Take one external tank, add a couple/three RS-68s, plus two four-segment shuttle SRBs, place one steroidally large capsule on top, and you have a Jupiter 120. The Jupiter is the latest heart throb on the "save my job in Florida" circuit. Presumably carrying out 118 iterations past the Robinson's Jupiter 2, the subversive minions at MSFC have been hiding (but getting paid for) their efforts under the ARES 5 advanced technologies development budget (Mr. Emperor, RandS told you where to look several months ago) and just about everyone in Alabama knows about it except our favorite soon-to-be Italian waiter and the man with deficient wardrobe.
And yet, like every other half-baked idea, the Jupiter concept is yet another answer to the wrong question.
So why are our eyes turning red over Jupiter? Since it's the political season, we'll twist a popular quote and just say, "It's the capsule, stupid." Just as the pony-tailed engineered ESAS architecture started from false premises, this shuttle spin-off is designed to carry a 5m capsule and Broom Hilda's trappings. For what should be a less than six hour flight to/from the space station, just why do you need to carry all that weight and volume along for on the short rides?
(And isn't COTS taking care of that mission anyway, snicker snicker.)
Well, we're also going to the moon, you say? Ok, well, we didn't need quite that much space per person on Apollo to get back and forth, now did we? And, what about using some of that space in the lunar lander to provide habitability for the three day ride. You're going to have to live in that space for maybe nine days anyway on the moon. So, why, oh, why, do we need to carry the big beast up and down through the atmosphere?
Our friends, the Russians and the Chinese, have it figured out. Use a small capsule to get up and down through the atmosphere, attaching some nearby, throw away, volume for more homey accommodations. This approach minimizes the size, weight, and complexity of all of the other things that affect safety going up and coming down through the atmosphere (e.g., abort system, parachutes, airbags, etc.). And that's where this whole started, wasn't it? "Soon, simple, SAFE."
When you try to develop something like a strategic exploration architecture in 60 days, you're bound to make mistakes. Every schedule slip and cost overrun since then pays tribute to that.
But, we digress. Back to the Jupiter 120. Given that it avoids the problem at the root of the exploration architecture, what other fall-out can we expect going forward? First, the safety issue. It's a brand new rocket. Kudos to the designers for using off-the-shelf parts, sort of. You would still have to man-rate the RS-68s and integrate the whole thing. But, its first flight will be just that, its FIRST flight. All of those millions of parts working together for the first time. Experienced S&MA folks will want a number of flights (call it 10) to gather the statistics to demonstrate its safety.
But, you say we put two guys in the cockpit of the first space shuttle to lift-off. Given the broken struts, thermal clips, and foam that flew off that vehicle, do you still think that was such a smart decision in retrospect? Spaceflight is a risky business, you say? Negligence should be hard for an engineer to sleep with at night (unless you're the chief engineer of the universe). Only when we can look in the mirror and say to ourselves that we started from first principles and did the very best job we could with the resources we have, should we commit our friends to fate.
Pssst! You-who! We have two rockets over here that are flying already, have a pretty good track record, have a significant amount of previous generations of heritage in them, and, by the way...they are already paid for! We just need a right-sized capsule (or space plane!) to fit on top and we can close the gap for you (and then some) without Ms. Mikulski's $2B. Did we mention closing the gap? That means those jobs in Florida stay put, too.
Finally, the Jupiter 120 is an evolutionary dead end. In its "heavy" form, it tops out around 92 mT. With the lunar surface support studies indicating that a lunar base will require two 140 mT flights a year to keep it stocked with air, water, and food (and those blu-ray disks for those long lunar nights), the price tag for the many measly Jupiter-heavies will sink it in the end.
It should be a crime to appropriate budget resources for such short-sighted ideas, even when the money is being siphoned off from shorter sighted ideas. But when you are friends with the Alabama sheriff you can get away with things. No, at this point we need some enlightenment, we need the everyreadys. We don't need Gene Kranz telling us to stay the course, lighting a candle in a thunderstorm.