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Friday, June 1, 2007

Offshore Notebook: Back to the Future

IT’S NOT OIL AND GAS WORK, BUT offshore operators might have taken note of a recent request for information by NASA.

In Solicitation No. NNJ07ZTA005L, posted May 2 on its "Business Opportunities" Web page, NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston issued a request for information from industry. The agency is looking for advice on how it might rescue and recover vehicles and crews launched under its proposed next-generation spaceflight program. The space agency plans to return to its roots with the Constellation program.

As the Apollo program that landed men on the Moon wound down in the early 1970s, NASA came up with the space shuttle. It was envisioned as a highly reusable "space truck" that would make manned spaceflight routine.

That led to a system made up of a crew vehicle — the winged orbiter — that could return from space to dry land and be processed quickly for re-launch and a propulsion system — the three main engines on the orbiter and the two slender, pointed solid-rocket boosters — that also could be reused. Only the system’s big, orange liquid-oxygen/liquid-hydrogen tank is expendable.

But the shuttle system never lived up to those unrealistic expectations. It always has been a very high-cost, high-maintenance means of putting people and things in orbit. After the loss of two of NASA’s five orbiters — Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003 — and their astronaut crews, the system became less viable. NASA plans to retire it in 2010.

NASA earned much of its glory with the old-fashioned means of spaceflight: putting astronauts in a capsule atop a liquid-fuel rocket. That worked for the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. The space agency is returning to that scheme with Constellation, which initially would service the International Space Station. But if NASA’s dreams hold out, Constellation would return Americans to the Moon as soon as 2018 and then carry them on to Mars. The program would use the Orion spacecraft (or Crew Exploration Vehicle, in NASA speak) to carry up to six crewmembers instead of Apollo’s three. Ares 5 rockets would succeed Saturn 5s in lofting them to orbit.

Orion crews would return to Earth as the first astronauts did, in a capsule slung beneath big parachutes. But in a twist, NASA proposes to tear a page from the Russian space programs. Unlike U.S. capsules, which landed in the Atlantic or Pacific, Russian ones land on terra firma in north-central Kazakhstan. NASA plans to bring Orion capsules back to the western U.S. desert.

What does this have to do with offshore operations?

The desert is the target. If something goes wrong and the landing comes up short, the astronauts can’t set down in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, or Phoenix, so NASA likely would lay up, as the golfers say, and have the capsule land in the Pacific. If, on launch, something goes wrong, the crew and capsule also would end up in the water.

NASA says the odds are that a problem on a launch to the space station would put the Orion crew within about 270 nm of the shore along the Eastern Seaboard of North America, anywhere from Florida to Newfoundland. But there is a slight chance an aborted launch to the station could put the crew in high sea-state waters between Newfoundland and Ireland. A bad launch on a Moon mission could put astronauts in the drink east of Florida as far out as western Africa.

Those scenarios are dictated by orbital mechanics. The space station is built from big pieces launched from Russia’s space center, which sits at about 51 deg N Lat. Its orbit peaks at that latitude north and south.

Kennedy Space Center is at about 28 deg N Lat. To reach the station, spacecraft launched from there have to start by climbing in latitude, so they fly nearly straight up the Eastern Seaboard. Moon missions, on the other hand, don’t have a latitude target. They launch due east to add the speed of the Earth’s rotation to their velocity, like a tail wind.

If something goes wrong, someone will have to fish the astronauts out of the ocean. In the old days, the U.S. Navy did that. But the U.S. government is keen to give commercial enterprises fair shots at its business. NASA’s request for information is to verify the government needs, "as well as broaden industry participation in meeting government requirements." It asked for suggestions on means and methods of recovering crews to help it come up with the most effective, affordable solution.

The capsule would weigh about 20,000 lb and stand 11 ft and 16.5 ft wide. NASA says it won’t have any toxic materials, but will have high-pressure systems and some pyrotechnic devices. It is being designed to keep the crew safe in the water for 36 hr until rescue forces arrive.

NASA wants to know where recovery assets are today, what their cruising speed, hoisting capability, and other performance characteristics are, and potential response zones and recovery times. NASA officials want to know how injured or incapacitated crew might be rescued and how operations would be conducted at night or in poor visibility?

Plans call for two launches a year. NASA wants to know if, at that rate, it would be more affordable to share rescue assets with industry or other governmental organizations — perhaps energy companies or the helicopter outfits supporting their offshore operations?

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