Even before NASA landed humans on the moon during the Apollo program, some engineers were already thinking about what to do for an encore. Most agreed that the next logical step was to establish some kind of fulcrum in low Earth orbit, a kind of space station, in the early 1970s after the moon landings.
Initially, Wernher von Braun and others at the Marshall Space Flight Center pushed for the concept of a “wet workshop.” The plan, devised in 1966, called for the launch of two Saturn IB rockets about a day apart. One would have a crew, the other would not. Once in orbit, the astronauts would make the upper stage of the first uncrewed rocket’s S-IVB habitable by installing life support equipment in the stage’s hydrogen tank to create a working environment.
This concept became known as the “wet workshop” because the upper stage would be launched full of hydrogen fuel, which would be used to help the vehicle into orbit. Eventually, Johnson Space Center engineers convinced NASA Headquarters that this would prove too challenging and came up with the concept of a “dry workshop”, which involves modifying an S-IVB upper stage on the ground and then running out of fuel. launched. Ultimately, NASA flew three of these Skylab missions in 1973 and 1974.
Modern “wet workshop”
Now a group of three American companies proposes to revive the concept of the “wet workshop”. As part of a NASA-led competition to develop a deep space habitat for NASA, Houston-based NanoRacks is developing a plan to repurpose used second stages of rockets built by United Launch Alliance. Another company, Space Systems Loral, will provide robotic equipment capabilities. The group has just formally signed a contract with NASA to formally study the feasibility of the idea.
NanoRacks founder Jeff Manber provided more details about the collaboration in a blog post Monday morning. “This innovative approach offers a path that is more affordable and less risky than fabricating modules on the ground and then launching them into orbit,” he wrote.
Started as a company to expedite the delivery of scientific research to the space station, NanoRacks has big dreams. It has evolved into a company that delivers more CubeSats to low Earth orbit than any other company, and it sees the development of small orbit space stations as the next step towards expanding business activities in space.
A stupid idea?
The company already has an agreement for a “handful” of used Centaur upper stages, which burn liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen and fly atop Atlas V rockets. Currently, the podiums are thrown away after use. In the coming months, with funding from NASA worth approximately $10 million, NanoRacks and its partners will explore how best to transform an upper stage into a habitable environment. It seems like a big, big challenge.
A few years ago, the NASA engineer who ran the Apollo Applications program from the Johnson Space Center in the 1960s, Robert Thompson, told Ars that the wet shop was “just about the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard. And I I’ve heard a lot of stupid ideas.” That’s the kind of challenge NanoRacks faces now, as it tries to recycle the top stages. But the incredible payout, essentially “free” space stations in orbit or deep space, seems worth reaching for.
Of course, working in space hasn’t gotten any easier over the past 50 years. But engineers today have some advantages that their counterparts didn’t have when they worked on wet shop designs 50 years ago. Perhaps most importantly, they have decades of experience working on vehicles such as the International Space Station in orbit that have answered many unknowns about the behavior of vehicles and materials in microgravity.