SLS, Falcon Heavy and Rockets “Worthy of a Great Nation” : Time for an Independent Review

SLS Credit: NASA

Credit: NASA

There is an interesting division taking place in the media as it relates to how NASA and the Space Launch System are being covered.  On the one hand, NASA itself has done an excellent, if not overly enthusiastic job of promoting SLS/Orion and the “Journey to Mars” despite the fact that there is no such “journey” underway, except in the loosest sense of the word.

For those who remember when even the mention of Mars in the context of human exploration was virtually forbidden in the Clinton Administration, NASA’s newfound exuberance for sending astronauts to the Red Planet, was undoubtedly refreshing, at least for a while. Now however, it has gone to such extremes as to often seem more farcical than factual, such as when Administrator Charles Bolden, responding to a question said that NASA must build SLS because the SpaceX Falcon 9 is “old tech.”

At the same time, what one might call the traditional “space media” including Space News, Aviation Week and several long established websites, are relatively quiet when it comes to producing overt criticism of the program, often limited to dutifully reporting the latest GAO, NASA OIG, or other institutional review. It is not hard to see why, and it is for the same reason that trade magazines of any stripe rarely contain much negative reporting; their advertising revenue comes mainly from the same contractors whom they are naturally reluctant to “diss.” One only has to look at the “I Am Orion” advertisements running on several space websites to figure out that hard edged reporting is going to be muted, even as weekly “bolt tightening” stories are passed along with all the hype included, but outside of any greater context.

Op/eds and reader comments are another matter however, and remain a way for even the most staid publications to drum up interest. One case in point involving Space News was an op/ed run several weeks ago regarding the RD-180 engine that was so overt, and so badly written that it drew near universal waves of derision.

The thing is however, not nearly as many people read the space centric websites, including this one, as go to much more broadly based sites which have an entirely different advertisement base. Here, the combination of experienced reporters displaced from ever shrinking traditional media sources, as well as the lack of constraints from biting the hands that feed you, has unleashed a wave of writers who are not beholden to the same people they are writing about. One of the most vocal has been Ars Technica’s Eric Berger, formerly of the Houston Chronicle. As the stories critical of SLS and in particular its opportunity costs add up, one wonders will they have any effect, or simply offer a different perspective, which is to say, any perspective at all.

One recent example comes from Buzzfeed, in a piece which incidentally, also quotes Berger:

“The futuristic space rocket, called the Space Launch System (SLS), won’t send any astronauts into space until at least 2023, and it doesn’t even have a destination. But that doesn’t seem to matter to lawmakers. Since the moon landings ended, NASA is and has always been a jobs program, more about dollars spent on the ground than discoveries made among the stars, with the SLS bonanza just the latest example.

“It is more the politics of pork than the politics of progress,” former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver told BuzzFeed News. “There’s a long-time pattern at NASA where money aimed at science and research ends up with builders and contractors instead.”

As the excerpt demonstrates, the story includes the familiar charge that SLS does not “have a destination,” an accusation that has led it to be regularly derided as a “rocket to nowhere.” In case you forgot, that is an allusion to Alaska’s now infamous monument to political pork gone wild, the “bridge to nowhere.”

There is a problem with that line of attack however. SLS is not really a rocket to nowhere, because as NASA so frequently tells us, its destination is Mars. It may be a long way off, require multiple upgrades and more launches than the United States is likely to be willing to pay for, but it still has a destination.

Moreover, that destination could change in the blink of an eye to a target which is much closer, and far more plausible in the short run than the Red Planet. In that context, the criticism would lose nearly all its impact and much of its relevance if a new administration unexpectedly re-directed NASA’s efforts towards the Moon.

The real question is whether or not in the context of the New Space revolution and all we have witnessed in recent months, SLS represents a financially acceptable means of reaching either destination. Perhaps it does, but that is a conclusion which needs to be based on real data, and actual plans, rather than hype.

Before the nation commits itself further to such a controversial system in the face of plausible alternatives, it would be well advised to revisit some of the issues examined by the Augustine Committee in 2009, conducted under a similar format.

Such a review will not take place, if at all,  until some time after the presidential election, but it is desperately needed. Supporters of the status quo will no doubt argue against it,  just as many of the same elements fought against a review of Project Constellation.  Some NewSpace advocates may even claim it is not necessary because Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are pursuing their own agendas regardless. What that overlooks however, are the mounting opportunity costs to other NASA programs which are being underfunded to support SLS/Orion. Also missing are other leveraging programs which could help lift both Old and New Space if a different conclusion, backed by data, is reached.

Three key data points worthy of consideration should finally be in place before the opportunity for a new examination arises. Each concerns SpaceX.

The first, and most relevant is the oft-delayed debut of the Falcon Heavy. If SpaceX’s flagship triple-core booster delivers as promised, then much, but not all, of the argument for SLS, goes with it.

The second data point relates to re-usability. If SpaceX successfully re-launches a recovered Falcon 9 first stage within the next 12 months or so, then much of the remaining argument for SLS becomes even harder, as now it must be contrasted against even lower mission costs for the Falcon Heavy. Most of what remains is the advantages to be gained by the larger payload fairing offered by SLS, something the Falcon Heavy cannot match. How much is that worth exactly?

The third is more generic, and that is flight rate. Quite simply, if the company is able to meet and maintain the flight rate demanded by its manifest, then the last major criticism leveled at it fades away and analysis can focus on capability and pricing.

None of this is new, and all of it is likely familiar to anyone who follows the company even casually. Rather, these are points which were not available the last time a credible, independent review was made of the NASA’s transportation plans and possible alternatives. Furthermore, they should not be taken as a suggestion that civilian American space launch capacity should be turned over to one company. Instead, it concerns the most relevant data point of all; what other American launch providers should be expected to accomplish given the right mix of opportunity and support.

Most of what any heavy lift system is lifting is propellant, and in this fact lies the potential for more, perhaps quite a few more comparable launch systems to be fully developed in the context of a steady, affordable program of exploration.

It should not be wasted.

Posted in: SLS / Orion, SpaceX

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20 Comments on "SLS, Falcon Heavy and Rockets “Worthy of a Great Nation” : Time for an Independent Review"

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  1. Jim Fackert says:

    The most exciting part about SpaceX (and Blue Origin, to a lesser degree) is the pace at which major advances are being achieved.

    Boosters could not land, until they did. they could not land on a barge, until they did. They cannot be re-flown, until they do. Capsules could not achieve pad abort, until they did. They cannot achieve in flight abort, until they do, nor propulsive landing, until they do…. and in months to years, not decades and decades.

    SpaceX is achieving these milestones at a pace unheard of in aerospace, and at a pace that any federal or big contractor bureaucracy is -incapable- of keeping up with.
    While the next study of the viability of Orion and it’s alternatives is still underway, SpaceX will probably land a capsule on mars.
    But the competition is good, the “insurance” factor is good. Even if Orion serves no other purpose, as a short term competitor to SpaceX, it is useful until there is more altspace competition.
    I think that’s one reason why Musk welcomes competition. It helps him drive harder toward his goal of multi-planetary humanity, and provides some insurance that humanity may have a less easily extinguished future and the effort will go on, with or without SpaceX.
    i can forgive him for the occasional chuckle as he glances at the rear view mirror….

    • Asher says:

      While I share your enthusiasm, SpaceX’s progress speed is not unheard of in aerospace. After all, the Soviet Union went from launching its first satellite to launching its first human in literally 2 years. And the United States went from a manned flight that couldn’t even reach orbit to landing people on the moon in 8 years. When the vision, the will and the funding line up, progress in aerospace happens fast. SpaceX looks so blisteringly rapid because we haven’t seen a confluence of vision and the drive to achieve it since the moon landings

      • Kirk Davis says:

        That nailed it exactly. Vision, drive and funding. I wish the article had mentioned BFR, whose Raptor engine is in development already; if and when BFR flies, any vestigial arguments for SLS will be gone.

  2. Dave Huntsman says:

    Good article, Stewart.

  3. NASA operated a partially reusable heavy lift rocket, the Space Shuttle, for more than 30 years. So there’s really no evidence that partially reusable rockets are cheaper than expendable rockets. ATK built the reusable solid rocket boosters for the Space Shuttle and is now going to use expendable solid rocket boosters for its private commercial launch company.

    The fact that Space X is going to build its own super heavy lift methane/oxygen rocket tells just how valuable the Boeing/ATK SLS super heavy lift hydrogen/oxygen rocket is for goals such as sending humans to the Moon and Mars.

    The only problem with the SLS is that President Obama took the Moon off the table while continuing to extend the life of NASA’s expensive big LEO program (the ISS) at $3 billion a year.


    • Nestos says:

      What a joke.

    • PK Sink says:

      “NASA operated a partially reusable heavy lift rocket, the Space Shuttle, for more than 30 years. So there’s really no evidence that partially reusable rockets are cheaper than expendable rockets.”

      I love what the Shuttle was able to accomplish, even though it was an imperfect creation. But to compare that program to what SpaceX is doing is a real stretch (and kinda silly).

      • Dan Bailey says:

        You make an excellent point in your second paragraph. The shuttle was a special kind of bastardization that didn’t do anything particularly well. That they were able to get as much out of that program as they did says something about the ingenuity of NASA.

        Honestly, I think the agency is staffed with well-meaning people who have the unfortunate role of being a government agency that doles out pork to contractors. This explains why there’s so much resistance to SpaceX at the upper echelons of the organization. I’d also be willing to bet that if you asked around at the lower levels of NASA, the answer would largely be, “Whatever platform gets us there soonest with the least amount of financial overhead.”

        Solutions come from the cube farm, not from management.

    • Art says:

      “The only problem with the SLS is that President Obama took the Moon off the table while continuing to extend the life of NASA’s expensive big LEO program (the ISS) at $3 billion a year.”

      Well how else was SLS/Orion going to be funded. If the moon was still on the ticket, then SLS/Orion/Moon infrastructure would be as expensive as Constellation. Congress & President Bush didn’t bother to raise NASA’s budget to get the moon base architecture. So, the only way to keep to keep to the original architecture is to drop the moon base concept and concentrate on the capsule and the heavy lift launch vehicle. After SLS/Orion is developed, the moon can be put back on the table using commercially developed affordable concepts. Other than the only cost plus Lockeheed/Boeing developments of Constellation.

    • Art says:

      Marcel For some reason you really dislike the LEO ISS. NASA is using the ISS to help the U.S. commercial sector develop the vehicles, launchers, landers & other tools to be able to affordably open up manned BEO exploration. Otherwise, SLS/Orion will be headed to the same demise as Apollo after a few launches, without a viable commercial sector to support & enhance it.

    • Clarity says:

      Shuttle was at best refurbishable. Reusing the boosters was hardly worth it, the tank was expended, and massive amount of effort to get the orbiter back in shape for re-flight was so extensive and expensive that costs exceeded original estimates by 10x or more. It also didn’t help that it was a death trap.

      That aside, Shuttle is not the best, nor the only, path to reusable launch vehicles. Clearly SpaceX has shown that there are ways to return boosters to land or barge that will be able to fly again with comparatively little refurbishment. Just because NASA couldn’t do it with Shuttle doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

    • Jc says:

      I belive that reusing the shuttle was cheaper then making a new one.
      If you apply the same logic to falcon9 then it will drop the prices

    • Kirk Davis says:

      “The only problem with the SLS…”
      I disagree. Instead of the design of SLS being driven by technical requirements and engineering, it was in part driven by Congress, which pushed the use of STS (shuttle) components and contractors. Obama didn’t “take the moon off the table”, he (along with Biden and others) rightly prioritized a more ambitious and frankly non-repeat goal – Mars. The fact is that SLS won’t be capable of sending human missions to Mars until Block II, more than a decade from now. Contracts to build it are largely “cost plus”, development will end up being in the $15 – $20 billion range, and flights will at least $1 billion each (optimistically). It’s a massive mound of pork.

      I will make a bet right now: SLS block II will never be built, and by the time the cis-lunar mission flies, SpaceX will have launched it’s massive new methalox rocket, and Blue Origin will have launched its orbital rocket. And BFR will cost so much less, it’s launch will be SLS’s death knell.

  4. Art says:

    I understand from NASA’s point of view. At the time of Constellation, there was no other proven way of contracting other than with the legacy providers Boeing & Lockheed Martin. So, let them finish their SLS/Orion and put it to good use with the newspace companies proposals. NASA is at a crossroads and Boeing and Lockheed Martin need to bring their best game to the table. Maybe, even partner with some of the newspace companies.

    • nickik says:

      Even back then they could have used different kinds of contracts, they just did not want to.

      Let them finish, sound simple until you define what ‘finish’ is.

      SLS is not gone achieve Blcok 2 until 2030!!! and it will cost billions PER YEAR until then. That is without any launches, with 1 or 2 launches a year, you are looking at an additional billion per year at the least.

      Orion is even worse. Its not clear what the Orion is really supposed to do. The version of it that will (maybe) fly in 2023 will not be able to do much beyond a lunar orbit. It does not have a heat shield for more and it is to small for most other missions anyway. So why should we pay billions for its development.

      • Art says:

        “So why should we pay billions for its development.”

        Because Congress will defund the SpaceX vehicle before they terminate funds for the SLS/Orion. Sometimes you have to give before you can get a new way of doing things.

  5. Ameriman says:

    We should face the truth that Nasa is just another failed, incompetent, wasteful, bloated, pork driven Federal Agency…. most of whose budget goes for useless dead wood centers and HQ overhead known for dead end earmarked pork boondoggles like STS, ISS, Constellation, SLS/Orion..
    Nasa blew $20 billion on it’s miserably failed/cancelled Constellation, while innovative, spirited, efficient SpaceX produced deep space capable boosters/capsules for only $300 million…
    No one now at Nasa has ever managed a single deep space mission or designed a successful rocket… Since Apollo, Nasa has spent 44 years and $500 billion on US manned space without getting a single American beyond low earth orbit, leaving itself incompetent/incapable of crewing or even resupplying our own space station.
    We should downsize/eliminate Nasa, and instead route the money to x-prizes rewarding private enterprises for accomplishing US space goals like Lunar Colonies, Americans on Mars, trips to asteroids…
    The US manned space program is too important to be further entrusted to our bloated, pork driven Federal Govt and Nasa.

    • Art says:

      You have been spouting the same nonsense for years. Face it! Without NASA there is no manned commercial space sector. It is the federal agency that dispenses funds for space exploration. The way that SLS/Orion is written into law by the Congress means that it will be around as long as the commercial crew vehicles are around. Or, until Congress changes the law. Are there more affordable ways of achieving manned access to lunar space? Sure there is. SLS/Orion is the only one that is federally funded. If a private company wants to use their own funds & their own method that’s fine with me or until the get funds from NASA.

  6. Ameriman says:

    Federal Agency Nasa promised a gullible America and Congress a $7 million per flight ‘cheap, safe, reliable access to space’ shuttle… yet delivered a $1.6 billion per flight dead end boondoggle which killed 2 crews and had chronic and multi-year service outages…. Nasa’s shuttle was the most unaffordable, dangerous, unreliable space vehicle in history…
    then Nasa destroyed the US Commercial booster business by forcing all domestic payloads to it’s shuttle… handing the business to the USSR, China, Japan, France….
    ISS is a $200 Billion useless boondoggle… Constellation was a $20+ billion cancelled failure, while private enterprise SpaceX created vastly superior boosters and capsules for only $300 million….
    SLS/Orion is an unneeded, unaffordable, unsustainable $60+ billion earmarked pork boondoggle…. when we should instead be leveraging the far advanced/superior/efficient deep space capable SpaceX boosters and capsules to reach Mars and other space goals.
    Nasa has blown $500 billion on US manned space since Apollo without getting a single American beyond low earth orbit, leaving itself incompetent/incapable of crewing or even resupplying our own space station.

    • Asher says:

      SpaceX wouldn’t have had enough money to hold itself together and develop the Falcon 9 if NASA hadn’t come in and awarded it the COTS contract.

      Plus, you know most of the problems with NASA are really problems with Congress. NASA is filled with fantastic amazing scientists and engineers who are absolutely hamstrung by the whims of congress. That they manage to accomplish so much even with those handicaps is incredible.

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