Senate to NASA: Back to the Future

Today, the group of Senators with a stake in the space program and NASA administrator Gen Charles Bolden had a press conference to announce key decisions related to the design of the Senate Space Launch System, or SLS. To summarize:

  1. The SLS is going to be based on a LH/LOx-fueled core, powered by 5 Space Shuttle Main Engines at the base and some Saturn V-derived engines on the second stage.
  2. The SLS is likely going to have strap-on solid rocket boosters, derivatives of (if not exactly the same production models as) the Space Shuttle’s booster rockets.
  3. The SLS will carry the Orion MPCV capsule.
  4. The first targeted flight of the SLS is supposed to be in the late 2010’s.
  5. NASA is supposed to paint it to look like a Saturn V. Saturn V Saturn V remember those? those were awesome, when you think of the Senate Space Launch System, think of a Saturn V.

Blatant paint job, huh?

I did not have high hopes for this announcement, because I am not a fan of the idea that NASA must have a heavy-lift rocket. I think that the premise the SLS is based on, that a super-heavy-lift rocket is a requirement for deep-space exploration, is flawed. To me, the SLS looks like the kind of rocket I would build if my goal was to send two or three people to an asteroid to plant flags and footprints, and then come home, and then let the space program atrophy away until nobody cares about it any more.

I think that, instead, NASA ought to leverage everything it learned from the Shuttle program about building things in space and construct a fleet of in-space vehicles, out of parts that could be launched on smaller, cheaper vehicles – such as Falcon 9’s or Atlas 5’s. These vehicles would remain in space for their entire lives, so that they don’t ever have to lug a massive heat shield all the way to Mars and back or anything like that. Every time we want to send another crew into deep space, we need only launch a new fuel tank and supplies – instead of a whole new spacecraft!

The SLS hardly represents a bold leap forward for NASA. Heavier and heavier lift is not so much of a challenge in innovation as it was in the ’60’s – and even the SLS is only fractionally more powerful than a Saturn V. It is supposed to use Saturn-V-derived (read: 50-year-old) engines on one stage and Shuttle-derived (read: 40-year-old) engines on the other. NASA artists went to great lengths to evoke the Saturn V in concept art of the SLS – but to me, that’s a bad omen. It demonstrates how much NASA has stagnated at the whims of Congress.

Worse, according to the New York Times, there are internal NASA documents showing that if the NASA budget remains flat, this rocket won’t have any manned flights until 2021 or beyond. And the NASA budget this year – in the very same appropriations process that generated the SLS – went down. I fear that Congress failed to learn the lessons of the Constellation program: that if you don’t fund a project like this, it will gobble up money from all the other science and technology and space research and missions NASA is supposed to be doing; and if all NASA’s eggs end up in one basket like that, then it really just takes that one project going over budget and coming in behind schedule to topple the whole thing.

I was pleasantly surprised by one bit of good news here, at least: the Senate has backed off a bit on over-specifying the SLS design. Allowing NASA to spec out a LH/LOx core rocket and put out the boosters for competitive bids is a Very Good Thing; previously, Congressional rumblings sounded like the rocket had all been awarded to ATK already. I worried about that because ATK has built itself a track record of running very behind schedule and over budget on NASA rockets, and a liquid-fueled design will be much more efficient than a solid rocket could ever achieve.

On the whole, the story wasn’t as bad as I thought is was going to be. However, I’m finding it harder and harder to be optimistic about the future of NASA with a project like SLS present. My prediction: SpaceX is going to come up with a Falcon 9 Heavy that totally outshines the SLS in capability, cost, and speed of delivery – and I can only hope that, before too many resources get sunk into the Big, Dumb Rocket, Congress wises up and says to itself, “hey, why don’t we just buy a bunch of those?”

The sooner Congress does so, though, the better – because that will give NASA more leeway to build the interplanetary spacecraft that I really want!

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