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.