by Gaetano Marano
Apart the stellar costs of this rocket (that may reach $30 billion in the next ten years) can the $L$ be (at least) enough safe to launch humans?
The first way to save the astronauts’ lives if something goes wrong (like e.g. the explosion of the rocket’s propellents tanks) is to put a LAS atop the Orion capsule to be activated in time to take away, in few seconds, the capsule from the dangerous place.
This kind of device has already saved the astronauts in a couple of failed Soyuz launches but when used with the Apollo atop the giant SaturnV (fortunately) it has never faced a real accident, so we don’t know IF the Apollo LES would have been able to save the crew.
Of course, the $L$ will be man-rated before be launched with astronauts, adopting the best procedures, simulations and triple-redundand computers and circuits, that should trigger the LAS in time to drag away from rocket the crewed capsule.
But, unfortunately, the ONLY two things that REALLY set the rocket’s reliability (or its dangerous flaws) are the UNMANNED TESTS and the LAUNCH RECORD.
Well, the Saturn V has been tested unmanned twice, in less than one year, before its first manned launch with the Apollo 8, and the configuration of the two test rockets was the same of all subsequent rockets launched with crews.
The $L$ will be launched only two times in the next ten years (one unmanned in 2018 and one with a crew in 2023 for a trip around the Moon) but in TWO DIFFERENT VERSION so, also if the unmanned test launch in 2018 goes well, nothing can say us that, the DIFFERENT and bigger $L$ version (with a DIFFERENT first and second stages) launched in 2023 with a crew towards the Moon will perform perfectly like the first version/launch.
In other words, also the second launch (with astronauts aboard) will be only a VERY DANGEROUS TEST.
But the thing that the $L$ will LACK ENTIRELY will be a (reasonable) SUCCESSFUL LAUNCH RECORD that, with two DIFFERENT rockets launched in ten years, will be practically ZERO.
Nothing comparable with other very reliable rockets, like the Atlas V (with 61 and half successes in 62 launches) or the Ariane 5 (with 81 successes, of which 71 successes in a row, in 85 launches).
Dulcis in fundo (old latin say) the third $L$ launch (just the second with a crew) will be accomplished, someday in the second half of the next decade, with an even bigger (then, again, untested) version of the rocket, for an unknow and still undefined mission, probably for the (useless and very dangerous) “asteroid grab” mission.
So, despite the excellent NASA skills in developing and build rockets for manned missions, the $L$ will likely be the most dangerous and risky rocket ever built, a monster that may easily become a true “FLYING COFFIN” for the astronauts.
The best choice, to avoid all these issues and risks, is to delete the whole $L$ program and replace it with a better and safer hardware and a smarter mission’s architecture, but, probably, at this point, it’s too late for a so drastic change.
Fortunately, I believe that the $L$ launched in 2018 (or much later) will be the ONLY rocket of this kind that will ever fly, that’s why I call the $L$ the “Ares 5-X” because, like the $470M (completely useless) Ares 1-X test, also the $L$ program will be DELETED after the maiden launch.