NASA's Plan B

NASA's Plan B

NASA's Plan B

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
July 3 2009 10:15 AM

NASA's Plan B

According to Discovery News, NASA has a "Plan B" program in case something happens with the Constellation program. It's an alternative way to get back to the Moon, and they made a video for it.


Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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There are some obvious advantages with taking Shuttle parts and using them in a new program. For one, the technology already exists and has been tested in well over 100 launches. For another, the machinery and manpower already exist as well, which would save billions of dollars in new development and training.

But I'm a little nervous seeing things like the same external tank being used that sheds foam on launch (in the video, the hardware mounted on the ET is protected by a fairing, but still, that doesn't thrill me), and is prone to hydrogen vent leaks, like the leak that has delayed Endeavour's launch for weeks. Second, the solid rocket boosters as they exist now are not the best tech; they are expensive and cost a lot to refurbish.

Now, it's easy for me to poopoo this; it's always easier to cast stones after the fact. Maybe this is a better idea than Constellation, and maybe not. I've never liked the Shuttle Orbiters; they are hugely overbuilt and extremely expensive. They are exquisite and amazing and all that, but from a cost/benefit point of view they're a colossal waste of money. We need cheaper access to space! So not having an Orbiter on this Plan B Moonship is a good start.

I'll be honest: I have not been able to follow all the intrigue going on with Constellation right now because it's complex and there are machinations afoot that are complicated. But I find it extremely odd that -- with only a handful of Shuttle launches left before an at least four year gap in being able to get people into space -- NASA is still presenting plans for a Shuttle substitute. Seriously, NASA: this should've been in the bag five years ago. Ten. Then we wouldn't be facing a lengthy gap where we have to rely on foreign partners to get to space, and domestic companies that, while their futures are very bright, do not have the capacity to launch people into space and won't for several years.

Still, I'd rather have alternatives discussed now rather than build an expensive and untested rocket that might prove to be another ISS or Shuttle program: bloated and unable to do most of what was initially promised.

And let me say that this very fact ticks me off. I want access to space, and I don't want a lot of corporate maneuvering and political sideshowing. But with hundreds of billions of dollars at stake and a government agency in charge, it's what we get.

I still support a return to the Moon... if done correctly. But it's things like this that make me wonder if this whole thing is a good idea on paper, but an impossibility in reality.