Commission’s Final Report to NASA Recommends In-Space Refueling

A final report issued by a blue-ribbon commission on NASA’s future enthusiastically embraces in-space refueling and commercial spaceflight to low-Earth orbit, but curiously leaves out NASA’s Ares-I rocket in future scenarios.

The Augustine Commission appears to once again favor private commercial spaceflight for launching cargo and crews to orbit, such as SpaceX’s Falcon rockets. The report makes mention of a modified Ares V rocket and the Orion spacecraft as NASA’s backup in case private industry fails to deliver, but does not mention the Ares-I rocket that is slated for its first test flight next week.

It also touts in-space refueling as a way to give both smaller and larger rockets longer legs on space missions. The report noted that a rocket would typically burn part of its fuel during launch, and then spend the rest injecting its payload toward whatever destination beyond low-Earth orbit. But a space tanker or fuel depot could provide more fuel for a greater boost.

“Studies commissioned by the Committee found that in-space refueling could increase by at least two to three times the injection capability from low-Earth orbit of a launcher system, and in some cases more,” the report states. As one example, the Ares-V could launch 130 metric tons to the moon by topping off in space, as opposed to just 63 metric tons without.

U.S. aerospace companies such as Boeing and United Launch Alliance have already floated proposals for space depots. Technology Review also notes that Russia has already performed in-space refueling of its space stations using its Progress spacecraft.

So leaving aside NASA’s future with Ares-I, at least space refueling sounds like a concept that just about everyone can get behind.

[NASA via Technology Review]