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VSE Launchers: Why Recreate Something You Can Already Buy?

By Keith Cowing
August 29, 2006

Editor’s note: Many have observed that NASA is trying to recreate the capabilities already present – or easily obtainable – from private sector launch vehicles so as to implement the VSE. Specifically, capabilities exist in EELVs (Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle) for which taxpayers have already spent billions of dollars to develop. COTS is a step in the right direction, but some feel that NASA could do much, much more in utilizing existing private sector launch capabilities.

If you go to this link at ILS, register, and then click on to the “Atlas Launch System Mission Planner’s Guide”, you will find something rather interesting. Specifically, have a look at Section 8.3 “Atlas Evolution”. In this small appendix you will see descriptions of how the Atlas V could rather easily evolve to meet not just the full range of possible Ares I capabilities [“The phase 1 HLV configuration further amplifies performance, supporting 44 mT to LEO.”], but also be able to meet a substantial fraction of the Ares V’s (somewhat drifting) capabilities as well [“A phase 2 three-body HLV configuration provides 86 mT to LEO, approaching Saturn V performance.”]

Although NASA hasn’t offered even the vaguest notion of what Ares I and Ares V development will eventually cost, internal and external estimates have suggested that it will be several tens of billions of dollars.

Even if NASA had to pay several billion to further develop the Atlas V, one has to ask how many existing Atlas EELVs (and Deltas too) – as well as how many “evolved” EELVs one could buy for the same amount of money NASA is spending on Ares development. How much sooner could such a capability be available? Indeed, how much money might be left over to fix some of the draconian budget slashes Mike Griffin has been making – as well as to accelerate CEV development?

It would seem, however, that mentioning such an alternate approach is taboo – to the point of 9th floor residents at NASA HQ actively suppressing presentations on the topic by aerospace contractors at open meetings.

Stay tuned.

NASA Watch founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.