The Early Lunar Shelter: Stay Just a Little Bit Longer

Garrett AiResearch Lunar Shelter

The Garrett Early Lunar Shelter, showing its roots in the LM Truck and, in turn, the LM that actually landed on the Moon. The tanks draped around it are hydrogen and oxygen for the fuel cells, shelter pressurization, and recharging the astronauts’ suits after EVA. Public Domain image via NASA from Early Lunar Shelter Design and Comparison Study, Volume IV. Click for a larger view.

What it was: A two-astronaut shelter/living quarters for use with the Apollo program once it had progressed to needing 30-day stays on the surface, studied in 1966-67 by Garrett AiResearch at NASA’s request. Variants for three astronauts and for a mobile version that could be hitched to a lunar rover were also examined.

Details: Certain big names show up repeatedly in conjunction with the American space program: North American Rockwell, Grumman, Boeing, Lockheed, and so on. Around the fringes, though are less familiar names such as Bendix and TRW. Another one of the latter was Garrett AiResearch, a mid-sized aerospace pioneer best known (at least as far as the space program goes) for designing and building the atmosphere controls for Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo.

In 1966, NASA commissioned Garrett to move beyond what they’d done to that point, and work on a  full-fledged, if tiny, Moon base. Dubbed the “Early Lunar Shelter” (ELS), the intention was to build it following the J-Class missions—what turned out to be Apollo 15 through 17. Having progressed from short surface stays like Apollo 11 to longer ones that had a lunar rover to work with, like Apollo 17, the next step was to be month-long stays and that required more than a single LM.

From the beginning, the Moon landings had been quite restricted in mass, as much of an LM was taken up with astronauts, the consumables they needed, and the fuel and engines needed to get them back to the CSM for the flight home to Earth. If you could forgo all of that with an automated lander, you could haul a lot more equipment to the Moon—to wit, 4.67 tonnes of it.

The fruit of this thinking was the LM/T, or Lunar Module Truck, which was for all intents and purposes a rocket-powered mule that would head to the Moon some time before its associated astronauts would start their journey in their own LM (called the LM Taxi in this context). Landing close to the LM/T, the astronauts could walk over, unload everything, and enjoy a huge quantity of equipment as compared to Aldrin and Armstrong.

There were any number of configurations for the LM/T, constrained only by the volume an LM occupied on top of a Saturn V and the limit to the mass it could safely land, but the Early Lunar Shelter was the answer to one particular question: “Suppose we devote the Truck’s volume entirely to living quarters for two astronauts and the scientific equipment they’d use. What would that be like?”

What Garrett came up with was a stubby cylinder, 8.1 feet in diameter and 16 feet long (2.5 meters by 4.9 meters) which rested on its side above the LM/T’s descent stage, looking not unlike contemporary bathyscaphes. It would be launched atop a Saturn V along with a crewed CSM, which would dock to a hatch on its upper side, then ferry it to the Moon after the usual Saturn IV-B trans-lunar injection. After reaching their destination, the CSM would disengage and return its crew to Earth, while the ELS would land automatically.

The shelter could sit on the Moon for as much as six months before its astronaut-dwellers arrived (thanks to another Saturn V/CSM combination), with a minimum seven days prior to their launch for checkout of the shelter. A SNAP-27 radiothermal generator would power the ELS until activation. Once aboard, the minimum time the astronauts would use it was assumed to be 14 days, with 50 days being the upper end of possibility. The first day days of the mission would be devoted to the astronauts activating the shelter for their use, unloading it, switching the shelter to running off fuel cells (which would also supply water) and transferring the RTG to their LM Taxi so their ride home could be deactivated but kept “alive” until it was needed at the end of the mission.

Interior layout of the Early Lunar Shelter

The interior layout of the ELS, same source as previous. One presumes the outer hatch was closed when the toilet was in use. Click for a larger view.

The interior of the shelter was to be divided into two main areas. One was a lunar EVA airlock taking up one end, the CSM hatch on top being used solely for docking with a CSM. It would have been big enough for two astronauts at the same time as well as storage of two hard space suits. The bulk of the shelter was 628 cubic feet (17.8 m3) of living space. Though about half of this would be taken up with supplies, bunks, and spacesuit storage, its shirt-sleeve environment compared well with a regular LM’s 4.5 cubic meters of habitable volume. Alternatively, as the Moon does supply gravity, the ELS can be sized another way: it would have had 68 square feet of floor space (6.3 square meters).

The arrangement of bunks/radiation refuge quarters in the ELS.

The spartan arrangement of bunks/radiation refuge quarters in the ELS. No Apollo astronaut was taller than 71 inches. Same source as previous. Click for a larger view.

The shelter was double-walled aluminum and fiberglass (the latter in the inside), with 58 mils (0.058 inches, or 0.15 cm) between them for meteoroid protection—the usual tactic, as invented by Fred Whipple. The other major danger entertained was radiation, and the aluminum walls couldn’t be made thick enough to sustain 500 rads (a hypothetical solar flare) without weight close to a half ton more than was otherwise necessary. Accordingly the study suggested putting the necessarily numerous  PLSS recharging canisters (for the life-support backpack worn while on the surface) stored in water filled sleeves around the bunk area located at the opposite end from the airlock. Altogether, they, the walls, and the bunk material made an acceptable, if awfully cramped, radiation refuge for everyone on-board.

One final, intriguing safety touch was the dual-purpose boom attached near the airlock. While primarily intended for unloading instruments or a rover, it would also have been used to get an incapacitated astronaut up next to the entrance to the shelter.

Arranged around and behind the shelter were four tanks: one compressed gaseous oxygen, one liquid oxygen, and two liquid hydrogen. These weren’t intended for use with the Truck’s landing engine—it had its own tankage—but rather for use by the astronauts and the fuel cells (and so, accordingly, their water). Garrett pinpointed the storage of LOX and LH2 for up to six months before the astronauts arrived as the main technical challenge facing the ELS.

Another issue was what atmosphere they would breathe: pure oxygen at 5.0 psia, or nitrogen/oxygen mix comparable to Earth. The former was desirable for mass reasons, and to keep the ELS as close in technology to the rest of the Apollo program as possible, but Garrett were concerned that there were no medical studies of a pure oxygen atmosphere for a long period of time; the 30-day maximum they note was apparently just an educated guess. They ended up punting the problem down the road as essentially an issue of how much they could keep the ELS from leaking; if that could be minimized, the problem was moot. Safety concerns weren’t mentioned at all, and in fact the final filing of Garrett’s study was on February 8th, 1967, not even two weeks after the Apollo 1 fire. After that the CSM would switch to a oxy-nitrogen atmosphere for launch, though the LM would stay with the low-pressure pure oxygen.

Mobile ELS variant, hitched to a notional rover.

The Mobile ELS variant, hitched to a notional rover. Same source as previous. Click for a larger view.

As well as being a shelter, the ELS would have been a miniature scientific outpost. It would be equipped with a drill capable of getting 100 feet down into the Moon’s crust, carry explosive charges for seismic readings, and had three remote instrument stations that would be deployed far from the landing site thanks to the extended EVA capability the shelter would provide. All told, the shelter would come with 3470 pounds (1.57 tonnes) of science gear, while the shelter itself was a remarkably light 985 pounds (447 kg). Add in the expendables and altogether it could be successfully landed on the Moon by the LM/T with a mere pound and a half to spare. Let it not be said that they didn’t squeeze all the juice out of this one.

If the project had gone ahead, Garrett anticipated that the ELS would be operational in 1972. The study is silent on cost, apparently because the construction work was to be handed off to Grumman, and so it was their problem.

What happened to make it fail: It got caught up in the rapid ramping down of the Apollo program that started in 1968, not least the fact that Saturn V production was shut down and the rockets they had were all they were going to get.

By scrimping and saving (and cutting a couple of Moon landings) NASA managed to save Skylab, and eventually the detente-driven Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, but that was it. As any mission involving the Early Lunar Shelter was going to require two Saturn V launches it was an obvious target for a cut, taking up as it would two slots that could be used by two different, separate Moon missions. It was one of the first things to go, and did not make it out of 1968.

What was necessary for it to succeed: It’s interesting to compare the Early Lunar Shelter to the other Moon bases we’ve examined so far, Barmingrad and Project Horizon. Both were hugely ambitious and nowhere near happening in reality, while for this project the key word was early. A lot of people tend to conflate Moon bases with lunar colonies, or at least the next rank down of permanently inhabiting the Moon even if the personnel are swapped out periodically. What NASA put its finger on was that we’re not likely to make that big a leap all in one go. The first lunar bases are probably going to be temporary, just like the first space stations were before we worked our way up to Mir and the ISS.

On that basis it’s easy to get the ELS to fly, as it was a big part of the logical next step in lunar exploration (ignoring the elephant in the room that was automated exploration, mind you). With probably no more than some minor redesigning there could have been one on the Moon just a few years after when Garrett AiResearch pictured it: 1972.

As ugly as the post-1969 picture was for NASA’s funding, it’s not too much of stretch to see the three or four more necessary missions past Apollo 17 making it through the budget grinder and “Apollo ELS” flying sometime around late 1974 or early 1975. It’s a lot likelier than much of what NASA proposed post-Apollo 11, at least, if only because one mission like that would be as much or more of a punctuation mark at the end of the program as any other mission bar Apollo 11 itself.

Sources

Early Lunar Shelter Design and Comparison Study, Volume I and Volume IV, W.L. Burriss, N.E. Wood, and M.L. Hamilton. Garrett AiResearch. Los Angeles, California. 1967.

LKS: The Buran Alternative

LKS spaceplane on Proton rocket

An LKS orbiter atop its Proton launcher at the launch gantry. Original source and copyright status unknown, but pre-dating 2004. Note the folded wings: most sources do not mention this feature, with the implication that LKS’s wings were fixed, but the LKS is sufficiently badly documented that even this basic question is not definitively answered.

What it was: A small, 20-tonne spaceplane intended for launch on top of a Proton rocket. From 1979 to 1983, OKB-52 touted it as an alternative to the Energia/Buran shuttle.

Details: Continuing the parallel, military-oriented space program of OKB-52 (previous entries so far being the LK-700, Almaz, and the TKS), we come to the LKS. In late 1973 the Soviet government decided to respond to the prior year’s announcement by the United States that they would be building the Space Shuttle. OKB-1 was given the task of examining a large spaceplane in the same class as the Americans’, while Mikoyan and OKB-52 were ordered to look at something in the 20-tonne range.

The convulsions of 1974-75 pointed NPO Energiya, the former OKB-1, in the direction of responding to the American Space Shuttle with a quite-close copy (though not before sketching out the MTKVP), and eventually the “Buran Decision” was made in its favour in 1976.

Governmental decision or not, the ever-contrary Vladimir Chelomei and OKB-52 carried on with their own spaceplane from 1976-79 to address what they saw as Buran’s deficiencies: it was smaller, lighter, would be quicker and cheaper to develop and, in their opinion, be almost as capable. They called their two-cosmonaut craft the LKS (“Legkiy Kosmicheskiy Samolet”), meaning “Light Space Plane”.

Inevitably the LKS was to be put on top of OKB-52’s workhorse, a Proton rocket—though not man-rated, the intention was to do so for also launching the TKS anyway. This dictated much about the orbiter, starting with its mass. The Proton-K used until recently could lift just shy of 20 tonnes to low-Earth orbit, which is a bit less than a quarter of either a Shuttle or Buran orbiter carrying a full payload. So while the LKS had a similar shape to its larger cousins by design, its launch mass was only 19,950 kilograms, with a length of 18.75 meters and payload of 4 tonnes (compare with 37.24 meters and 27.5 tonnes for an American shuttle). This is, not at all coincidentally, close in mass to the TKS, and the two can be thought of flip-sides to one another as OKB-52 tried to be everything to everyone while also integrating their proposals into the larger space effort envisioned by Chelomei.

The LKS orbiter diverged from the larger shuttles in a number of other notable ways too, even after being redesigned to be essentially a half-scale version of the US Shuttle Orbiter (earlier incarnations had twin tail fins and wings with a straight leading edge). Its in-orbit engines were to burn N2O4 and UDMH, like every other motor of note proposed for use by OKB-52. Its landing gear was peculiar too, with a steerable wheel up front and landing skids under the wings. Chelomei also proposed to use a renewable ablative re-entry shield rather than the ceramic tiles common to the American and Buran orbiters. As aerodynamically similar as it was, though, it still had the same ~2000 kilometer cross-range capability and would glide in to land at a similar speed (reportedly 300 km/h, a bit slower than the Shuttle’s 350).

OKB-52 had made a full-sized mockup of the orbiter by 1981, then Chelomei pounced during the period of Soviet alarm following Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” speech in March 1983. In a letter written directly to Leonid Brezhnev he suggested that the LKS could be used to quickly and cheaply deploy counter-missile lasers into orbit. Sources differ on whether this was as satellites in the payload bay, or if he meant a fleet of unmanned LKSes carrying the lasers directly—but most lean towards the latter.

What happened to make it fail: Having raised the profile of the LKS as a counter to SDI, Chelomei’s efforts came under the scrutiny of the Soviet military. A state commission was convened in September of 1983, headed by the deputy minister of defense Vitali Shabanov. It eventually came to the conclusion that the LKS would not be useful for missile defense; Chelomei was reprimanded for working on an unauthorized project. Previous setbacks on his projects never had much effect on the headstrong designer, but the LKS came to a definitive end when Chelomei died in August 1984. The mock-up was apparently destroyed in 1991.

What was necessary for it to succeed: OKB-52 were right that Buran would take too long and cost too much. Originally planned to fly in 1983, the Soviet shuttle made its sole, automated flight in November 1988; even then it was not completely fitted out and was only suitable for a 206-minute flight (and the next was not scheduled until 1993!) Something like 20 billion rubles, at a time when the ruble was officially marked at better than par to the US dollar, were spent on the program.

Even at the time there was resistance to the big orbiter, but NPO Energiya and Valentin Glushko‘s grip on the Soviet manned space program was firm. First you probably have to get it loosened somehow, though not so much that Chelomei and OKB-52 took over for them—as was discussed in the previous post to this blog, that would have left the USSR flying TKS spacecraft and not LKSes.

The difficult thing here is that if a small spaceplane got built there are two other, likelier candidates. Prior to about 1990 it probably would have been the other 20-tonne study mentioned at the beginning of this discussion, Mikoyan’s. The Spiral project got even further along than LKS did, to the point of a subsonic demonstrator and orbital re-entry tests of scale models. After 1990, NPO Molniya, builder of the Buran shuttle, floated the MAKS shuttle, which introduced the wrinkle of being air-launched by the An-225 superheavy cargo plane originally designed to cart Buran around.

As a result, unless one can cook up a Soviet leader circa 1983 who had the desire to save money of Mikhail Gorbachev while also having the willingness to rise to the challenge of the Strategic Defense Initiative, the LKS probably does not fly.

Sources

Light Space Plane, LKS“, Anatoly Zak.

‘LKS’, The Chelomei Alternative to Buran“, Giuseppe di Chiara.

Malysh v teni «Burana»: Sovetskiy legkiy kosmoplan“, Oleg Makarov. Popular Mechanics (Russian Edition) #93. July 2010.

“The Soviet BOR-4 Spaceplanes and Their Legacy”, Bart Hendricx, The Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, vol. 60. 2007.

Energia-Buran: The Soviet Space Shuttle, Bart Hendricx and Bert Vis.

Kliper: Russia and Europe Try a Spaceplane

kliper-infographic

A schematic of the “permanent-wing” variation of the Kliper. The adapted Soyuz service module (hemisphere with docking pin at right) can be seen. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported image by Julio Perez Suarez, via Wikimedia Commons.

What it was: A 2004-2006 joint project between Russia and Europe to build a small lifting-body/winged vehicle to replace the Soyuz and provide both groups with their own access to the ISS, as well as future stations. It also would have been able to fly short missions on its own without docking to an orbital facility.

Details: The Soviet Union and then Russia have tried multiple times to replace the venerable Soyuz craft—the Zarya capsule, the OK-M spaceplane, and the Buran/Energia shuttles that nearly pulled it off, among others—but never have done so. As of this writing they’re working on the PPTS spaceship, which seems to be making slow, unsteady progress and might fly before 2020. All have foundered on either Soviet politics or post-Soviet money problems and it’s not that the Russians haven’t been innovative in trying to fix the latter. Immediately prior to PPTS, RKK Energiya made a big push to get the European Space Agency on board with Kliper.

Kliper was based on work that Energia had already done in the 1990s, particularly an elaboration of it in 2002 that was the first to be called “Kliper”. But by 2004 Russian relations with the ESA were at a high point: work had just begun on the Ensemble de Lancement Soyouz, a Soyuz rocket launch pad at the ESA’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, and so the Russians proposed expanding their co-operation to include a new spacecraft that would be launched on top of a substantially beefed-up version of the Soyuz, which they called “Onega” and eventually Soyuz-3.

The ESA’s Ariane 5 rocket was also powerful enough to lift a Kliper, but the Europeans were cool to the idea of launching anything but an unmanned ship on top of one. Even a Zenit rocket (derived from the side-boosters of the USSR’s last big rocket) was considered, but they’ve been under the control of the Ukraine since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Russians have been leery of using them since then. In all likelihood, Kliper would have launched on top of a new Angara rocket—but the Angaras are still years away as of this writing, and the model likeliest to lift a Kliper (the Angara 3A) hasn’t even been begun yet. That was inconvenient to talk about, though, so the Onega it was, despite the fact that the most powerful variant of the Soyuz fired up until the end of 2004 was only about half as powerful as the one that would be needed. This new rocket was given specifications, with the idea being that it would use the N-33 engines that were to have been used in attempt to stop the N1 from exploding before that ill-fated program was cancelled. That said, it was very much a substantial project on its own.

The Kliper itself was, in 2004, a purely biconic lifting body—which is to say it had no wings at all and relied on its fuselage shape for its lift. By 2005, though, it had gained two small wings with large canards—the Sukhoi Design Bureau was brought into the circle to help with this aspect of the project. With the wings extending a mere 205 centimeters to either side of the 390 centimeter fuselage, the Kliper was a small package either way.

Three-quarters of the craft’s length—everything from its nose to the wings—were the re-entry module which would house its crew and passengers on the trip to orbit and during their return. Behind it was a tripartite service module consisting of a repurposed and upgraded Soyuz service module, a collar of support electronics as well as propulsion tanks and rockets for orbital maneuvering, and an Emergency Recovery System (ERS), which would push the Kliper the rest of the way into orbit if the rocket it was on failed near the end of the ascent to space—and give the craft the final necessary kick to high orbit and the ISS when the rocket worked well. While in orbit the Kliper’s service module would deploy two rectangular solar arrays to supply the spacecraft with electricity.

A mission would begin with the rocket stack being assembled horizontally and the Kliper placed on it. The resulting assemblage, some 47 meters in length of which the Kliper took up 12, would be transported to the pad and hoisted into a vertical position next to the gantry. As with a typical Soyuz launch, the Onega (weighing some 700 tonnes fully fuelled, of which the Kliper and its contents would be 15 tonnes for the lifting body version and 16-17 tonnes for the various winged iterations) would fire its four outer boosters alongside the central rocket engine to get the craft underway, then after they had burned through their propellants they would separate. The central rocket would then throttle up to full and get the Kliper most of the way to 100 kilometers up.

Five minutes after launch the central rocket would also be out of fuel and would detach, at which point the Kliper would coast for 10 seconds, jettison the aerodynamic faring around its ERS, and burn those engines for three and a half minutes to climb into the a 130×370-kilometer high orbit. The ERS would then be ejected too. This would get the Kliper’s perigee to within a few tens of kilometers of the orbit occupied by the International Space Station, and one more burn by the service module’s thrusters a half-orbit and 45 minutes later would circularize the path taken by the craft and allow a final approach to the ISS over the course of a day or two.

The final design of the Kliper approached launch slightly differently, so that it could be fully reusable—rather than have an expendable ERS, the craft would be serviced by an orbital tug named PAROM. Kliper would get to a low orbit on top of its Soyuz-3 and the PAROM (which would be docked to the ISS most of the time) would sally forth from the station’s higher orbit, attach itself to the aft end of the Kliper, and then carry up to higher orbit and a station docking.

Upon arrival at the station the Kliper would back into its berth, using the usual Soyuz-style docking pin and station docking rings to bring the two together and establish a solid connection. By itself it could last five days in orbit, but it could linger for a year if attached to the ISS’ systems.

kliper-reentry

The wingless Kliper variant comes in for re-entry and landing. Image source unknown, believed to be RKK Energiya.

For re-entry the craft would reverse the maneuver that lifted the lowest point of its orbit so that now a half-orbit sees it dip into the atmosphere. A final burn at this point would keep the Kliper at that height and the approach to home would begin. From orbital speeds down to Mach 1 the Kliper would act as a pure lifting body, starting at a high angle of attack slowly tilting forward as its speed dropped. The goal at this point was to keep re-entry forces to less than 5g and ideally below 3, and temperatures to no more than 1500 Celsius. The version of Kliper with foldable wings would deploy them when the craft dropped below the speed of sound, and either these or the permanent wings of the other main winged design would make the Kliper considerably more controllable as well as increasing lift and flattening out the ship’s descent as it came into a runway landing—the permanently winged version had a cross-range capability of 1200 kilometers, quite similar to that of the US’ Space Shuttle. The pure lifting body version of the Kliper had it deploy a parawing as it made its final approach, and one way or another it would be down to 65 kilometers per hour or so before its wheeled landing gear touched the tarmac. The pilots and passengers would then exit (or be retrieved, if sufficiently enervated by weightlessness) through the hatch on the tail end of the craft.

When first proposed in 2004, the idea was to have the Kliper flying no later than 2012. The very final versions of Kliper, studied by the Russians as a solo project in 2008, aimed for 2018. Each Kliper would have been good for sixty missions over the course of a fifteen year lifetime.

What happened to make it fail: Reports are that the European Space Agency’s various national factions couldn’t come to an agreement with Russia and RKK Energiya. In particular they couldn’t convince a majority of Europe’s “Big Three” in space (Germany, France, and Italy) because all think that a large part of the ESA’s value is that it lets them develop local high-tech skills and industries. Kliper would have been built on Europe’s dime but be designed and built almost entirely in Russia; while the ESA would end up with a manned spacecraft and the necessary infrastructure to launch it at the end of the process (as well as the prestige value of a manned space program), that it and of itself was not worth the cost. By December 2005 any chance of Kliper being built as a co-operative project had disappeared and Russia simply didn’t have the finances to do it themselves.

The possibility of continuing to work with Russia was maintained in June 2006 when Roscosmos and the ESA reportedly agreed to study the so-called ACTS (Advanced Crew Transport System), but this was a ballistic capsule. By Spring 2008, though, the two had completely gone their separate ways, with the Russians carrying on developing an early design of the ACTS that would eventually become the current PPTS spacecraft project.

What was necessary for it to succeed: As mentioned earlier Russia has moved on to the PPTS, while Europe is in the process of converting their unmanned ATV—currently used to take supplies to ISS, and itself derived from the work on ACTS—into a service module for the upcoming American Orion Crew Module. Whether or not this turns into a permanent arrangement remains to be seen (currently it is only for one Orion mission, Exploration Mission-1, which is scheduled to make an unmanned loop and return around the Moon in 2017), but at the very least the ESA will have developed one half of a manned spacecraft. The contrast with the way they were going to get much less experience and skill development with Kliper should be noted. The ESA had begun talking about adapting the ATV into a manned craft of their own in May 2008, in the wake of the Kliper and ACTS proposals failing.

This is, then, the one way to get Kliper flying: square the circle of Russian ambitions to build a spacecraft that someone else paid for while also getting two of Germany, France, and Italy a sufficiently large chunk of the interesting development work that they would sign on. The wildcard here is Japan, which expressed interest in joining the program if the ESA signed on for certain, but was in the middle of a long, deep recession and so uninterested in giving major financial support unless the ESA did. But other under circumstances they may have supplied a trickle of money large enough to get Kliper going, then stayed with it despite the inevitable money-related delays if the ESA pulled out later.

German illustrator Armin Schieb has made available a free book of computer-generated images (his master’s thesis) of a simple Kliper mission from launch to hypothetical future space station to landing available through Google Books. It gives a good idea of how Kliper might have been.

http://arminschieb.com/tag/kliper/

“Big G”: Getting to Orbit Post-Apollo

big-g-schematic

A schematic of one Big G configuration. The original Gemini capsule can be seen on the left, while everything from the passenger compartment on to the right was new. The adapter on the far right was designed to allow yet another cargo module, space lab, or habitation/life3 support module depending on the mission. Public domain image from a short briefing document given to NASA in December 1967. Click for a larger view.

What it was: A 1967 proposal by McDonnell Douglas to build a new Gemini spacecraft with an extra module attached to its aft end. This would be the craft for flying astronauts to and supplying the proposed space stations—both civilian and military—that were to follow the Apollo landings. It would have been able to deliver twelve people (ten on top of the pilot and co-pilot of the original Gemini) and 2500 kilograms of cargo to low Earth orbit; with an optional extension module it could have taken 27,300 kilograms.

Details: NASA was well into post-Apollo planning by 1967 and at that early stage it was far from settled that they were going to go for a spaceplane as their next major spacecraft. Even if they did go for one, some (including Wernher von Braun) felt that an interim system was needed until what was slowly turning into the Space Shuttle was ready. Basic research on lifting bodies was still underway and while landing on land was already considered desirable, at the time NASA’s chief spacecraft designer Max Faget favoured doing so with a ballistic capsule using a device that the agency had been working on for years: a Rogallo parawing to brake its descent.

big-g-and-third-module

A clear view of the third, cylindrical module which would have been used for some Big G missions. Public domain image dating to 1969 via the NASA publication SP-4011 Skylab: A Chronology.

While there had been discussions about using the parawing with an Apollo capsule, the Gemini had the advantage in that it was the one where that program had begun; it had progressed as far as manned drop tests—Jack Swigert of “Houston, we’ve had a problem here” fame started his career as an astronaut flying a Gemini mockup under a parawing. McDonnell Douglas then sweetened the pot by reconfiguring their Gemini B so that it had the same base diameter as an Apollo capsule (making it simple to attach to a Saturn rocket) while giving twice the cargo capacity of its competitor. A modification of the Apollo CSM had studied in the years prior to Big G, and the so-called MODAP could match this increase, and even go beyond it with external cargo capsules—but then this is where the Big G’s cylindrical extension module came in and blew the Apollo derivative out of the water.

The Gemini B had begun as a logistics craft for the USAF’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory that, for the purposes of this discussion, had one important difference from the regular Gemini. It needed to be able to dock to the MOL and the most reasonable way to do so was at its aft end. This necessitated cutting a hatch into the capsule’s heat shield. While this looked like a dangerous strategy on the surface, it was proven to work and it became possible to attach other things to the Gemini B’s underside. For the basic Big G this was a truncated cone that increased the base diameter of the new craft to match that of the Apollo spacecraft, making it easier to mate it with Apollo hardware—and not just rockets. While they preferred their own cylindrical module for the third module that made a regular Big G into the nearly thirty-ton large cargo craft, McDonnell Douglas also came up with a side proposal to use Apollo Service Modules in that slot if NASA so desired.

The Big G was designed to be launched by one of three rockets. In its smallest configuration, it would be lofted by a Titan IIIM, a man-rated version of the Titan III which the USAF had started working on as a rocket for the Dyna-Soar program and then moved over to the MOL when Dyna-Soar was cancelled. This was the least powerful of the three alternatives, and would have been able to launch only the basic Big G. For one with the full complement of extra modules the choices were one of two Saturn variants that NASA was interested in building, either the Saturn INT-11 (the first stage of a Saturn V with four of the strap-on boosters used for the Titan IIIM) or the Saturn INT-20 (which would have consisted of a Saturn V’s third stage directly mated to the same rocket’s first stage).

As Big G was proposed not long after the Apollo 1 fire, it was designed to use an oxygen and helium mixture for its atmosphere, a difference from the pure oxygen of the original Geminis. The interior of the craft was also heavily reworked, with all of its systems upgraded and improved from the original’s. After all, as successful as it had been the previously flown Gemini had been only the second model of spacecraft flown by the United States.

When launched the Big G could have flown directly to a space station of short resupply or astronaut delivery-or-return missions. Alternatively the third module could be adapted to be a mini space lab, or a life support and habitation module capable of stretching the flight to 45 days; when the Big G was first being discussed, the then-record longest spaceflight of 13 days, 8 hours, 35 minutes had been achieved in an original model Gemini.

big-g-landing

Coming in for a dry-land landing under its triangular parachute, the Rogallo wing. Public domain image from McDonnell Douglas briefing to NASA, December 1967.

As previously mentioned, the end of the mission would see the re-entry capsule of the Big G bring its  astronauts home to somewhere in the United States by landing with a Rogallo wing. The capsule itself would have three landing skids that would cushion the impact of swooping into the ground, and then bring the vehicle to a stop.

Using the Big G as its transportation backbone, NASA’s hope was to have a 12-man space station in orbit by the time the Space Shuttle was ready to fly in 1975 (to use what turned out to be the optimistic estimate of 1969).

What happened to make it fail: The late 60s were an era of falling budgets for NASA, and there was a great deal of concern that the cost of launches was going to sink the manned space program—the Saturn V was notoriously expensive on a per kilogram-to-LEO basis (one figure, adjusted for inflation to modern dollars is $US22,000 per kilogram). Prices were anticipated to come down, but in general even the cheapest expendable launch vehicles have only beaten this figure by about a factor of three.

A re-usable launch vehicle had the promising appeal of bringing these costs down a great deal (projections, unfortunately based on unrealistic launch schedules, ranged as low as $US1,400 per kilogram). For crew return this made a glider of some sort necessary—either a lifting body or a winged craft—and when a high cross-range capability in NASA’s next spacecraft was cemented as desirable about 1970, wings became an absolute necessity. All possibility of a capsule, Big G included, fell by the wayside.

What was necessary for it to succeed: In retrospect the Space Shuttle looks like a mistake—its most basic reason for existence was to be a cheaper way to orbit than missions launched on expendable launchers and it never did so—most calculations pin it as more expensive per kilogram to orbit than the already expensive Saturn rockets it replaced. It’s important not to apply too much hindsight to this decision, but even in 1969 there were signs that sticking with capsules for manned spaceflight was the way to go. NASA had a strong constituency for this approach including, at first, the chief designer for the manned spaceflight program Max Faget. If he had stayed on-board with capsules, there’s a good chance that things would have turned out that way.

If they’d decided to go with a capsule, the two main options were continuing using Apollo spacecraft or building the Big G. Apollo had the advantage of still being in production, and it could have been launched on very similar rockets to the ones suggested for Big G. Big G, as mentioned, had the advantage of considerably more cargo space. Which of the two would have been picked comes down to an impossible-to-settle question of which advantage would be seen as tipping the scale.

The other possibility is that the Shuttle could have gone ahead, but that NASA could have realized just how long it was going to take before it flew: instead of going to space in 1975 its first mission was pushed back to April 12, 1981. If in 1967-69 they had had a better handle on the challenge they faced, the idea of using Big G as an interim logistics craft until the Space Shuttle was ready to fly would have been more attractive. The only problem with this scenario is that the Shuttle’s development costs put a big dent in NASA’s budget through the 1970s, so the space station that the Big G would have supported would have been hard to build while also going ahead with the orbiters.