A really BAD "T-Booth" Altair design
March 4, 2008

Last week, NASA has released some new info and images about the current design of the ESAS cargo/crew/outpost versions of the LSAM lunar lander, now called Altair.

The new design is clearly better than the early ESAS plan LSAM concept (mainly thanks to the smart choice of the splitted ascent-module/airlock so it needs less propellent and will be more efficient) but not a good concept due to (at least) SEVEN main reasons:

1. too traditional '60 Apollo LM-like design without any real structural innovation apart the updated technologies it will use, of course.

2. too heavy top (then, too high CG) after the descent-stage's propellent will be burned, so it can risk to turn over itself and hit the lunar surface and be seriously damaged losing its pressurization or exploding or, simply, become unable to fly back to a lunar orbit and dock the Orion for departure.

3. too tall crew cabin, that, in a one week+ stay with four astronauts and several EVA, may become a BIG RISK every time the astronauts will go up and down the Altair stairs (that looks over 7 m. tall from the lunar soil) a possible solution is a small elevator that, however, adds too much weight.

4. too little crew cabin for a one week+ stay of four astronauts (there is a toilet inside
...or, they must go outside the cabin for their physiological needs
? ... :) and enough life support (that, obviously, will have no redundancy for emergency contingency in a so small internal space!) plus spacesuits, equipments, etc. that, also, since the "four-seats" Altair's ascent stage, will be just twice the dimensions and weight (10.8 mT vs. 4.5 mT) of the "two-seats" (or "two-seatsless"...to be exact) Apollo LM's ascent stage, assuming the real Altair crew cabin will be very much larger than those seen in the latest images (below) released by NASA where it look like a small phone booth!!! ... :)

The phone-booth near the Altair ascent-stage looks too big, since, the astronaut near it is not in his full size, but a little back and down in the image (probably on a platform or a stairs) so, his image doesn't starts from the "lunar boot", but just near his knees, up.

5. too little max cargo-payload OR ascent-stage/airlock/astronauts/equipments, that will be only 17 mT max rather than 21+ mT planned in the early LSAM designs mainly due to an underpowered Ares-5, as reported in this AvWeek article (that's why I've suggested a bigger, maybe, 200+ mT payload, Ares-5 in my May 21, 2006 "3+3 engines Super SLV" and May 20, 2007 "AresX" articles) and as I've said several times on many space forums and blog and in my July 28, 2006 "Why the 5-segments SRB can't work" and November 4, 2007 "Ares-1 can't fly" articles.

6. also, the current Altair design seems give a poor landing visibility to the lander pilot, that, clearly, could be not a big problem if everything goes well (thanks to the advanced navigation and landing systems' computers, supported by several 3-D high-res cameras!) however, a better visibility can be very useful, if something goes wrong and the pilot will need to turn to manual commands for landing, like happened with the Apollo 11, that also since, land on the moon, wasn't, isn't nor will be (for decades!) as easy as landing with an airplane at the Los Angeles airport... :) ...remember, that, ALL lunar landing sites, will be unexplored places, full of unexpected traps!

7. last, this lander (due to a bad design, too little dimensions and a scanty 17 mT cargo payload) is a wrong choice also from an economical and stratgegic point of view, that especially if NASA (really) has big plans for the Moon (as claimed) with dozens missions, lunar outposts, thousands hours of exploration, pressurized rovers, very long (six months or years) stay, polar missions (mainly to search water resources from crashed comets) stable colonies, optical and radio telescopes installed on the far side of the Moon, etc.

It's clear, that (nearly) NOTHING of these things can be done with a 17 mT cargo-Altair and a 130 mT max payload of the (now underpowered) Ares-5 without add (at least) a further $100 billion to the (already very expensive) ESAS plan (now evaluated between $125 Bn and $230 Bn) to build a bigger and more powerful 200+ mT payload Ares-6 or (better) a 300 mT+ payload "Ares-7", able to land on the Moon up to 50 mT with each cargo mission, then, avoid the need to "slice" each large mission in dozens small units, landed on the Moon with dozens small cargo-Altairs, launched with dozens small Ares-5 (that's a giant waste of rockets, motors, engines, tanks, navigation systems, etc.).

Start a plan to move tons of cargo from Earth to the Moon is NOT so "easy" like start a freight transport company here on Earth... that since, the latter can start its commercial operations with one (little) Van, then, while the business grows, buy a second and third Van, then one Truck or many Trucks or a full fleet of Trucks or (when its revenues will become big enough) also a giant fleet of cargo-airplanes like UPS or FedEx!

Unfortunately, the same strategy can't be applied with the ESAS plan since the costs to develop, build and launch every single spacecraft or rocket are and always will be very high (around $10 Bn to $14.4 Bn only to develop the small Ares-1) and (much worse) the TIME they need (from the start of a project to its first flight) is (and always will be) in the order of ten+ years then (in the given time and with the given funds) NASA can't build two, three or more heavy lifters and two, three or more lunar landers, but just ONE big rocket and ONE lunar lander, to be used (nearly unchanged) for several decades!

About the Ares-5, I think that NASA absolutely NEEDS a bigger rocket since it will be the ONLY heavy lifter it can build (then, HAVE for decades!) with the ESAS funds, however, I think that, add a 6th RS-68, is NOT the best solution to increase the Ares-5 payload, that's why I suggest to add one-two further STANDARD 4-segments SRB to the current design plus 3-5 RS-68.

Also, a bigger Ares-5 may allow the
Orion's SM orbital refueling so, a bigger and heavier Orion can be launched (also) with an underpowered Ares-1 (or other rockets) then fueled in space to "switch" its SM configuration from "standard" (orbital) to "upgraded" (lunar) adding 4-6 mT of propellents to the "standard" (orbital) 2-4 mT propellents needs.

In other words, a BAD Altair design, indeed... however I've some ideas and suggestions to design a better Lunar lander, that I hope to publish soon, here, so, watch this page!


[update] I've added a 7th point to my list of "not a good concept" reasons, to explain why the (current) Altair design (and a 130 mT max payload Ares-5) is a bad choice also from an ECONOMICAL and STRATEGIC point of view, for (both) NASA and USA.

Note, that I've leaved, but crossed (to abrogate) the words "twice" and "10.8 mT" (of the Altair vs. Apollo LM comparison) at the point 4 of the list, since the figures regarding the ascent-stage reported from the Wikipedia article are superficial and wrong since, as written in the most recent official NASA document about the Altair, the "10.8 mT" figure includes the Altair's payload (rover, experiments, etc.) the airlock, etc.

The reality (from the same NASA document) is much worse than expected, when I have written this article, since, the Sortie Lander's ascent-stage (including the ascent engine and its propellents) weighs only 5,075 kg. that's just 0.5 mT heavier than the 4,547 kg. Apollo LM ascent stage of which over 2.5 mT was (and will be in the Altair ascent-stage) the weight of the ascent-stage engine and propellents, then, both (Apollo LM and Altair) crew cabins will be pretty close in dimensions and weight despite the Altair "should" host twice the astronauts for (at least) twice the time on the Moon!

Comparing the dimensions of the Altair ascent-stage with the 5 m. Orion its crew cabin results (about) 2.5 m. in diameter by 3 m. in length, however, these are the EXTERNAL dimensions, inclusive of the LIDS docking port/hatch, the thick cabin's pressurization, the radiation shield, etc... just add four spacesuits, four EVA support packs, all the flight and landing systems and control panels, four seats (if any) four beds (if any) the 7+ days life support system and supply, the toilet (if any) etc. to see the REAL crew's internal space to fall under 1.8 m. in diameter by under 2.5 m. in length! ...so, where is the space for a crew of FOUR astronauts? ...looking at this data evaluation also the comparison with a phone-booth sounds very optimistic... :)

Also assuming the Altair will use better and lighter materials and alloys, just half ton more than an Apollo LM doesn't seem enough to host twice the astronauts for twice the time, and nothing change with the outpost version of the Altair that has the same cabin of Sortie Lander but without the airlock module (adding 1 mT of payload) that, also, since (with the given funds) NASA can't develop and build two+ different versions of cabin, to be landed with differently sized Altairs, each version launched with a different rocket!

The Altair will be the place where four astronauts will live and work for long time, so, it's unclear why its crew cabin is so little without any life-support redundancy for (possible) emergencies (like an ascent-stage that fails to work) nor any margin for an extended mission duration, then, also assuming a so little internal space will be enough to host a crew of four astronauts (like fishes in a barrel...) this very expensive vehicle will have giant operational limits (like a jet fighter with 200 km. of autonomy, no in-flight refuels and just one bomb carried...) that's very bad for a space plan going to cost over $230 billion in the next 20 years!

But the worst of all Altair's design flaws is its (seven days only) VERY LOW life support time, as planned in the ESAS moon missions' architecture and confirmed in this slice of a pie chart (from the same official NASA document) about the Altair weights' allocation:

From this chart, we can see that only 1% of the total (45+ mT) Altair mass is allocated for the the astronauts' life support systems and supply or just a mere 450 kg. in total!!!

This means that, all sortie missions' astronauts (the crews of, at least, the first dozen moon missions from 2020) may face giant ('60 Apollo-like) risks to die if something goes wrong, an excess of risks that was very common in the early years of spaceflights, but is unacceptable (and unaccepted) today (especially after the Challenger and Columbia accidents) since today's technology allows to reduce the risks to a minimum, so, it can't be accepted that other astronauts will risk too much due to a lack of safety systems or (worst) due to a bad missions' architecture that has no redundancy and give no escape ways to the astronauts if (e.g.) the Altair ascent engine (or other systems) won't work.

If a serious emergency will happen, two+ months of life support (rather than just one, brief, week) may give to the astronauts enough time to wait the launch (including some, possible, delays) of a rescue mission, accomplished with a second (remote-controlled) unmanned Altair, while, with just two-three days of life support "redundancy" (to start after the end of the standard, seven days, mission's duration) the astronauts are DEAD!

Apart the big risks hidden inside THIS kind of (really poor) hardware and (bad) missions' architecture, lose so many time and spend so much money to land four astronauts on the Moon for (just) one week (50 years after ApolloXI and a thousands times better and more advanced technology) clearly is a poor result (since, twice the astronauts for twice the stay, is only four times the exploration of one 50-years-old Apollo mission!) a giant waste of time and money and an incredible nonsense!

Please explain me (if you can...) WHICH aerospace company, country or industry having enough funds to develop and build (e.g.) a car with 2000 km. of autonomy or an airplane with 20,000 km. of autonomy or a ship for 5000 containers or a building 100 storeys tall or a pacemaker that works 10 years (deliberately) decide to limit the autonomy of the car under 100 km. the autonomy of the airplane under 500 km. the number of containers a ship can carry under 1000 units the building under 20 storeys the pacemaker under one year of autonomy and the Altair (that can work several months with just a few changes and a few tons of extra-hardware) to live only a brief (surely exciting and intense) week losing (without any rational reason!) the opportunity to have much SAFER (and several weeks/months long) Moon missions!

Probably, the best name for the ESAS lunar lander is "butterfly" (a very very expensive butterfly, indeed...) since it (like great part of the butterflies) can live just a few days...


[update] The latest news about the cargoAltair are very bad since seems it will be able to land on the Moon just a mere 14 mT including the cargo "envelopes" (the cases that keep the lunar hardware, the tanks for water and oxygen, etc.) so, the NET WEIGHT of the cargo each Altair can/will land on the Moon, should/will be LESS THAN 10 mT!!!

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