Methane Rocket Fuel: A Lot of Hot Gas and Nowhere to Blow

I don't know if you noticed--between fashion reports from red carpets of Hollywood awards shows and the return of new Battlestar Galactica episodes--but NASA is thinking about dropping methane-type propellants from its requirements for the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) program in favor of harder to handle, yet more dangerous hypergolic propellants like those used in the shuttle and other old-school systems.

Now, this may sound just a tiny bit obscure and technical, but it is actually symbolic of the agency turning its back on the future, as it struggles to please its established constituencies by going backwards in time. This is of course ironic for an exploration and advanced research agency; in fact you might even call it anti-thetical to its purpose, as understood by the public who funds the whole thing. But to those of us who have watched this throwing out the oars and compass to save the ship mentality, it is nothing new--if not completely predictable. Remember the space shuttle being able to fly 50 times a year? Or, the space station that was going to be a port in space and a lab to learn how to live and work there? (This is the Internet my friends, go back and read the words from those who gave us these earlier myths--at the time they seemed just as solid as the current ones, and were pronounced with just as important and knowing voices.)

You see, once again, longterm supportability--and any relevance to any overarching goal like opening space to the people--is being sacrificed to pay for short term budget challenges that really don't need to exist at all. On a leadership level, this isn't all NASA's fault. Due to internal and external pressures from old timers and those who think they're supporting our space program in Congress (but are actually hurting it), NASA is trying to make sure that there is no gap between the shuttle's 2010 retirement and the arrival of its "Crude Exploitation Vehicle".

Of course, as Bill O'Reilly would say, I am spinning this my own way. I admit it. My goal, the permanent and economically profitable expansion of the human species beyond the Earth, is not the goal of NASA, comments by their leadership in national newspapers notwithstanding. Their goal, if one can tease it out from their actions, is to look really busy doing really important things, while spending our money propping up certain major companies and political constituencies. They may have themselves fooled into thinking they are going somewhere, but with few exceptions, they are building a system that will lead us nowhere. This will be done at the greatest possible cost to the taxpayers and return the highest possible profit to the entrenched aerospace cabal that created the concepts in the first place.

So, back to methane propellant, which, not so coincidentally, is also a gas exuded by well-fed animals. The ability to mine, extract and manufacture methane--based fuel from the resources we find in space and on the Moon and Mars is the equivalent of learning how to live off the land. You want to live in space permanently, you can't take expensive, hard to use, and dangerous stuff with you all the time everywhere you go. Instead, you make the investment early to develop the tools to live cheaply later on. (Think of it this way, you need water at your new outpost in the desert. You either spend a few bucks to drill a well now, or you pay someone to bring you water forever. Evian anyone?)

Now, because we have these artificial goals and badly designed rocket systems, NASA suddenly has a tight budget and a short timeline. So they don't want to take any risks, or spend any money that doesn't directly apply to the artificial goal they have set. That means using old, tried and true, already developed systems--even though they may totally blow our long-term budget, and kill off our ability to stay where we are going once we get there. But at least they are "mature technologies." That is, we know they work, for now. And why should it matter, as the "busy" people with their hands in our wallet are going to make their money anyway, and this way they don't have to break a sweat.

Methane based rocketry is not yet a "mature technology" in the language of astrocrats. In other words, it has not been developed to the level of dependability one would need to trust it as the central pillar of a space system (so unlike using a shuttle solid rocket booster based vehicle to launch a crew, ...err...what...?) Anyway, in order to count on such systems, they need to be developed and tested and tested and used and tested and....etc.... Well, if you kill their funding before that happens, you don't get any new "mature" technologies, and thus, self-fulfilling prophecy be praised, you have to go back to tried and true systems that always worked before--like nasty, explosive, hard to use hypergolics. Now to be fair, many at NASA, especially those who have to get down and dirty every day and deal with them hate this stuff. They have a tendency to kill and maim more than other types of propellants (look into accident records at the cape for more on this). Of course this is far away from the comfort of headquarters, where a coffee spill in the snack room is the height of daily disasters. Also, a massive amount of infrastructure and cost goes into their use. They require systems that are complex and often the root of large costs. And, a little side note--if you are looking at long distance voyages, methane may be more efficient. But once again, the enemy you know is safer than the potential friend you don't.

Speaking of potential friends, ironically, this is all at a time when lip service is being paid to helping our innovative and fledgling NewSpace industry get off the ground (so to speak). NASA's decision to drop this sort of motor will be in the face of the fact that at least one NewSpace firm is already testing exactly this sort of technology, using its own money! A relative pittance of funds from the agency flowing into this project and other promising research both inside and outside of NASA could get this technology into a few rocketships relatively soon. This could all happen in the few years between now and when NASA says they will be ready to fly the new government space machine. Notice I use the terms "when NASA says" which I will bet the Moon is at least three to four years earlier than when they might actually do so if they keep going the way they are now. (Note to anal retentives - Please archive this statement and have it pop up on your handy dandy computer calander in 2010.)

With just a tiny bit of guts, money and faith in American ingenuity, NASA could support the birth of this very much frontier-enabling technology. The offer of prizes for methane propellant processing and rocket motor demonstrations, as well as other incentives, such as buying rides or payload services to orbit from these firms would help drive them into use. They appear to be much more economical than traditional technologies, and this would help methane rockets reach technical "maturity." Think about it! Both the government and the private sector would benefit! What a great win-win concept!

Won't happen though.

As it makes too much sense. Wish it would. But it won't. Want it to... but no, it won't.

Look, if you get one thing from this rant of mine, get this, it ain't about sense, it's about rocket science--as defined in Washington.

So what's up with Adama on Galactica this week...? And that Scarlet Johansson girl on the red carpet...looking good in that gown baby!

Rick N. Tumlinson is the founder of the Space Frontier Foundation.

NOTE: The views of this article are the author's and do not reflect the policies of the National Space Society.

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