My thoughts on Nautilus-X MMSEV

I know all of you have been just dying to hear what I think about the Nautilus-X MMSEV vehicle that’s been discussed all over the blogosphere in recent days. Ok, probably not, but I figured I ought to get my opinions on record anyway.

I’ll start with my positive impressions first. Most importantly, I like the idea of using reusable in-space vehicles. One of the points I had intended to make with the MHD aerobraking series was that such technologies might lead to the day where directly returning to earth from the moon interplanetary space via a capsule is considered an anachronism. So, I’m a firm supporter of space architectures where the earth-to-LEO segment is totally separate from the in-space segment, and where the in-space segment favors reuse.

I’m also a fan of many of the technologies that the MMSEV was talking about, such as artificial gravity, actually dealing with radiation issues, etc.

But on net, my overall impression was that while interesting, this will never happen. At least not with the NASA we have today, and not on the budget they’re claiming. Unless I’m totally misunderstanding what all falls under “DCT&I”, $3.7B to develop that vehicle over five years sounds wishful thinking when you realize that Orion has spent more than that over a similar amount of time to get to PDR. Realistically, in a world where Orion and SLS are expected to cost over $20B more and take at least another 6 years to get to service, I really have a hard time believing that a vehicle that much more complicated, done by the same groups, is somehow going to be available that much sooner and for that much less.

I’m not trying to badmouth the guys who put their hearts and souls into this concept. I think it is visionary, and has many elements in the right direction. I just think that compared to where we are today, the budget and timeline numbers they’re claiming are overoptimistic, and that we’re not really anywhere close to being able to do something like what they’re talking about. More to the point, we’re not even to a point where we need something like what they’re talking about. While I’m a fan of NEOs and Phobos, reality dictates that most human spaceflight over the next few decades is likely to be focused in cislunar space. We may do occasional ventures beyond, but they’ll likely be riskier, smaller, and cheaper missions.

I hope we get there (to a point where we’re ready to build something like Nautilus-X) someday while I’m still young enough to appreciate it, but I think there are bunch of steps between here and there that need to be taken first if we’re going to be serious about not just exploring space, but making space part of “humanity’s natural environment”.


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