July 23, 2009

Interview with Ross Tierney of Direct Launch by Sander Olson

Here is an interview with Ross Tierney. Mr. Tierney is a representative of the of the Direct Launcher organization, which has a proposal to get to the moon using NASA shuttle components and other existing technology. This Jupiter rocket system could also be used to go to near-earth objects and possibly even Phobos and Mars. The Direct Launch system is based on the Jupiter rocket, which can provide all of the capabilities of the NASA Ares system in less time and at a fraction of the cost.

Question: Tell us about Direct Launcher. How did it get started, and what is its main objective?

Answer: The Direct Launcher concept began about four years ago, when I began collaborating with NASA engineers on better ways to get payloads into orbit. I put some ideas on a discussion board regarding creating a launch system based largely on shuttle and other off-the-shelf components, and some NASA engineers responded positively to them. Many of these ideas had been proposed by the NASA engineers but NASA management had not been receptive. When Mike Griffin became NASA's head, he came in with the Ares launch system proposal, which basically entails creating an entirely new series of rockets from scratch. So NASA rejected our concepts in favor of Ares. But we now have a team of 78 individuals who have devised a detailed launch system that is fundamentally superior to the Ares launch system, and we are trying to get the Obama administration and NASA to accept it.

Question: Direct Launcher's most recent analysis indicates that the Jupiter heavy lift vehicle could be developed for only $12 billion. How much confidence do you have in these cost estimates?

Answer: We are extremely confident in these estimates. Our system makes extensive use of proven hardware, such as the Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME) and booster rockets. These components have been functioning reliably for decades, and are already extensively tested and man-rated. Moreover we can take full advantage of the launch infrastructure which already exists. The Ares concept, by contrast, will require all new hardware and a new infrastructure, and that will be quite expensive in terms of both time and money.

Question: You estimate that per launch costs of a heavy-lift Jupiter will run $240 million, less than half the anticipated cost of an equivalent Ares V launch. Are these cost estimates realistic?

Answer: The Ares V heavy-lift launch vehicle is a huge rocket that will require the development of many new technologies. For example, the upper stage will need to be made of composite materials, which haven't been used on rockets before. All of our cost estimates are based on existing heritage equipment. With our Jupiter 246 rockets, we are using RL-10 engines, which have been reliably operated for four decades and are quite inexpensive. Moreover, our designs are quite robust - they can survive multiple engine failures during flight.

Question: Have any engineers found inconsistencies or flaws with your proposed designs?

Answer: None so far. We currently have 69 engineers involved with a broad range of structural experience. Besides NASA engineers, we also have private contractors involved. These individuals have comprehensively examined these plans and they are all confident in it. We also have a major contractor who has done their own study of our approach. So multiple sources have independently verified our launch system. Some within NASA have tried to portray this concept as “breaking the laws of physics”, but we find it ironic that NASA was able to make this concept work in 1991 and now tried to claim it can’t work – all because their management have their own competing proposal.

Question: What launch frequencies can be expected from these rockets? Will weekly launches be feasible with this system?

Answer: Although this system is theoretically capable of launching 24 times a year, we do not see that frequency as being realistic due to cost constraints. Even though per-unit costs go down with increasing launches, total costs still rise. But we are confident that we can launch about twelve times per year for around $4 billion. But we will also be able to launch payloads within days of each other, when the need arises.

Question: A team from Direct Launcher is meeting with NASA officials. What do you hope to accomplish with this meeting?

Answer: We have ongoing meetings with various officials. The Augustine Commission and Aerospace Corporation are in essence trying to create an objective baseline on which to evaluate all cost proposals. Although it is still preliminary we believe that the Aerospace Corporation has been able to validate our figures.

Question: To what extent could the Direct Launch system be used to launch commercial satellites?

Answer: Although this system is not appropriate for commercial launches, it could be used for a variety of tasks besides supplying the space station and sending astronauts to the moon. For instance, it could be used to launch space telescopes which could either be pointed either at space targets or earth targets. The Jupiter launch system is primarily a Government asset that will provide a capability that the commercial industry can't. But hopefully this system will provide time for the commercial launch industry to advance the technology and upgrade their capabilities.

Question: If NASA accepts your proposals, when is the earliest that a Jupiter rocket could fly? How much upfront funding is required?

Answer: We are highly confident that we will be able to send a crew to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2014. Our plan would conservatively cost about $8.3 billion, and would include three test flights before 2014.

Question: Your design relies extensively on Space Shuttle Main Engines. Aren't these engines excessively complex and expensive?

Answer: They are expensive and complex, but they have several virtues. First and foremost, they have been flying for nearly thirty years, and have established an impressive reliability record. So they are proven technology and already man-rated. Second, the specific impulse of the SSME is 453 seconds, making it one of the most efficient conventional rocket engines ever constructed. Finally, a factory to construct SSMEs already exists, so we already have the infrastructure necessary to build and maintain it. Furthermore, when one factors in economies of scale, costs go down considerably.

Question: But the SSMEs were never designed as expendable hardware.

Answer: Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, the makers of the SSME, have indicated that they will have seventeen SSMEs available after the final shuttle flight. Since each flight consumes three engines, that would last us for several years. PWR say they will require five years to modify and test the new, inexpensive, expendable versions of the SSME. These new expendable versions could cost only 2/3 as much as current versions and could be mass-produced.

Question: What avionics system will the Jupiter rockets use? The Space Shuttle avionics are obsolete.

Answer: We believe that this system will require an entirely new avionics system, and this will be the single biggest technical challenge and development cost of the program. Avionics are critically important, and current avionics systems are not adequate. So this will definitely be the largest single expense of the program. But even with this requirement, the Jupiter spacecraft could still be launched at least six months before the Orion spacecraft.

Question: What is your opinion of commercial space launchers such as SpaceX? Couldn't they provide many of the services that NASA now performs?

Answer: I am delighted to hear about the success that private space contractors such as SpaceX are achieving. These new companies are creating a competitive atmosphere that will compel established corporations to improve their designs. We hope to establish an industry in which Jupiter rockets launch spacecraft and commercial rockets launch consumables, such as fuel. That reduces the cost for space missions while providing business for these commercial rockets.

Question: What is the likelihood of NASA endorsing your vision?

Answer: We are confident that the Augustine Commission will endorse this. Our cost and performance estimates are quite conservative, and our timelines are realistic. If the Augustine Commission officially endorses the DIRECT plans and the Jupiter rocket, then NASA will have to follow the guidance of this Presidential committee. There are currently certain managers within NASA who are fixated on the Ares rocket, even though the Ares program is prohibitively expensive. If such managers are unwilling to change their opinion despite the endorsement of a Presidential committee, then perhaps there isn't a place at NASA for them any longer.

Question: If the Jupiter rocket scheme is accepted and properly funded, how will it affect space exploration during the next decade?

Answer: I see a major revolution in the space exploration industry. We could begin to explore the solar system in a serious manner. We will be able to launch massive payloads into orbit. Missions to the moon and near-earth objects will become feasible. We will also be able to lay the groundwork for missions to Phobos and Mars. It might take 20-30 years, but it will happen. This marks a radical change from the Shuttle era, when we were limited to taking extremely expensive trips to low-earth orbit. This truly represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to jump-start a new ear of exploration and eventual colonization of our solar system.

Background on Shuttle Derived Vehicles

Shuttle derived launch vehicles have been around since
before the Shuttle-C (1984-1995). I recall seeing shuttle variants since before the space shuttle
Astronautix has a excellent history with pictures of various Shuttle history and variants

Relevant Wikipedia Entries

DIRECT at wikipedia

Three major versions of the DIRECT proposal have been released with the latest, Version 3.0, having been unveiled in May 2009. On 17 June 2009, the group presented its proposal at a public hearing of the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, a panel reviewing US space efforts, in Washington, D.C.

Direct Launcher website

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