There was the Space Shuttle, and it flew, and it was beautiful. But on a cold January day in 1986, it fell from the sky and killed seven astronauts. We got it flying again, but then we started looking at heavy-lift unmanned launch vehicles.
First there was Shuttle-C, C for cargo. Same boosters and engines as the Shuttle, but with an expendable module. There was even talk of recycling the External Tanks into Space Station parts. It seemed doable, and we wanted to make it work. But we saved weight with the aluminum-lithium External Tank to launch more cargo on the regular Shuttle, and Shuttle-C was cancelled.
Then there was Advanced Launch System, or ALS. We heard a lot about it, but it never seemed to get far off the drawing board. It was cancelled. We sighed and moved on to the National Launch System. This was going to have a simpler version of the Space Shuttle Main Engine, which actually did lead to the Rocketdyne RS-68 engine. We struggled and argued with one particular manager who was perfectly fine with the status quo despite a glaring problem with weight and balance – we’d just solve that “later”. Later never came. We changed Presidents and then administrators, and NLS soon followed ALS into File #13.
Then there was the Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle. Over budget and nowhere near off the drawing board, cancelled. The Magnum Launch System. I don’t think it got out of the Advanced Concepts office before it, too, was canned.
Then there was Single Stage to Orbit, or X-33. The neat-o keen composite tank blew up during testing, and that was that.
Ares. I never had a warm fuzzy feeling about Ares. Why would I? Look at the wreckage of blown budgets, drawings that never made it to the machine shop, study after bleepin’ study through the years. But we put our heads down and tried to color inside the lines and do our parts, and we hoped that it would all work out. I think that was what concerned me the most – the managers had many a glib speech (loved the one by the manager who then retired two weeks later), but we never really saw it coming together.
And now SLS. Derided as the Senator Launch System for the politicians who keep it funded.
But then I see this.
That’s the adapter that will go between the Orion capsule and a Delta IV rocket, having just finished structural load testing.
I want to believe it will fly, and there will be more to follow. On the negative side, I see budget battles and n00b engineers and moving launch dates. On the positive side, I touched flight hardware. I did a science on this. We need a replacement for the Shuttle so we can have heavy lift capability and stop hitching rides with the Russians. (Oh, and didn’t all those stories about the Sochi Olympics make you feel good about sending our astronauts over there.)
I want to believe. I really do.
Dammit, don’t break my heart again.