Rethinking heavy-lift launchers

In the run-up to September’s release of the results of the Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS) there was considerable debate regarding whether NASA should develop a shuttle-derived or EELV-derived heavy-lift launcher—or none at all. While NASA now plans to build the shuttle-derived heavy-lifter, Grant Bonin reexamines the case for relying instead on “medium-lifters” (where “medium” here means EELV-Heavy class vehicles, or even the SRB-based Crew Launch Vehicle) in this week’s issue of The Space Review. (This is the first of a two-part report; part two will appear next week.) Using several medium-lifters instead of a single heavy-lifter offers economies of scale and other benefits not possible with a single heavy-lifter, he argues.

While the point may seem academic now that NASA has signed off on a shuttle-derived heavy-lift launcher, keep in mind that most of that vehicle’s development will be done only after 2010, once the shuttle is retired and the CEV and CLV enter service: NASA can’t afford to develop the heavy-lifted any sooner. If there are cost overruns on the CEV and CLV, not to mention shuttle and station, don’t be surprised if NASA—particularly at some point after Griffin leaves the agency—reexamines this issue.

16 comments to Rethinking heavy-lift launchers

  • David Davenport

    If there are cost overruns on the CEV and CLV, not to mention shuttle and station, don’t be surprised if NASA—particularly at some point after Griffin leaves the agency—reexamines this issue.

    The Apollo on steroids capsule can’t fly to the Moon without a heavy lifter.

    Implication: build the capsule and a medium lifter that can support the ISS after the shuttle is retired.

    Lunar expeditions? Wait till later, much later.

  • David Davenport

    Here are my predictions:

    (1) Dr. Griffin’s and Thiokal’s Apollo on Steroids and accompanying launch missiles never get built;

    (2) We’ll try to eke the Shuttle out to 2015 or thereabouts, flying at a rate of about once every summer. Primary purpose: to show the flag and feel good. The ISS will be kept alive in a minimal, life support manner.

    (3) There will be an aggressive program of unmanned exploration of the Moon and of Mars. As part of this program, we need to develop unmanned systems that can return materials from these bodies.

    (4) If there is a manned return to the Moon, it will have to piggyback on hardware developed for unmanned lunar exploration.

    (5) A manned return to the Moon will be rather easy, but any manned trip to Mars is far off in the future.

  • Bill White

    Perhaps launching CEV on the Thiokol stick really is better for new folks like t/Space and the SpaceDev HL-20 variant.


    Down the road, Thiokol will probably have less lobbyist presence within the Beltway than either Boeing or Lockheed Martin.

    Visualize a CEV designed, deployed and flying on Delta IVH. Then visualize Benson getting his HL-20 variant to reach orbit. NASA asks Congress to de-fund the Delta IVH for crew transfer and to purchase off the shelf from SpaceDev or t/Space instead. Pentagon lobbyists and Boeing lobbyists intervene saying that NASA needs to continue flying EELV to help hold down costs for the military. Perhaps no NASA money for the alt-space crew taxi.

    Thiokol? Less lobbying clout and besides they will still be selling RSRM sticks for the HLLV. Bringing in a player for lifting CEV other than Boeing and Lockheed will make it easier to buy seats on a fixed price per ticket.

    = = =

    A cargo only version of the stick should also costs less per pound to LEO than EELV. A 4 segment SRB costs less than $50 million today. Go with an RL-10 cluster upper stage (cargo only) and and a light medium stick should be able to loft more to LEO than EELV at a far lower cost.

  • Kelly Starks

    I see a differnt set of predictions.

    1 – shuttle is grounded by 2011 regardless, possibly a few years earlier. [Its a political hot potato and expensive. Congress is already distencing itself from it, and authorized NASA to base its ISS future as Russian passengers if nothing else is avalible post shuttle.]

    2- ISS support is dubious much past 2010. Wouldn’t bet we’ld be on it at all by 2015.

    3 – Apollo on steroids seems to be DOA. NO ones jumping up to embrace it. Add in any progress on Falcons BFR Saturn class RLV, or much movement in any other commercials orbital [or lunar] projects, and Apollo on steroids would make NASA and congressional ESAS supporters look REALLY stupid. Looking stupid is politically unacceptable. Droping Maned space on the other hand has proven politically acceptable if nessisary.

    4 – Unless NASA can come up with a exciting/affordable way to return to the moon in the next couple years, VSE will be forgotten after Bush leaves office, BUT SHUTTLES PHASE OUT BY 2010 WILL NOT! So our NASA maned space program, could very likely remain as it is now – a program where NASA astrounauts fly only as passengers on other folks ships.

    Bush’s speach mentioned return to the moon as a steping stone and test area for Mars, and lunar ops would be done in a affordable and sustainable way. A near fully expendable based “Apollo on steriods” design doesn’t deliver that. What wasn’t publicly stated, was that return to the moon was a test for NASA. So far they are not passing.

  • I support the smaller launch vehicles mainly for political reasons — we have them and developing an HLLV while having enough money left over to actually fly it to the Moon or Mars is problematic, at best. It’s nice to see that there are good technical reasons, as well.

    Folks, we’ve got to do this at the lowest possible up-front cost, and worry about the optimum design once we’ve got someplace on the moon for it to go — or this ain’t ever going to happen.

    — Donald

  • Kelly Starks

    Ok, I did the classic follow a thread off the main topic.


    As to the HLV vrs MLV argument. You have to remember we currently really have no acceptable version of eiather. Costs are way to high, relyability way to low, for much significant activities in space. Virtually all current and near term maned or unmaned launchers have a 2% loss rate. That drives HLV intrest since the fewer the launchs, the less likelyhood of losing a part. Realistically, on a program on the size of a lunar base, Mars, etc; you’re launching enough that you start losing cargo and crews. At that point you lose political support. Folks wonder why crews fying to orbit are 100ish times less safe then crews flying in combat oops.

    Skiping past the above. A lot depends on is your cargo can be simply broken down into MLV sized chunks. ISS obviously couldn’t. Its not clear a return to moon could be, but Apollo on steroids could not be. If HLVs are droped, Apollo v2 will drop with them.

    Skiping that, the HLV vrs MLV debtae ignores the RLV question!! Cargo usually cost more then delivery fees, and Apollo on steriods throws everything [excluding the capsule] away. So any cost savings from a MLV fleet flying at economical rates would be buried by the cost of the throw away cargo being launched, and extra risk complexity in modular cargo. Add in the program and political complexity of coordinating a fleet of launchs and integrating them into a functional on orbit program; and the simplicity of the HLVs may well be a very big plus for NASA.

  • Bill White

    Earth to LEO is only part of the issue.

    Return to Earth from the moon involves velocities far higher than Earth orbital velocity. As it is, Soyuz needs to “skip” once to slow down before re-entry. Apollo on steroids doesn’t – – it can come straight on in and is more manueverable upon re-entry than Soyuz.

    An RLV space plane? Okay far more manueverable that CEV or Soyuz but try designing a lightweight heat shield for lunar return.

  • That drives HLV intrest since the fewer the launchs, the less likelyhood of losing a part.

    But the higher the likelihood of a launch failure being disastrous in terms of sheer amount of lost hardware.

  • I want to say one word to you. Just one word.

    Are you listening?


  • Mike Puckett

    I have another:


    Please flatulate away.

  • When you get over your infatuation with hydrocarbon combustion, you will have graduated from kindergarten, and are ready for entrance into the greater galactic civilization. Until then, you are just another ATK/Bush worshiper. ESAS : Exploring Space As Stupidly As Possible.

    FYI : HTML test :

  • Mike Puckett

    I must warn you Thomas, your Ad-Homenim tactics to which you are so happily wed will not fly over here. If you try it, Jeff will quickly bring you back to Earth. This is a moderated forum for civil discussion.

  • I can make predictions here too.

    With George Bush and Michael Griffin in charge of America’s space program, in the future, the only orbiting going on at all will be around the beltway. ESAS is that bad.

    Space Politics – an oxymoron.

    Thomas Lee Elifritz

  • DJWeston

    Keep in mind that ISS element do not fit on an EELV because they were not ** designed ** to do that. If we design the Moon elements to fit on an EELV they will fit.

    .. and please don’t mention Falcon in the same breath as an EELV. SpaceDev has a LOOOOONG way to go before they are thought of seriously.

  • …and please don’t mention Falcon in the same breath as an EELV. SpaceDev has a LOOOOONG way to go before they are thought of seriously.

    SpaceDev built Falcon? Who knew?

  • DJWeston

    SpaceDev, SpaceX, whatever.

    While I wish them the best and all the luck in the world, I think they have considerably underestimated the design and realization of a large-scale launch vehicle. It is not a linear evolution from Falcon-1 to Falcon-9.

    I was also really wishing the best for Roton, Kelly Space, and Kistler.

    If Rutan gets into the HLV business I would think he would do well. Of course, he is a good businessman and would have nothing to do with it.