SkyLab II, Inspiration Mars and Promoting SLS

SLS ConfigurationsCredit :  NASA

SLS Configurations
Credit : NASA

Keith Cowing reported on March 28th, that the Inspiration Mars Foundation is being heavily pressured by elements at JSC and MSFC to base its plans for a 2018 circumnavigation of Mars on a single launch of the agency’s yet to be flown Space Launch System.  Although  Cowing did not reveal the source of his information, given NASAWatch’s role in bringing other issues, such as a buried fuel depot study into the light of day,  there is every reason to believe the basis of the story is accurate.

Although there would appear to be multiple issues with the concept itself, beginning with the fact that the first, unmanned launch of SLS is only scheduled for 2017 and could easily slip,  it seems difficult, if  not impossible to believe that the agency could have a second vehicle ready within a year, and for a mission which depends on a hitting a launch window, this might be the most risky element of the entire plan.  Inspiration Mars will be making a presentation to the Future In Space Operations Working Group (FISO) on Wednesday, and the complete presentation with charts and audio will be available to the public at this site on Thursday, so it seem likely that some questions regarding the potential use of the SLS may be answered this week.

Two other proposed uses have come up recently as well.  One, presented to the FISO group last week,  calls for the development of new space station, to be placed at the Earth Moon L2 location.  Conceptually similar to Skylab, which was based on a converted Saturn V third stage,  the Skylab II (pdf) would be built from a converted  SLS second stage H2 fuel  tank,  allowing a fully stocked and voluminous (17,481 cubic feet before fitting out)  station to be placed in low Earth orbit in a single launch. Still missing though, is a transfer stage to get it to the Earth Moon L2 point.

But what to do when you get there? According to leaks coming from the yet to be released budget request, go study the small asteroid NASA would like to capture and bring to the L2 point with a solar electical propulsion system.  Actually in this case, the use of SLS is  not to capture the asteroid, but instead to launch a crew abord the Orion spacecraft to the asteroid once it was at L2.   Adding a station would presumably be a bonus.  As these two proposals indicate,  various NASA teams have been spending a lot of energy lately focusing on a dark side of the Moon L2 point as the preferred location in cis-lunar space to extend the range of human operations with the tool they are given, namely the SLS.  Each of the proposals has merits, and each also has the extreme drawback that it has very little to do with the one destination that inspires us more than any other, Mars.

In a general sense,  the increasing number of proposed “uses” for the SLS, other than what it would seemingly be best suited for, throwing the maximum possible payload to Mars in a single launch, is already highly reminiscent of the series of the laundry list of potential missions for the Space Shuttle which were used to build the economic house of cards on which the program was based.

Though many still predict that Space Launch System will be cancelled before it sees a first crewed flight, it seems likely that as with the Shuttle from which it was derived, enough stakeholders have already been assembled to insure that the program will continue for some time.

If that is indeed the case, then perhaps it is time to begin focusing future policy on plans which  take maximum advantage of  the unique capabilities offered by SLS such as  high payload capacity and an enormous fairing (which currently doesn’t exist), while actively seeking to incorporate commercial elements  in a collaborative manner.  Doing so would mean dropping the pretense of an either/or vision of future architectures which says we must either repeat the ISS experience with many complicated assembly  flights, or accept the slow pace of an SLS only architecture, and instead seek a middle ground.

The question is, does NASA still have the confidence to seek out and push for those uses, and having created the conditions for success being witnessed in the current COTS and CRS programs, does it have the will to push aggressively for incorporating new concepts and commercial alternatives in acquiring payloads which it does not, and will not, have the funds to develop?

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3 Comments on "SkyLab II, Inspiration Mars and Promoting SLS"

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  1. Coastal Ron says:

    The author said:

    “Doing so would mean dropping the pretense of an either/or vision of future architectures which says we must either repeat the ISS experience with many complicated assembly flights…”

    We’re never going to be able to launch all-in-one spacecraft and space stations from Earth, so the only possible way forward will be in-space assembly of just about anything we want to do.

    That being the case, the faster we learn how to master assembly in space the faster we’ll be able to move on to doing exploration, as well as everything else we eventually want to do in space.

  2. Coastal Ron says:

    Great article by the way.

    In looking at the Skylab II proposal, about the only justification I saw for needing a larger diameter module is that the author of that paper thought that lots of open space was good.

    I watch NASA TV occasionally, and to me the crew on the ISS do not looked cramped at all. They have plenty of room to do their work, and the equipment bays are pretty large.

    The other assumption the Skylab II proposal makes is that aluminum shelled modules are what we should be concentrating on, whereas expandable modules like the ones Bigelow is planning for his space station seem to offer an alternative that many think should be the next step (less mass, better radiation protection, more volume, etc.).

    Just like with the decision to build the SLS, we need to start with what the requirements are first, then build up to what the potential trade-offs and solutions are before we pick a winner. The decision to build the SLS bypassed a large and growing fleet of mature launch vehicles that had already proven that they could build 450mt structures in space, so building a smaller EML station won’t be a new challenge.

    I don’t see the limitations we have without the SLS, but with the SLS it is pretty much a given that NASA doesn’t have the budget to use the SLS.

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