Defending SLS Takes a Curious Historical Turn

SLS in the Dark NASA Artist's Concept

SLS in the Dark
NASA Artist’s Concept

In 2013, the Houston Chronicle’s Eric Berger conducted a remarkable interview with retired NASA manager Christopher Kraft, the engineer who was the agency’s first manned spaceflight director, and who played a critical role in designing each of the boosters which elevated the United States from sub-orbital flight to the surface of the Moon in less than a decade. Honoring such a contribution, Houston’s Mission Control bears his name.

The substance of the interview, and an earlier op-ed in the Chronicle from Craft and fellow NASA veteran Tom Moser was that the Space Launch System was a black hole waiting to consume NASA’s budget.

From the op-ed

” The current national human exploration strategy, which is based on development of the SLS, is economically unaffordable. The SLS-based strategy is unaffordable, by definition, since the costs of developing, let alone operating, the SLS within a fixed or declining budget has crowded out funding for critical elements needed for any real deep space human exploration program. Most of these critical elements would be managed by JSC. They include the crewed lunar lander, a multi-mission space exploration vehicle (MMSEV), a deep space habitat, a lunar surface rover and other lunar infrastructure. The development of these critical elements has been delayed until the mid-2020s and the 2030s, so real human exploration beyond Earth will not begin until the late 2020s or 2030s.”

The pair went on to colorfully characterize SLS/Orion as specifically threatening the Johnson Space Center’s core competencies of mission ops and engineering by leading it into an operational “Death Valley” which would see those capabilities atrophy as it hibernated during the long sleep before NASA actually started going somewhere with its new toys.

All of which brings us to yesterday’s House sub-committee hearing in which the generally affable current Administrator Charles Bolden was asked by ranking Democrat Mike Honda of California to respond to the criticisms leveled by Kraft. In addition to the funding issue, Kraft and others, including the Aerospace Safety Advisory Board, have pointed out that the projected flight rate, at one or fewer year, is far too low to allow efficiency even as it leads to serious questions regarding safety.

Bolden’s response was remarkable, if not simply audacious:

“I have the advantage of a team around me that he didn’t have.”…”You have to remember. Most of us forget. I have a very mature leadership team. When Dr. Kraft was in mission control, and when he led the Johnson Space Center, we went to the Moon. Most of the people were 20 years old. They didn’t know anything.” Indeed.

The last orbital launch vehicle NASA both designed and carried through to operational status was the Space Shuttle. Its first flight was 35 years ago as of next month. Its development began in 1969, the same year Kraft’s NASA landed Apollo 11 on the Moon. SLS, by Congressional mandate, is composed of Shuttle derived components.

Bolden’s response then, put another way, was to suggest that his “team” is better suited to judge SLS than the very people who designed, built and operated its key elements. If nothing else, it underscores the fact that age and experience are two very different things.

By contrast, as has been pointed out many times, the average age of SpaceX employees tracks rather closely to that of NASA’s own during the Apollo program. Moreover, it is also interesting to note that both Jeff Bezos and in particular Elon Musk, who now has two (or three depending on how you classify Falcon 9 improvements) orbital boosters to his company’s credit, point to high projected flight rates of their respective systems to suggest that they will be safer than heritage boosters.


Posted in: SLS / Orion

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