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Before the Space Shuttle retirement, there was a huge pressure on NASA, U.S. Administration, and everyone else directly involved in U.S. human space exploration using Heavy-Lift Launch Vehicle (HLLV) to come with suggestions to keep the U.S. access to space and International Space Station (ISS) gap-free and all the existing workforce employed in the industry, doing what they do best, while trying to reuse existing technology to achieve these goals.

Advisory committee was formed by the President G. W. Bush, Vice President J. D. Quayle and the Space Council, chaired by Norman R. Augustine, more commonly know as the Augustine Commission. Commission's end report included several proposed variants for the continuation for U.S. manned flight, among which Option 4B that called for a direct Space Shuttle derived HLLV reusing many parts of Space Shuttle, like it's two boosters, external tank, Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME), and sitting Orion crew module on top of it, dealing away with the Space Shuttle Orbiter (SSO). The whole idea enjoyed large support of the space community, as can be seen for example in this video compilation supporting Augustine Commission Report Option 4B.

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   Exploded diagram of the DIRECT v3 Jupiter-130 Launch Vehicle. Artist: Philip Metschan, DIRECT Team. Source: Wikipedia on DIRECT

From Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee document titled SEEKING A HUMAN SPACEFLIGHT PROGRAM WORTHY OF A GREAT NATION (PDF), Option 4B, perhaps better known as DIRECT v3, is described as:

Variant 4B is the Shuttle extension variant. It offers the only foreseeable way to eliminate the gap in U.S. human-launch capability: by extending the Shuttle to 2015 at a minimum safe-flight rate. It also takes advantage of synergy with the Shuttle by developing a heavy-lift vehicle that is more directly Shuttle-derived than the Ares family of vehicles.

I can't state how much this option makes sense to me, but as much as I'd like it to, the whole thing isn't happening, is it? And the then so much discussed U.S. human access to space and workforce gap is now a reality, isn't it? So, I guess this naturally begs the question:

What eventually killed the Augustine Commission Report Option 4B, Directly Shuttle-Derived Heavy-Lift Launch Vehicle? Are there any good objective reasons that made decision makers believe it was worth scrubbing much of the existing Space Shuttle technology for a new U.S. HLLV in the form of first Ares, then SLS, that even now seems more as a gap-filler project that won't deliver for many years to come, even if all goes according to plans?

I do apologize if this seems as a bit of a rant, I guess it is, but I'm looking for objective explanation of what went wrong, and if possible, please substantiate your claims with references. Which decisions made U.S. lose its status as the world leader in human space exploration and caused this almost intolerable gap in U.S. based human spaceflight and access to space for manned missions?

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  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps the third post in this thread, citizensky.org/forum/direct-30s-jupiter-launcher, is part of the answer. What went on behind the scenes in the Augustine committee, we don't know that either. Feynman was a rather influential member. Perhaps his discussions with working engineers led him to believe that Shuttle-derived was the way not to go, and that might well have been that. Also note that the second post links to this: sfgate.com/news/article/…. That's Option 4B. It was not DIRECT. $\endgroup$ – David Hammen Mar 10 '14 at 19:11
  • $\begingroup$ Further discussion on the politics behind this question is on The Pod Bay. $\endgroup$ – called2voyage Mar 10 '14 at 21:06
  • $\begingroup$ I think that the ISS made it much easier for the US to accept not having human launch capability. The impression is that human space flight has been internationalized anyway and is someone elses responsibility. If NASA had had a space station of its own, it'd been more difficult to motivate a reliance on Russian rockets. $\endgroup$ – LocalFluff Jun 12 '14 at 9:28
  • $\begingroup$ @LocalFluff: A agree with this 10,000 percent. This will get worse when we return to the Moon and discover we forgot to bring our passports and Chinese phrasebooks. . . $\endgroup$ – MercuryPlus Jun 30 '14 at 19:42
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In one sense, Option 4B was rejected because that option was to send humans back to the Moon. NASA and Congress have opted to instead send humans beyond Earth orbit, either an asteroid or to Mars.

In a larger sense, Option 4B lives on in part in the Space Launch System. Shuttle-derived components are an important part of SLS.

From http://www.directlauncher.org,

After several years of ongoing relationship with NASA, the DIRECT Team is pleased to see that many of the principles that defined our Jupiter HLV design have found application in NASA's new flagship launch vehicle, the SLS.

While we are disappointed that the agency has chosen to introduce costly additions to the heavy-lift design, rather than make maximum utilization of existing components, technology, and infrastructure, we are pleased that the Administration, Congress and NASA have found common ground and charted a course forward for our nation as we move beyond the era of the Space Shuttle.

As we look forward to that future, the entire team offers our very best wishes to NASA as the agency embarks on a new path of once again leading mankind beyond the confines of Low Earth Orbit; back to the Moon, on to Mars, and then beyond, into the deepest reaches of our vast solar system.

On October 13, 2010, the DIRECT Team declared success.

DIRECT Team Declares Success and Looks to the Future

The DIRECT Team congratulates and applauds the President, Senate, and the House of Representatives for passing legislation enabling NASA to begin work on the Space Launch System Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle, based on existing Space Shuttle components.

For more, http://www.directlauncher.org/documents/Direct-Team-Declares-Success-PR-101310.pdf.

In particular, SLS is directly reusing the Shuttle Main Engine, just as the DIRECT team proposed. It is also reusing the Shuttle External Tank (with modifications) and the Shuttle solid rocket boosters (with modifications).

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    $\begingroup$ Except they seem to have chosen the 'modifications' to each that is most costly, and labour intensive. Direct was much bigger on minimal modifications, which was a critical point to get it done fast and cheap. $\endgroup$ – geoffc Mar 10 '14 at 15:44
  • $\begingroup$ @geoffc - Three comments regarding your comment: (1) Escaping Earth orbit would be rather difficult with Shuttle heritage equipment. Some mods are needed to go beyond Earth orbit. (2) Note that Option 4B was to go to the Moon, not beyond. In a sense, Option 4B was rejected by NASA HQ and by Congress. They want to go beyond Earth orbit. (3) SLS is oftentimes called the "Senate Launch System" for good reason. Without modifications, it would have rather difficult for Congress to add pork for their states / their districts. $\endgroup$ – David Hammen Mar 10 '14 at 16:01
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidHammen So what specific mods? An upper stage? We have the RL-10, they can be clustered. The J-2 was an option as it was, but they had to go redesign it as the J-2X of course. More money, more port. What specific things limited Option 4B to JUST the moon and not beyond? $\endgroup$ – geoffc Mar 10 '14 at 16:49
  • $\begingroup$ I really recommend watching that video compilation supporting Augustine Commission Report Option 4B that I also link to in my question. I think it'll become clearer what derived out of it and how it was meant to be done. It's not even a half bad video, tho they could use a sound engineer. I realize that's all water under the bridge now, but I can't help but wish it wasn't and we'd be covering DIRECT v3 launches now for the past two years. $\endgroup$ – TildalWave Mar 10 '14 at 16:52
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    $\begingroup$ @TildalWave - I'll give a different perspective on the DIRECT team: They were out to protect their jobs. SpaceX uses all new equipment; they directly disprove DIRECT's claims that all new = very expensive and that all new = lots of time. $\endgroup$ – David Hammen Mar 10 '14 at 17:24
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As pointed out, NASA wants to go beyond Earth orbit. THAT is the problem. They are losing taxpayer support with every discussion about Mars because no one has ever given a reason for going to Mars that means anything to people not trying to protect their aerospace/NASA job. People are scared the economy will collapse next Tuesday, if not sooner, and NASA wants to go to Mars. This comes across as out of touch on so many levels. What they (taxpayers) need is to hear someone talk about BENEFITS in a way that allows them to feel confident about the expense. Sort of like trying to talk the entire country into taking an expensive camping trip. Technically neat concepts like DIRECT will not, by themselves, generate that confidence.

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