Not-really-NASA's secret shadow rocket

By Phil Plait | July 15, 2008 11:24 am

I read with interest a news article on Yahoo about a group of engineers at NASA who are concerned that the Ares rockets being designed right now aren’t up to the task of getting America back into space after the Shuttle retires. They’re so concerned, in fact, that they have been designing and building their own secret rocket!

Called the Jupiter, the rocket is being worked on in the off-hours of NASA engineers. They’re keeping their identities secret for fear of being fired. However, their work is getting some attention from the media (like the Orlando Sentinel and Universe Today, which I just happened to see as I was drafting this post).

I think this is fine. In fact, I hope that this lives up to the hype! I like NASA just fine, but it’s a government agency, and it tends to pad — sometimes very generously — the machinery it builds to help spread the pork around. The Space Shuttle was billed as a "space truck", able to launch dozens of times per year and costing less than other methods of getting to space. How did that work out for NASA, hmmm? The space station was supposed to be for science, and to help us as a stepping stone to the Moon and planets. Right.

And Ares, the new rockets designed to get big payloads to low Earth orbit, to the Moon, and beyond, looks good on paper, but who knows how this will really work out? I think some competition — especially from the inside — may very well spur NASA to rethink what it’s doing, and that’s not such a bad thing. This may turn out to be nothing more than some big dreamers, or it may be more like Salvage-1, but either way I don’t have any problem with people casting a critical eye towards NASA’s plans.

I want us in space, and I want us there to stay. Maybe NASA will be the ones to do it. Maybe it’ll be China, or India, or Space X, or Virgin Galactic. But this needs to be done right, and the only way to do that is to keep being skeptical, keep being critical, and make sure that promises made are promises kept.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Space

Comments (39)

  1. Michelle

    That’s bold. Really bold. I hope these guys don’t get caught… but then again, they’ll have to talk someday.

  2. Kind of looks like the Shuttle External Tank/Booster set up with a capsule on top! Good luck to them, although I don’t know how they could possibly develop this without major funding. So, Michelle, eventually the cat will be out of the bag.

  3. I just read the UT article, and apparently it is the same set up as the Shuttle. Makes sense.

  4. Michael L:

    Kind of looks like the Shuttle External Tank/Booster set up with a capsule on top!

    Well, with the motto “safer, simpler, sooner”, it makes sense to use existing technology where practical.

    (Note: I haven’t read the rest of the website yet. This is just a first impression.)

  5. Ken, I just read the UT article, and that’s exactly what it is. The External Tank, modified with engines, and the SRB’s. NASA claims that they are too far along with Ares now to change plans, even though this looks and sounds far superior. It will be able to lift more to orbit, and get more out of orbit cheaper and faster. They say that there will only be a 3 year gap for this Jupiter system, as opposed to a 5 year gap for Ares/Orion. Plus it will save $19 Billion. NASA says, “no.”

    Politics, anyone?

    Phil, one of the original rockets to launch satellites back in the late ’50’s was also called “Jupiter.”

  6. AC

    Hey, we used to do this where i worked previously.

    We called it our ‘lunchtime project’. Spend a hour a day working on something, and the other 8hrs a day thinking about it, while working on work stuff.

    Its amazing what gets done in a week of 5hrs work

  7. Don Wiseman

    Back in the Gemini/Apollo days, this attitude was officially discouraged and unofficially encouraged. As a result many design improvements, hardware and software, were achieved with minimum cost. We got to the moon on time and under budget. Go team.

  8. See also: “DIRECT 2.0 Space Exploration Architecture Performance Analysis” by NASA Masrhall Space Flight Center

  9. justcorbly

    This story has been bouncing around for a while. Spinning it as some kind of risky secret effort is a bit over the top considering they’ve put up a professionally designed website.

    This kind of thing isn’t really new. About three different scenarios for the Apollo vehicle and flight plan were supported by different folk within NASA, for example, and I’d imagine if they were doing it today they’d all have websites.

    The DirectLaunch vehicle, and NASA’s design, both use tweaked elements of the Shuttle, so they are actually more alike than not.

    I also think it’s worth pointing out that NASA was directed to phase out the Shuttle, return to the Moon, and prepare for Mars, all with a promise of a constant budget allocation. This I’d agure, pretty much limited them to a recycling Shuttle components or relying on the new Atlas architecture, which ha not been rated for crewed missions.

    The large vehicle in the NASA scheme will be larger than the Saturn V vehicle, which is just fine with me. We’d have been much better off staying with the Saturns all along. (Remember, that the cancellation of the Apollo/Saturn missions, the Saturn production lines, and the rollout of the Shuttle were all politically directed moves by Nixon.)

  10. Tom

    1. The Saturn V was far too expensive to keep flying

    2. The re-use of shuttle components and infrastructure was mandated in the last Space Act.

    3. The Ares design is considerably more ‘tweaked’ than the Jupiter design. Ares needs new tank diameter, new SRBs, new launch platforms, new crawlers, new infrastructure. Jupiter can re-use or modify these elements, rather than trash them and build new ones. Ignore the NASA spin – the Ares rockets are not direct descendants of Shuttle.

  11. I say we disband NASA. I mean it, sometimes it’s just easier to buy a new watch than to keep fixing the old one. We dump NASA, and then take everything, the scientists, the equipment, the research, and create a new space agency. The only differences will be a renewed structure, new senior leadership and new protocols to prevent the insulation of certain sectors from others.

    That said, it will require funding and a massive amount of support from the executive branch, that’s why everyone should vote me for president in 2021! One of my main policies will probably still be getting us out Iraq.

  12. Phil, I don’t often agree with you, but this is bang-on. The Ares design is such a huge kludge it makes the Shuttle look like an optimized design. At least with DIRECT, Michoud can use exactly the same tooling, ATK can use exactly the same SRBs that have been in use since after Challenger, The VAB needs no modification, the existing crawler and roadbed and launchpads can be used, the SRBs can be mounted to the tank at top and bottom rather than only at the top (which is analogous to balancing a baseball on a pencil)… it just makes so much sense all around. Assuming that Griffin’s tenure doesn’t extend beyond the presidential election, I predict that Ares will be scrapped in favor of DIRECT.

  13. FromEurope

    If we -as a world- want to stay in space, why not use Ariane-5 as a booster for a new American designed capsule?

    At the moment ESA doesn’t see much use for a shuttle/capsule design (Hermes’ been on the drawing board for decades), the Americans seem to be cutting corners to save cost on the whole Ares project, so why not join resources?

  14. Nic

    I’m not convinced about Ares or this thing. What seems to be regularly forgotten is one of the major costs – thousands of people are required to maintain and run the current Complex 39 infrastructure, there are now sometimes repairs required to aging infrastructure (e.g the current problems with the flame trench, and a few years ago a big oxygen line let go(if I remember correctly)).
    It’s old and heavy on manpower. I reckon SpaceX have a better prospect, certainly if they decide to develop the F-1 class engine I believe they’re considering.

  15. JSW

    Phil, one of the original rockets to launch satellites back in the late ’50’s was also called “Jupiter.”

    So this will be Jupiter 2, then? I hope their navigation equipment in up to spec.

  16. Dave

    AIAA presented this at ISDC:

    Here is the complete AIAA pdf, covering all the details. And exposing the incredible kludge that is the Ares I / V system.

  17. lurker_above

    Salvage-1. Holy timewarp, Batman. Haha.

  18. Ed Myers

    Wow! Set the Wayback machine, Sherman! I remeber “Salvage 1” when I was a kid! It was a good idea for a two-hour TV movie, but couldn’t sustain a series. Even I, being a 14-year-old who wasn’t very picky about his Sci-Fi, could tell that.

  19. Aaron Bubnick

    The “Direct” people have been in the news alot lately.

    Basically, there are two predominate trains of thought out there of what the next step should be. You have the first camp (currently being funded, might I add) that believes that we should go to a moon base, then to mars.
    Then you have the second camp, Direct, that believes that a moon base gets us nothing and that direct to Mars is the only way to go.

    It comes as no surprise that there are people inside of NASA that favor one train of though over the other and have acted on it.

    I too believe that having the other process looked at, continually worked and reworked in a theory state is a good thing. What happens when the political winds that blow change… and suddenly Direct is the method where funding is looking to be “directed” (ha! pun!)?

    I was also watching a “Mars” show on Discovery (I think) and they had an interview with a guy from the Direct to Mars camp.

    Interesting stuff! At 35 years old, I only hope I can be alive to see humans on Mars.

  20. inertially guided

    Oh, I saw this film. While a government contractor is developing a space craft to gov. specifications it is secretly building an advanced model for private use in order to…TAKE OVER THE WORLD. Keep an eye out for NASA engineers named Blofeld, will ya?

    Apologies to Pinky, the Brain, and all the crew of the supertanker ‘Rosa Krebs’…

  21. Aaron, I think you might be getting the 2 mixed up. The “Direct” in this case means that instead of having to build 2 separate systems, Ares I, and Ares V, the proposed system will do it all. The Ares concept proposes using a 2 step system to get the equipment in orbit, (Ares V) and then the crew, (Ares I).

    The Mars Direct is a proposal that would by-pass the Moon altogether and go directly to Mars.

  22. Kyle

    That Salvage-1 was quite the flashback. I liked it and watched every ep, I think, but come on didn’t they just about run out of O2 every show?

    That is some passion on the folks who are literally doing rocket science on their own dime.

  23. Aaron, here’s a link further describing it. Mars Direct has been floated around for quite some time.

  24. Dave

    Michael L:

    The Mars Direct is a proposal that would by-pass the Moon altogether and go directly to Mars.

    DIRECT does get us to the Moon. But it keeps us from getting bogged down there. There is a lot more emphasis on robotic exploration.

  25. Chris

    As it stands right now, I’m actually a bigger fan of the Ares design than this. While it is true that the Ares requires more design work, it also should lift significantly more payload than the Direct rockets proposed here.

    Of course, as you said, some competition is never a bad thing.

  26. justcorbly

    >>”The Saturn V was far too expensive to keep flying”

    Thanks for the clarifications. I still maintain that being tasked with returning to the Moon (permanently), retiring the Shuttle, supporting ISS, and preparing for Mars with the expectation of no real budget was a politically dunderheaded thing to do. Not that that’s a surprise.

    NASA takes a lot of crap, much of it deserved. But, I contend that NASA hasn’t been flying what it would like to fly since the demise of Apollo. They’ve been flying on politically motivated missions using politically compromised designs. That won’t change if they stay with Ares or adopt the DirectLaunch approach.

    As for the private sector, I wouldn’t spend tax money to pay the private sector to launch crewed missions until they’d already demonstrated the ability to do that reliably.

  27. quasidog

    Does the ESA (European Space Agency) have these sorts of problems that NASA has ? Do they do things differently to NASA at all or do they suffer from the same red tape that NASA does ? I don’t hear them get a mention much.

  28. DLC

    Saturn-V couldn’t be built today even were it desirable to do so.
    The technology has moved on. We learned from Saturn-V, and from the shuttle, and will probably learn more from whatever system follows on. Right now, we’re at the same stage in space travel and exploration as the Vikings were back in their day. Our craft are dangerous, relatively hard to build and maintain, and cost a lot of money. Back in the 1950s, Robert Heinlein thought that a private company could go to the moon relatively easily, provided a sufficient profit were involved. He was right, but there just isn’t enough profit in a trip to the moon or mars yet. Eventually it may become profitable to set up stations for such things as asteroid mining or something like the early sci-fi writers envisioned, but right now it just isn’t on.

  29. Captain Swoop

    ‘They say that there will only be a 3 year gap for this Jupiter system, as opposed to a 5 year gap for Ares/Orion. Plus it will save $19 Billion.’

    It’s easy to say that when you don’t have to do it. I think every ‘alternative’ to an official proposal for every major engineering project has made similar claims.

  30. Dunc

    Right now, we’re at the same stage in space travel and exploration as the Vikings were back in their day. Our craft are dangerous, relatively hard to build and maintain, and cost a lot of money.

    Bull. The Vikings were at the very pinnacle of an extremely refined and well-developed sea-faring technology that had been in use for at least a thousand years. A better analogy might be to Mesolithic log boats.

  31. Charles

    There would have been no gap at all had NASA chosen the EELV concept instead of Ares 1-X, but apparently, that would not have pleased congress-critters in key contractors’ districts.

    Let’s face the facts: political thrust and maneuverability is as important as what comes out of the business end of any rocket NASA constructs. Engineers and even mid-level managers can argue for this concept or against that concept but at the end of the day, the count-up of votes in DC is what enables the countdowns at the Cape.

  32. AJWM

    @Tom said:

    ”The Saturn V was far too expensive to keep flying”

    Not really. In fact, the original plan was to keep Saturn V flying because it could handle far larger payloads than Shuttle; Shuttle was originally intended only to replace the medium boosters like Atlas and Titan, with Delta (it was smaller in those days) retained for smaller payloads and Saturn V for larger ones. Saturn V could put in LEO a payload about 5x what Shuttle could leave up there.

    What happened, though, in a move by Shuttle program managers to trim runaway budget overruns, and coincidentally burn the Saturn V bridge to ensure it wouldn’t endanger Shuttle, was that the Saturn V launch pads (Complex 39A and 39B) and the Vehicle (nee Vertical) Assembly Building were massively remodeled to accomodate Shuttle ops (original plans were for separate facilities) which rendered them unusable for Saturn.

    Ultimately the outcome of that made the Saturn V too expensive to fly, yeah — you’d have to rebuild the infrastructure.

    Expect to see similar decisions made by NASA to force a commit to Ares at the expense of anything that can reuse use existing Shuttle infrastructure as-is. Of course they’ll color them as “cost-saving” measures.

  33. Sully

    I’m with The Chemist – disband NASA, it has outlived it’s usefulness as do all bureaucratic life forms.

    Except he doesn’t go far enough. It won’t happen but if you want to achieve objectives in space pick the ten most successful project managers under 50 and give them authority to each hire 2 or 3 percent of the current NASA staff into a new agency which will contain 20 to 30% of the existing NASA staff. Give/force the rest of the NASA staff onto early retirement at half pay.

    Then give the new NASA a sufficient budget to hire 10% additional new staff per year exclusively from the new pool of fresh top-grade engineering and science grads under 30 years old – and require them to lay off at least 5% of the existing staff every year so that the staff increases at about a net 5% each year. I’m a productive 60 old fart myself but the fact is that creativity and productivity do not improve with age for the vast mass of the working population, and even if they did almost all very long term employees get hide bound and lazy.

  34. Sully & Chemist:
    So, disband NASA, and replace it with a new agency, basically run by the same people, the same engineers, the same managers, because they have all the experience. How long will it be before that agency becomes just like the one it is replacing? It’s not JUST NASA – it’s government bureaucracy as a whole. Fixing one small part of it only amounts to putting a Band Aid on it. The whole system needs major surgery. I still find it amazing that in the ’60’s, we were able to get Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo off the ground, all within 10 years. I’m not a historian, but I think after Nixon green-lighted the Shuttle things went south. It only continued when Reagan ok’d the International Space Station. I believe we would have been much farther ahead if all the money that was funneled into these projects had gone into continuing Apollo, and Mars exploration.

    Personally, I can’t see how we will be back on the Moon by 2020 at current funding levels.

  35. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Okay, the Ares program puts out some bad vibes by continouing changes.

    First from a 4 segment SRB to a 5 segment SRB, due to a better choice of upper stage engine:

    This Crew Launch Vehicle (CLV), named Ares I, originally featured a modified 4-segment SRB for its first stage, while a liquid-fueled second stage, powered by a single Space Shuttle Main Engine, would have propelled the Orion into orbit. It’s current design, initially introduced in 2006, and since modified, will feature the originally planned, but scrapped 5-segment SRB first-stage, with a second stage powered by an Apollo-derived J-2 rocket engine.

    But then from a 5 segment SRB to a 6 segment SRB because the Altair lander gets heavier (?):

    The redesign, which incorporates a larger Ares V core holding six RS-68B engines and making the booster taller and more powerful than the now-retired Saturn V and Energia rockets, will allow the Ares V to place the Altair lunar lander into space and propel that, and the Orion spacecraft to the Moon by 2020. Unlike the 5-segment SRB for the Ares I, the 5.5-segment boosters will be identical in design, construction, and function to the current SRBs, except for the extra segments.

    More parts means less safety. But at least they wont lift crew in that system.

  36. Maybe we should be learning from the Russians. They’ve stayed with the same basic launcher for decades, with a fair amount of success and reliability. Granted, it might make for a boring program, but they have been getting the job done.

    I too fail to see why they scrapped the Saturn V program. In hindsight it seems to me that it would have been far less expensive to continue rolling out Saturn V’s, which, as has already been stated, were more powerful than the Shuttle. Plus they had the advantage of being able to deliver to both LEO and boosting out of orbit.

  37. Bill

    Some of your comments seem pretty mean, like turning all of NASA’s engineers and scientists out on the street, along with their wives, mortgages, and kids going to school. But then, what do I know,. All I have done is help launch men to the Moon, design equipment for and help launch the Space Shuttle, and lead a fine bunch of men and women in developing equipment for Shuttle, Space Station, payloads, DOD, and private industry. What have you done lately?

    Things are always more complex and nuanced when you know the whole story. Like the comments about why didn’t we keep rolling out Saturn V’s. I loved the Saturn V,and the IB. Great birds! But I wouldn’t bring back the Saturn V today, even if we could. The S-IC stage was an awesome beast, but the same job can be done much cheaper and more reliably today by Solid Rocket Boosters. The F-1 engines were marvels of engineering, but way too costly to use once and throw them in the drink 50 miles downrange. The S-II was a helluv an engineering achievement, but way too costly, too. North American fought constraints imposed by weight growth in both the other stages, and had to make compromises that made the S-II very difficult, costly, and time consuming to manufacture. The S-IVB was, by comparison, a piece of cake. I’m sure the Douglas boys would disagree, but they had an easier job than Stormy and the boys at Downey. But to answer the question, we scrapped the Saturn V because of three wars. The War on Poverty, the Viet Nam War, and the Cold War. All three were going at once. The Johnson administration cut our budget, and Nixon’s OMB cut us more. We were told we could not contininue those excessive $4B budgets, with big, expensive rockets. So a reusable space truck looked pretty attractive. (Perhaps kind of like the “Secret Shadow Rocket” does today. Everything looks good on briefing charts. You don’t run into the hard brick walls of physics and engineering, not to mention economics).

    The original proposal was for a fully reusable, crewed, flyback booster, with liquid fueled engines. We didn’t get to build that one, even though that was the one that generated the optimistic turn-around and cost models. Congress and OMB said “no” due to peak year funding constraints and total program cost. So we ended up with what we got. A marvel of engineering, but a whole string of compromises due to cost constraints. And it violates one of the cardinal rules of rocket design. Don’t put fragile components (tile, RCC leading edges, etc.) downsteam from stuff that can break off! Like spray-on foam. Still, I’ll hate to see the old birds stop flying. BTW, Does anyone else think it’s insane to retire the Shuttle before we have a proven replacement capability,and put the very existance of the Space Station and crew at the mercy of a single failure which could ground the Russian Soyez fleet?

    One more example of why things are not always what they seem. Torbjörn Larsson was complaining that we are using too many SRB segments in the Ares launch vehicle. Turns out that decision was made by a couple of horses asses. Literally. British roads date back to Roman times, and were made just wide enough to accomodate a pair of horses pulling a chariot. This practice persisted to colonial times, and was copied in the colonies. Our railroads were often built on existing road beds, determining the rail guage. All our railroad bridges and tunnels were built to acommodate this guage. The solid rocket segments are built in Utah, and come by rail to KSC. So, the SRB diameter was determined by a couple of horses asses. Otherwise, we could use shorter, fatter, and thus fewer segments. But we can’t get them to KSC.

    NASA often does things the way they do because of laws and budgets passed by the congressmen YOU elected. Please stop blaming NASA for decisions beyond their control. Can you imagine Mike Griffin testifying before Congress, “We decided to scrap the Constellation program designs and schedules because a few guys came up with what they claim is a better idea on their lunch hours. Yes sir, we did have concept, engineering, budget, and programmatic reviews of our current plans. No sir, these ideas were not submitted then. They have not passed our proven processes of peer and senior management review. But they claim they have a better idea, so we are throwing away two years and $3B of effort. I have every confidence they will come up with something.”

    Give me a break!!!

    I have not seen these “Secret Shadow Rocket” designs, nor am I competent to judge them myself. But these troops should have the courage of their convictions. They should stand up like men, make an appointment with Mike Griffen, march boldly into his office and present their plans. He will give them a fair hearing, He is, IMHO, the best NASA Administrator since Jim Webb. NASA has a process whereby anyone who thinks anything is going wrong can air thier concerns all the way to the top. So stand up, Shadow Warriors, step out of the shadows, and speak up!

    Proud NASA Alumnus

  38. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Life intervened, but finally returning to old threads FWIW:Life intervened, but finally returning to old threads FWIW:

    Torbjörn Larsson was complaining that we are using too many SRB segments in the Ares launch vehicle.

    That wasn’t my main complaint – it was the changes. But yes, there’s no need to let transport (rather, economy) be a deciding factor for cutting edge technology. That is a basic problem here.

    Btw, I like your out-of-the-shadows suggestion.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar