Thursday, June 18, 2009

Shuttle Kvetch

Two possible versions of Shuttle-C.

Anyone who knows me, or who's read this blog, should
know that I love anything that flies, from paper
airplanes and match rockets to the Voyager probes
currently coasting in intersellar space.
I don't hate NASA, or the Shuttle. As those of us who
know anything about it know, the blame isn't all on
NASA's shoulders. For the sake of brevity [too late]
NASA will do for now.
Part of this first rant is going to spill onto the
International Space Station as well. More on the ISS
in the next installment.

I am mad at NASA for the way they screwed up the
shuttle program nearly every step of the way, until
it's admittedly too late to do anything about it.
What angers me most is that it's an obviously modular
system, and yet this is the most underutilized
feature of the system.

Ok class... who here knows that the original strap-on
boosters were supposed to be hybrid motors?
Huh, what happened? I admit I'm a hybrid proponent,
bigtime, but that floored me when I found out.
Hybrid motors are great because they are a lot simpler
and cheaper than liquid fuel boosters, and broadly
speaking, a LOT safer than liquid OR solid boosters. A
hybrid is vastly simplier than a bi-liquid system and
doesn't carry all that liquid kerosene or hydrogen that
makes such a pretty fireball. While a hybrid is more
complicated and heavier than an all solid rocket motor,
it's still safer because, if there's a problem, you can
shut them off.
Unfortumately, Hybrid tech was still very immature at
the time, it would still be a few years before AMROC
tested their big ones, and those weren't big enough.
However, there was no reason the shuttle couldn't fly
on solids initially, while Hybrid R&D was fast tracked.
Modular remember? The Hybrid strap-on boosters might've
been flying in time to avert the Challenger disaster.

After Challenger, NASA and Rockwell put heads together
and decided what improvements to make before building
a replacement orbiter. Bravo!
Of course having a large inventory of huge orbiter
components in storage helped speed construction. Endeavor
really is a B model orbiter. The other 3 orbiters received
the same upgrades wherever possible. After Endeavor flew,
and the fleet upgrades were finished, they should've sat
down AGAIN and planned an even better orbiter. Not just a
Challenger replacement, or 2nd Endeavor, but an eventual
fleet replacement, or supplement. Maybe a real departure
from the earlier orbiters, certainly more maintainable.
Modular!! As these new orbiters came on line, the older
units could be retired to museums. Read COLUMBIA!!!
If NASA had done this, the fleet would still be modern,
if not cutting edge, today. Hell, this still could've
[should've] been done when the SSTO initiative fell through.

At some time NASA had plans for Shuttle C. This would've
been an unmanned wingless cargo version. Little more than
a cargo bay with motors and guidance. Three reasons for
building it were to be able to fly heavier or larger loads
when needed, like station segments, and to reduce man hours
in space when not needed. Third would be hazardous payloads.
After Challenger, liquid fueled payload boosters were
outlawed for the shuttle for crew safety reasons, reducing
the types of missions STS could support.
Using Shuttle-C, station segments would be released in orbit
near the station, then crews would retrieve them for
assembly. Before the station was manned, they would've placed
2-3 modules in orbit, then sent up a manned orbiter, with
supplies and other components, to do assembly. Of course,
today the segments might be docked autonomously.
I always thought you could make even bigger station segments,
and attach the guidance/thruster package, and motor pack to
the segment couplers at each end, then fly it in place of an
orbiter. The flight components would be removed and saved,
eventually flying home in an orbiter cargo bay for reuse.
Of course either scenario assumes you want the STS system
involved in boosting the major station components anyway.
Read Saturn!!
The shuttle bay is dinky compared to a Skylab, and Skylab
was no strain on the Saturn V. I do not advocate resurrecting
the Saturns after all this time, they really are dinosaurs now.
I am saying we should never have fully retired them.
Incremental improvements have kept Atlas, Delta and Titan in
the air longer than Saturn's been on paper.

Plenty of folks like to second guess NASA and I'm genuinely
sorry to be lumped in with them. However I've had these opinions
for years, and even shared them with a few NASA engineers, who
happened to agree. Not just because I'm a size 2 1/2 biker
maniac either. It feels good to finally write and post this.

I'm sure this post could still use more editing, but if I held
onto it any longer it would turn into a book.


  1. Another coincidence creaps up at the Lab.
    It's been years since anyone but me mentions Shuttle-C. The magazine pic above is over 10years old.
    5 days after the above post is made [6-23-09], I'm reading a news report about the Catherine Commission's ongoing review of NASA's progress towards future manned spaceflight goals. Alternate approaches and hardware were discussed as well. This included mention of Shuttle-C.
    However, the current version is a booster stage and cargo to ride in parallel aboard the existing shuttle tank and strap-ons instead of the orbiter, like Shuttle-C would've, but for the sake of expediancy, with no reusability.

    Well, that's modular anyway. If it came to pass, improvements like reusability might still come later.

  2. One of 2009's top blog posts in any genre so far, in my humble opinion.

    Did you hear that some dudes built a brand-new Horten flying wing (jet) to test it's Inherent Nazi Stealthiness, etc, and that this potentially sweet show will be on the National Geographic Channel tonight??? (Sunday June 28th).
    I will try to remember to record it using the obsolete VHS format which somehow continues to do it's job, but you might want to arrange your schedule to see it live.

  3. Thanks Keith,
    Shuttle Kvetch was a labor of love.

    I love the Horton brothers too.
    As I recall the Ho IX, which went into production, had plywood outer wings.
    It would be quite stealthy to radar in most aspects, except the compressor faces head on.
    I [an amatuer] could improve it's stealthiness manyfold with minor rebuilding. Industry pro's
    could make it disappear.

    Is that a dinner invite?

  4. The Poop: Northrop/Grumman's stealth model shop built a non-flying Horten 229, then hoisted it up onto their RCS pylon and shot it with many different wavelengths of radar including what England was using in WWII.
    Compressors, nose and canopy frame returned the worst, the rest was pretty good.
    Net result = 20% reduction in detection range at high altitude, however at 50' above the channel and going 600mph the Brits would have had only 2 minutes warning.
    They extrapolated that the "America Bomber" loaded with nukes would have only given 8 minutes of warning before hitting NYC or Washington DC. Scary.