ship like an Aegis cruiser might be sufficent. It already has an outstanding radar system that can track the spacecraft during the final stages of reentry. It can also carry a helicopter or two. I don't know what kind of medical facilities they have on board but you could probably augment it with a flight surgeon or two for the recovery. I suspect an Aegis cruiser would already have a crane sufficient for the job but I don't really know. It shouldn't be too hard to find out.
As for the concerns about reusing a capsule that has been dropped into salt water, I can understand the concerns about corrosion. This applies not only to the capsule structure but to the internals of the avionics. The Navy has generations of experience at protecting vehicles and avionics against salt water corrosion. I don't know how difficult it would be to apply these lessons to a spacecraft.Posted by Larry J at August 6, 2007 01:53 PM
Is salt water really that much more damaging to the hardware than, say, re-entry itself?
It's thought to be, in terms of potential corrosion. And the heat shield may be expendable in any event.
Is it really not possible to make the capsule pretty resistant for the few hours it would have to stand up to the stuff?
It probably is, but it's never been done before (except by Truax) and NASA is notoriously risk averse. The problem is how to get confidence that it wouldn't cause a problem. Safer to simply use a new vehicle.Posted by Rand Simberg at August 6, 2007 02:34 PM
The salt water is not the issue. The issue is costs vs. performance. Orion was supposed to be able to drop on land or water. Land is much cheaper because your vehicles and manpower are far cheaper to operate.
The "improved" Orion also was supposed to get green propellants, instead of toxic hypergolics. Makes capsule recovery that much more hazardous (and expensive).
It all boils down to sacrificing weight by spending more in operational costs, simply because NASA won't budge from using the underperforming "Stick" as their booster.
I'd like to take the "Stick" and stick someone at NASA up the backside with it.Posted by Dave G at August 6, 2007 02:35 PM
To recover a big capsule, you need a big helicopter.
That requires a big helicopter carrier, at a minimum. I don't think there's any commercial ship that meets those specs.
The cheapest solution might be to hire the Russian Navy, but NASA would not do that for political reasons.
They could just use a crane, as Larry suggests, but then they'd run a significant risk of the capsule being lost before the ship can steam over and pick it up.
Safer to simply use a new vehicle.
Well, yeah. Could it be cheaper, too? I know you're always on about economies of scale and re-use, but there are certain industries where it doesn't quite work out that way. Consider cell phones and other light electronics, for example. Turns out to be cheaper overall to make them essentially unrepairable and just replace them every few years.
Maybe they could take the most expensive parts of the craft to build -- avionics modules, crew seats, something like that -- and just pull those parts out of the craft, then put them in a new skin and attach new heat shield? Throw away the salt-encrusted exterior.
I mean, isn't it reasonable to wonder whether the big cost is specialized labor for refurbishing or remanufacturing your vehicle, rather than the price of materials? If you can get some kind of mindless assembly-line system going where cheap unskilled labor from China can turn out the parts and equally cheap Mexican sweatshops can put the pieces together reliably -- as happens with disk drives and stuff -- wouldn't that solve the problem?Posted by Carl Pham at August 6, 2007 05:01 PM
Consider cell phones and other light electronics, for example. Turns out to be cheaper overall to make them essentially unrepairable and just replace them every few years.
"Every few years" is not the same as "after one use."
You might want to consider what a phone call would cost if you had to replace your cell phone after one call -- and the system infrastructure could only accomodate five or six calls a year.
If you can get some kind of mindless assembly-line system going where cheap unskilled labor from China can turn out the parts and equally cheap Mexican sweatshops can put the pieces together reliably -- as happens with disk drives and stuff -- wouldn't that solve the problem?
No, it wouldn't. If it did, Soyuz flights would be $200,000 instead of $20 million.
In this case, however, I'm not sure it makes much difference. Whether a capsule is designed to crash down in salt water or in the desert, the gee loads will be a pretty high ("splashdown" is a euphemism) and the hardware will take quite a beating.
Moreover, if NASA intends to keep flying Orion capsules for 40 years (as Griffin says), they will maintain the assembly plant, all the suppliers suppliers, and a trained workforce for 40 years. If they're already paying for that, the cost difference between building two capsules a year (the expendable case) and building one or two capsules a decade (the "reusable" case) will be relatively small.Posted by Edward Wright at August 6, 2007 05:55 PM
Keith Cowing reports that PAO denies that a decision has been made. Make of that what you will...
"Make of that what you will.. ?
Direct quotes from Horowitz and Cooke - on the record - and you are still not satisfied?Posted by Keith Cowing at August 6, 2007 05:56 PM
Keith, I think Rand is doubting that NASA's left hand knows what their right hand is doing. He's not disparaging your work, research and reporting, nor the gentlemen quoted. If the State Department is "Foggy Bottom", NASA is "The Foggy Highlands".Posted by Stewart at August 6, 2007 07:50 PM
Alan Shepard's Mercury capsule and Gemini 8 were both recovered by destroyers, War World II Era FRAM conversions if I recall.
The two ships currently handling the SRB recovery could easily handle the CEV as well, or any of a number of commercial salvage vessels world wide that are cleared to do contract work for the Navy.
Also the Blue Gemini capsule in the USAF museum was flown twice into space, so reuse is possible after a water landing if its desogned into it. It will probably be easier the what the Columbia had to go through after its White Sands landing.
Posted by at August 6, 2007 07:54 PM
That was my comment above.
Tom MatulaPosted by Thomas Matula at August 6, 2007 07:55 PM
Mercury - 2.500 pounds
You aren't going to lift an Orion with anything less than a CH-53. and you aren't going to operate a CH-53 from a destroyer.
The two ships currently handling the SRB recovery could easily handle the CEV as well,
I'm sure the astronauts will love that, given the number of SRBs that sink before being recovered.
If you think search and rescue at sea is such a breeze, you should talk to the Navy and Coast Guard.Posted by Edward Wright at August 6, 2007 09:18 PM
Keith's report may have made all of this moot, but if Orion has the landing precision that is being claimed (and it had better for landing on land) then it can splash down close to a convenient coast and be picked up by land based choppers.Posted by Mark R. Whittington at August 6, 2007 10:09 PM
If the Orion capsule lands at sea, the Navy will probably use an amphibious warfare ship such as an LHA or LPD to recover the spacecraft. The Navy won't have to detour an entire carrier task force for the job.Posted by Brad at August 6, 2007 11:33 PM
Edward, why do you assume the capsule needs to be picked up by a helicopter? The crew may need to be, yes, but why is it hard to rescue 4-5 guys from a calm sea with a helicopter?
As for pulling up the capsule itself, I don't think lifting a mere 10 tons aboard a ship with a shipboard crane is difficult. Here, for example, is a dinky 40m research vesel sporting a 7.5 ton capacity winch, and here is a slightly meatier craft, a 225 foot Coast Guard cutter that has a 20-ton hydraulic crane with a 60 foot boom. Sounds like it would have no problem picking up a capsule and swinging it on board.Posted by Carl Pham at August 7, 2007 02:03 AM
A Wikipedia article (take that for what it's worth) states that they quit using helicopters to lift the capsules during the Mercury program.
On early Mercury flights, a helicopter attached a cable to the capsule, lifted it from the water and delivered it to a nearby ship. This was changed after the sinking of Liberty Bell 7. All later Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules had a flotation collar (similar to a rubber life raft) attached to the spacecraft to increase their buoyancy. The spacecraft would then be brought alongside a ship and lifted onto deck by crane.
After the flotation collar is attached, a hatch on the spacecraft is usually opened. At that time, some astronauts decide to be hoisted aboard a helicopter for a ride to the recovery ship and some decided to stay with the spacecraft and be lifted aboard ship via crane. (Because of his overshoot aboard Aurora 7, and mindful of the fate of Liberty Bell 7, Scott Carpenter alone egressed through the nose of his capsule instead of through the hatch, waiting for recovery forces in his life raft.) All Gemini and Apollo flights (Apollos 7 to 17) used the former, while Mercury missions from Mercury 6 to Mercury 9, as well as all Skylab missions and Apollo-Soyuz used the latter, especially the Skylab flights as to preserve all medical data.
This source shows the Apollo 11 capsule being lifted by a crane to the elevator of the USS Hornet.
If you were going to use a helicopter to lift the capsule, it'd need to be a big one like the CH-53E. That would require a big ship. However, history shows there is little need to use a helicopter to do the job. A 20+ ton crane on an Aegis cruiser should be sufficient (if one exists - I have not found any references that say whether those ships carry a crane or not.)
Keith's report may have made all of this moot, but if Orion has the landing precision that is being claimed (and it had better for landing on land) then it can splash down close to a convenient coast and be picked up by land based choppers.
In the past, orbital mechanics dictated the planned splashdown points for the Apollo missions returning from the moon. IIRC, all of them landed in the Pacific Ocean. You have a lot more flexiblity for spacecraft returning from Earth orbit.Posted by Larry J at August 7, 2007 09:04 AM
As usual you make assumptions. The Gemini 8 did not use helicopter recovery. The capsule was hosited aboard the U.S.S Leonard F. Mason with both astronauts still on board since it was felt to be safer then having then leave the capsule first.
And I do have friends that work in Navy salvage (I live in San Diego Remember?) They indicated that objects that size are handled on a regular basis by salvage vessels, commercial and military. It would be no big deal to professionals. You forget there are specialize salvage ships used in the oil industry capable of pulling entire destroyers out of the water, witness the U.S.S. Cole. NASA could just contract it out to a commercial firm if they wish to do so as its not that big deal as far as marine salvage goes.
Helicopter carriers groups were used during Apollo for security as much as any other reason as it provided a means of securing the landing zone to prevent foreign ships from "rescue" of the astronauts. Remember, it was the Cold War. And a slong as you have a helicopter carrier available you might as well use it.
Posted by Thomas Matula at August 7, 2007 01:51 PM
Edward, why do you assume the capsule needs to be picked up by a helicopter?
Because it's very hard to reuse a capsule if it takes on water and sinks? You're going to need to open the hatch to take the crew off, and a space capsule makes a very poor boat.
The crew may need to be, yes, but why is it hard to rescue 4-5 guys from a calm sea with a helicopter?
Why was the most high-tech search in history unable to locate a 40-foot yacht with a radio beacon, in clear, calm weather, just off the coast of San Francisco?
Because operations at sea are hard, that's why, and search and rescue operations are no exception.
As for pulling up the capsule itself, I don't think lifting a mere 10 tons aboard a ship with a shipboard crane is difficult. Here, for example, is a dinky 40m research vesel sporting a 7.5 ton capacity winch,
Can this research vessel do 130 knots?
If you think a yacht with a crane can replace an entire carrier group, you should ask yourself why no on thought of that in the 1960's.
Tom: Why didn't your salvage friends offer to locate and pick up Elon Musk's missing first stage? Since you say it's "no big deal"...
Salvaging the Cole is hardly a valid comparison, Tom. The Cole was anchored in a harbor, not drifting at sea.
Posted by Edward Wright at August 7, 2007 10:13 PM
But if cranes were good enough to pull out the Apollo capsules, why do we suddenly need a helicopter to recover Orion? You're putting an artificial constraint on the recovery process.Posted by Larry J at August 8, 2007 07:27 AM
Will splashdown be accurate enough to use one of the Great Lakes?Posted by Anonymous at August 13, 2007 07:19 AM
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