|Big Dumb Boosters: A Low-Cost Space Transportation Option?
International Security & Commerce Program, Office of Technology Assessment
Congress of the United States
This book describes and examines a launch vehicle concept commonly known as the "Big Dumb Booster," a concept that derives from efforts first made in the 1960s to minimize costs of space launch systems. Some believe that the use of this concept, when applied to existing technology, could markedly reduce space transportation costs. Other analysts disagree.
Low-cost space transportation is one of the keys to more effective exploration and exploitation of outer space. If space transportation costs were much lower, government agencies and firms with good ideas for using the space environment might be more willing to risk their investment capital. This document examines a wide variety of ideas to reduce these costs.
Written by industry and government aerospace experts, it describes a wide variety of concepts for low-cost launch vehicles, especially those that use "low technology" approaches to engines and propellant tanks in the booster stage. The text focuses on the design of launch systems for minimum cost by using simplified subsystems.
The "Big Dumb Booster" concept remains controversial. Here, scientists argue both points of view.
The report covers modern expendable launch vehicles, which were derived from 1960s intercontinental ballistic missile designs using high-performance engines and lightweight structures. The Atlas rocket is an example.
It also examines the large Soviet boosters (Proton and Energia) as examples of Big Dumb Booster designs, because of their apparent simplicity and use of heavy steel structures. (Soviet rocket assembly lines resembled automobile factories more than their U.S. counterparts, which look more like hospital operating rooms.)
It then turns to "design for minimum cost" approaches, including pressure-fed (as opposed to pump-fed) engines. It discusses low-cost fuel tanks (made of welded steel or graphite-epoxy, instead of titanium or beryllium/aluminum); safer, cheaper, and easier-to-handle propellants (such as methane, propane, and kerosene); and simpler, more reliable launchers. Detailed comparison studies of cost and efficiency are given for the Saturn V and alternative "cheap" boosters.
Finally, the book turns to the issues of "institutional obstacles"--bias against low technology, especially within the aerospace community. You'll see why NASA and various corporations are often more interested in the "technical grandeur" of a program than in doing it in a cost-effective way. (Reactions to the idea of low-cost rockets are usually linked to who has a vested interest in expensive boosters.) You'll learn also why satellite owners and payload managers have little enthusiasm for the Big Dumb Booster, and how the government procurement system makes launch rockets very, very expensive to design, build, and use.
This report is of vital interest to all who are concerned with the future of space exploration.
It was produced with support from scientists and engineers at NASA Langley Research Center, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, The Aerospace Corp., Viking Instruments, TRW Space and Technology Group, Aerojet Propulsion Research Institute, General Dynamics Space Systems Division, American Rocket Corp. (AMROC), Martin Marietta Commercial Titan, Inc., United Technologies Space Flight Systems, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Contel/American Satellite Corp., Rocketdyne Division of Rockwell International, Scientific American, Lockheed Corp., Boeing Aerospace Co., Hughes Aircraft Company, IBM Federal Systems, Stanford University, Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, Air Force Astronautics Laboratory, George Washington University, and the Illinois Institute of Technology.
We offer this rare document reprinted with a high-resolution laser printer (not photocopied) on high-quality, bright-white, 24-pound, acid-free paper for years of reference use. It’s is an attractive, quality-bound volume with 31 pages, measuring 8.5 x 5.5-inches. $14.95
- Origins of today's launch vehicles
- A new design criterion
- Further studies and hardware developments
- Alternative approaches
- "Big Dumb Booster" technologies
- Propellant tanks
- Launcher reliability
- "Big Dumb Booster" studies
- Institutional Obstacles
- Bias against low-technology
- Resistance from satellite owners
- Lack of incentives to cut costs
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