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The US will conquer deep space with Russian engines
by Konstantin Bogdanov for RIA Novosti
Moscow (RIA Novosti) Sep 21, 2011

The U.S. will conquer deep space with Russian engines. Image courtesy RIA Novosti. Sergey Piatakov.

The United States has announced it is developing a heavy rocket for deep space expeditions. It might use Russian-made engines which is the result of house-cleaning in the U.S. space industry.

On Wednesday, NASA reported that it had chosen a design for a new carrier rocket called the Space Launch System (SLS), which will send future American spacecraft on missions to explore the solar system.

"This launch system will ... ensure continued U.S. leadership in space, and inspire millions around the world," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden as he made a public presentation of the project. So, with the Shuttles retired in the summer of 2011, the Americans are lining up something new.

Successor to Saturn
So NASA claims to have developed a new heavy carrier rocket. The new rocket's predecessor was the Saturn V, designed by Wernher von Braun. It was Saturn rockets that launched U.S. Apollo spacecraft on their missions to the moon.

The two rockets have something in common. The SLS will be able to deliver 70 metric tons of payload to low Earth orbit and, with an additional stage, to lift up to 130 metric tons.

Its first stage will be equipped, in different configurations, with three to five RS-25D/T engines - modifications of cruise engines installed on the Shuttles. But the second stage brings us back to Wernher von Braun's brainchild. This stage is scheduled to use a J-2X engine - an improved version of the J-2, which powered the Saturns of the 1960s.

The new design also incorporates detachable side rocket boosters. The original idea was to use solid-fuel boosters. The U.S. team has experience with the technology used in such booster sections from the Shuttle days. These boosters are a tried and tested solution and this is their advantage.

But this approach has been challenged by an opposition that stresses the need to use cutting-edge technology through competition in the industry. This group is headed by a consortium of Aerojet developers and Teledyne engine makers.

Aerojet is known for developing another promising U.S. carrier: the Taurus II. It is a light rocket that has evolved from a solid-fueled commercial booster for launching small satellites. One point is that the Taurus II was expected to use Russian NK-33 rocket engines. In the mid-1990s, Aerojet procured about forty of these engines at the giveaway price of $1 million a piece.

But the Taurus II has a murky future, while such a mammoth project as the SLS has political guarantees. Aerojet says it can redesign the AJ-26 (the name given by the firm to its NK-33s), start production and develop an oxygen-jet fuel booster for the SLS based on the AJ-26.

However, the chances of such an extravagant design being accepted are small, not only because the idea is a bit exotic but also for political reasons.

Political remains of Constellation
The current SLS program is in effect a compromise between available U.S. technology and production facilities, on the one hand, and some solutions produced by the long-suffering Constellation program, on the other.

The Constellation project was launched in 2004 by George Bush and was to answer some serious questions, one of which was: with what will the U.S. space industry replace the Shuttle? The project included a line-up of new carrier rockets (Ares) and a new reusable launch vehicle (Orion). One of the announced objectives was to carry Americans back to the moon - in a confirmation of national priorities in space.

But as time went on, the Congress failed to increase funding, and ever more controversial technological solutions came up, while the project itself became an increasing mix of various objectives, with development and testing costs soaring. The expert community resented the extravagance.

The upshot was that, under devastating criticism from engineering experts, astronauts and politicians, the Constellation slowly devolved into a project of least resistance and lowest possible costs.

Everybody gradually understood that the Ares had no future: the project received its share of scrutiny from the critics, including what U.S. specialists believed were unacceptable vibrations at launch, which posed a safety risk for the astronauts. The high price tag for placing a payload into orbit also came up.

It is commonly believed that the project was buried by Barack Obama. But it was in effect a general house-cleaning of the industry rather than a burial.

The Obama administration injected a dose of sober pragmatism into Bush's eclectic views. Originally, the Constellation was a case of apples and oranges, mixing commercial low-orbit launches and long-range exploration missions: both of which were to use the same basic technology. Now these two objectives will be separated.

On the other hand, to reduce costs, the White House increasingly demanded that the new space program be a close follow-up to existing solutions. This concerned not only technology (Saturn and Shuttle engines) but also established manufacturers and ground launch infrastructure.

Setting priorities
The date of the first launch of the new U.S. rocket is cautiously set for 2018. Of course, the ambitious project is a grand design and vital for staging a comeback to the moon or exploring the solar system. But orbital flights are a necessity today: the Space Shuttles retired last summer never to return.

Upcoming launch vehicles include the Falcon IX rocket, developed by Elon Musk's SpaceX startup, which is now breathing down the neck of the SLS. The same firm is also close to finishing its Dragon spacecraft. It has been tested it in an unmanned mode and is being prepared to make a trial linkup with the ISS at the end of the year.

All this fully fits with Washington's strategy for the development of the space program, one that reformatted the Constellation project. Commercial launches of people and payloads will be left to private operators. The military will have a niche too.

NASA, on the other hand, will concern itself with heavy SLS vehicles and spacecraft meant for deep space research. So when Barack Obama was conjuring up fantastic pictures of missions to Mars built on the "ruins" of the Constellation program, he was not far from the truth. The implementation may not be perfect, but the underlying goal is designated with striking clarity and precision.

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

Source: RIA Novosti

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