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Yet Another Opportunity Lost

I was doing some research today and stumbled across this nutshell history of the Saturn 1B. It’s galling to realize that, not only could we have gone to the Moon two more times before Apollo ended, or had one more lunar landing and another Skylab, but for the misguided quest for trivial budget “savings”, but we also could have had a bigger, better, already “man-rated” launcher all this time.

Even as it prepared to fly the first Saturn 1B, NASA was taking actions that threatened the future of this potentially versatile launch vehicle. The agency had begun to study Saturn 1B/Centaur designs in 1964 for post-Apollo missions. The three-stage rocket would have been used for a proposed Voyager Mars landing mission in 1971, for advanced Mariner planetary missions, and for launching geosynchronous weather and communication satellites. The detailed design called for the 120 inch diameter Centaur stage to be totally enclosed by a 260 inch diameter, 57-foot-long shroud that would also have enclosed the payload. Saturn 1B/Centaur would have been able to propel 13,400 pounds to Earth escape velocity or 33,500 pounds to low earth orbit.

Not a bad payload, considering the alternatives then available. It wasn’t until 1997, with the Titan 4B, that the Titan series surpassed it. And how much money did the government (NASA and/or DoD) spend over the intervening thirty years to gradually, painstakingly increase Titan’s payload? And how many Titans did they lose along the way, with how many billions of dollars of lost space assets?

The U.S. Air Force Titan 3C program took flight during 1965, adding more pressure to Saturn 1B. The Air Force claimed that each Titan 3C launch would only cost $9 million, compared to $18 million for Saturn 1B. This was an apples-and-oranges comparison, however, because Saturn 1B was a man-rated booster with more payload capability. Saturn launch costs could, conceivably, be reduced for unmanned missions.

Not to mention (oops, I already did) the fact that the payload capability was already greater than Titan 3C’s 29,000lbs, which it took thirty-two years and umpteen billion dollars to ramp up to. Yeah, amortize that.
And don’t forget there were two perfectly good launch complexes at CCAS, sitting there waiting to be used for Saturn IB launches which never came — thus eliminating the need to upgrade or rebuild the Titan facilities for each new variant.

In addition, as time would show, Saturn was more robust than Titan, with built-in abort capabilities that Titan lacked. NASA excluded Titan from its long-range mission planning in May 1965. Its judgment seemed validated when two Titan 3C missions failed by year’s end.

Well, some sensible thinking by NASA. Too bad they weren’t more aggressive in pushing back against the USAF and Titan. Else, we might have had larger, more capable planetary probes through the 1970’s and 1980’s. Or the ability to send a short-notice mission to Skylab (whether manned or remote controlled) to reboost it for later use by Shuttle or make a controlled deorbit. Or the luxury, in our current predicament, of a second form of manned space access and ISS resupply.

After nearly forty years of production and incremental improvement, the Saturn IB could have become cheaper, more reliable, and more capable (much as the Shuttle External Tank has done in the past twenty-five years). We wouldn’t be wasting taxpayer money on multiple EELV designs, of which only the three-booster Delta IV Heavy and the Atlas V 551 can duplicate its capabilities.

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