Thursday, February 24, 2011

NASA's Exploration Mothership

(First a quick apology for lack of updates lately, both here and on the main site. I've been caught up in that whole 'earning a living' thing lately and that's been sapping time away from OV. Hopefully things will calm down soon.)

Its big. Its ugly. Its as graceful as a swan glued to an anvil.

I love it.

Its NASA's proposed Nautilus X ("Non-Atmospheric Universal Transport Intended for Lengthy United States eXploration"), an idea put forth by the NASA Technology Applications Assessment Team at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. You can read more about the details in THIS recent Blog.

Basically, it replicates ISS in over all design using cheaper components, attaches rockets and more up-to-date supplementary systems, and sends it cruising on long-term missions. Proponents say that it could be built for $4 billion dollars and be ready by 2020. Realistically, we know that all initial budget and time estimates are significantly low-balled, so let's say it would really cost 3 times that ($12 billion) and would take as long to build and assemble as the ISS, which means 15-20 years with an earliest launch date of say, 2025.

It would still be more than worth it, in my opinion.

This is EXACTLY the approach to long-range manned exploration we should be focusing on. A larger robust, customizable, reusable habitat that can use reasonable propulsion technologies. This is in contrast to the super-compact vehicles where most of the emphasis is on the engine rather than what keeps the astronauts alive and healthy. The idea behind the latter is that if you can get astronauts to and from their destination sufficiently fast enough, you needn't bother with advanced habitat systems.

But the reality of both the vast distances in space, as well as our own near-future technological limitations (no warp drives or antimatter rockets any time soon. Sadly,) would seem to dictate the former approach. We HAVE to get used to the idea that if you want to go anywhere interesting beyond the Earth-Moon system, you're going to be spending a long time getting there. And that's just for manned exploration. Trying for economic exploitation such as construction or mining will require even more capable long-term mobile habitats.

Astronauts in these situations don't need cramp capsules attached to gigantic rockets, as many deep space proposals have posited, such as those to send astronauts to an asteroid or even to Mars in nothing more than two linked Orion capsules. They need actual ships that they can properly live and work on for months at a time. If you were trying to cross the Atlantic, it wouldn't matter how big a motor you attached to a canoe, because in the end it would still be a canoe, and poorly designed to handle the rigors of transoceanic travel. But if you had a big enough ship, travelling slower wouldn't be that big a deal, and you would be much better prepared to handle unforeseen circumstances.

This analogy I think very much applies to space travel, and why an idea like the Nautilus X is a big step forward. If we want to go back to the Moon, to an asteroid, even beyond to Mars or Venus, having an actual reusable ship that can do all that in succession makes more sense than building a new ship for each task. Plus the Nautilus is designed to be modular, and can be modified and updated through it operational lifetime.

But whether anyone at NASA will take the Nautilus-X seriously and moved forward with it is another matter. The space community is nothing if not traditionalist and slow to change, not only in their methods but in their modes of thinking about space exploration in general. Let's hope that won't be the case this time.