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Lack Of Confidence


NASA is actually considering abandoning ISS until they can resolve the safety issues surrounding the Soyuz currently docked there (and in general).

This whole fiasco reveals a fundamental design (in fact conceptual) flaw of the station from the beginning (one that was shared by the Shuttle)--a lack of redundancy and resiliency. NASA had the hubris to think that they could design and build a single vehicle type that could not only have the flexibility to satisfy all of the nation's (and much of the world's) needs for transport to and from space, but do so with confidence that it would never have cause to shut down (and remove our ability to access LEO). They learned the foolishness of this notion in 1986, with the Challenger loss.

Similarly, they decided to build a manned space station, that would be all things to all people--microgravity researchers, earth observations, transportation node, hotel--because they didn't think that they could afford more than one, and so they have no resiliency in their orbital facilities, either. If something goes wrong with the station, everyone has to abandon it, with nowhere to go except back to earth.

Having multiple stations co-orbiting, with an in-space crew transport vehicle (which could serve as a true lifeboat) was never considered, though the cost wouldn't necessarily have been that much higher had it been planned that way from the beginning (there would have been economies of scale by building multiple facilities from a single basic design). That would have been true orbital infrastructure.

Instead, we have a single fragile (and ridiculously expensive) space station supported by a single fragile (and ridiculously expensive) launch system, with only the Russian Soyuz as a backup. And because there is no place nearby to go, if there's a problem on the station, everyone has to come home, and the crew size is thus limited by the size of the "lifeboat," (which is a "lifeboat" only in the sense that it is relied on for life--in actuality, it's much more than that. It's as if the "lifeboats" of the Titanic had to be capable of delivering their passengers all the way to New York or Southampton).

And now we can't trust the backup, and we have no lifeboat at all.

Now that the ISS is almost complete, it is capable of supporting the Shuttle orbiter on orbit for much longer periods of time by providing power, so its orbital lifetime is no longer constrained by fuel cell capacity. But it's still not practical to leave an orbiter there full time, because a) with only three left, we don't have a big enough fleet to do so without impacting turnaround time for the others and b) we're not sure how long it's capable of staying safely without (say) freezing tires or causing other problems, because the vehicle wasn't designed for indefinite duration in space.

So as a result of flawed decisions made decades ago, NASA is in a real quandary. They can leave the crew up there, and cross their fingers that a) nothing goes wrong that requires an emergency return and b) that if the return is required, the Soyuz will work properly. Or they can abandon the station until they resolve the Soyuz issues (something over which they have absolutely no control, and will have to trust the Russians).

Sucks to be them.

[Update a few minutes later]

Not that it solves this immediate problem, but Flight Global has a conceptual rendering of a European crew transportation system (presumably based on the ATV) that could (in theory) be available within a decade.

[Another update]

Here's more on ATV evolution, over at today's issue of The Space Review.

[One more thought, at 11 AM EDT]

NASA doesn't seem to have learned the lesson of Shuttle and ISS, because Constellation has exactly the same problem--a single vehicle type for each phase of the mission. If Altair is grounded, we can't land on the moon. If the EDS has problems, we can't get into a trans-lunar orbit. If something goes wrong with Orion, or Ares, the program is grounded. Why aren't there Congressional hearings, or language in an authorization bill, about that?


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Daveon wrote:

Gosh. Let the record show that there is a Blue Moon and I completely agree with a Rand Simberg post in it's entirety.

David A. Young wrote:

Well, we did have additional cubic under pressure, but it was deemed politically expedient to de-orbit it. It wasn't seen as back-up, but as competition. Actually, we have a history of doing that type of thing. Never leave a bridge unburned, would seem to be NASA's philosophy.

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This page contains a single entry by Rand Simberg published on May 19, 2008 5:53 AM.

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