The press begins to turn against SLS


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This report by Eric Berger of Ars Technica, describing the press teleconference today where NASA announced that they would not fly humans on the first SLS flight in 2019, reveals a significant political change.

In the past, most mainstream reporters would routinely accept NASA’s announcements about SLS. If the agency said it was great, their stories would wax poetic about how great it was. If NASA said its greatness was causing a delay, their stories would laud NASA had how well it was doing dealing with SLS’s greatness, even though that greatness was forcing another delay. Never, and I mean never, would NASA or these reporters ever talk about the project’s overall and ungodly cost.

This press conference was apparently quite different. The press had lots of questions about SLS and its endless delays. They had lots of questions about its costs. And most significant, they had lots of questions for NASA about why the agency is having so much trouble building this rocket, when two private companies, SpaceX and Blue Origin, are building something comparable for a tenth the money in about half the time.

During the teleconference, Ars asked Gerstenmaier to step back and take a big-picture look at the SLS rocket. Even with all of the funding—about $10 billion through next year—how was the agency likely to miss the original deadline by as much as three years, if not more?

“I don’t know,” Gerstenmaier replied. “I don’t know—I would just say it’s really kind of the complexity of what we’re trying to go do, and to build these systems. We weren’t pushing state-of-the-art technology, like main engines sitting underneath the rocket or new solid rocket boosters. But we were pushing a lot of new manufacturing, and I think that new manufacturing has caused some of the delays we’ve seen. No one welds the way that we’re welding material at the thicknesses we’re welding.”

…Later, the NASA officials were asked about private companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, which are also building heavy-lift rockets but at a very limited cost to taxpayers. What would they have to say about just buying those vehicles off the shelf, at significantly lower cost than an SLS launch, and preserving NASA’s funds to execute in-space missions?

Gerstnmaier’s explanations for SLS’s delays and costs, that it is a very complex and advanced piece of rocket engineering, is total bunk. This was supposed to be an upgraded Saturn 5, but it will only be able to lift about 70% of the payload. It is using the actual shuttle engines, and upgraded shuttle solid rocket boosters. While new engineering was required to refit these for SLS, none of that should have been so hard or expensive.

The key here is that members of the press are finally aware of this, and are asking the right questions. With Falcon Heavy about to launched multiple times before SLS even launches once, the continuation of this boondoggle is becoming increasingly difficult to justify.

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29 comments

  • Frank

    If SLS collapses due to lack of vision and program inefficiency, will anyone in Washington be held accountable for this expensive boondoggle? A failure of this magnitude would take down many private companies and cause stockholder revolt in public ones.

    Not only will the dollars have beeen wasted, but the added cost from the lost opportunity to pursue other more worthy and technically sound goals adds to the measure of failure.

    This is our money and our country being fleeced by Washington and parts of NASA.

  • LocalFluff

    Ha ha ha, he blames the weather, the tornado at Michoud! Well, it is his job to make up something that he thinks sounds good for the press. He couldn’t criticize it even if he understands how bad it is and ants to get rid of it. The bad lying indicates that his heart isn’t into it.

    Moving the main engines was maybe beyond NASA’s competence. They should’ve kept the Ares 5 concept where the engines remained on the side of the main tank, like on the shuttle. And forget the “advanced” boosters. NASA isn’t capable of making such a thing happen this century. This gives insight to why the Russian space agency is flying its 50 year old rockets. They also cannot develop anything new anymore. It is impossible for organizational reasons, because they are not a private company on a free market.

    NASA worked so well from the start because it recruited people from the private sector. People who knew how to get things done. Since then they’ve recruited students who have no clue, they go from the planned economy of the college to the planned economy of NASA without any knowledge about how things work in the world. An entire organization consisting only of people lifelong lost in a fantasy world of following instructions.

    I hope that the dropping of the tank was caught on surveillance cameras and will leak. I’d love to see it being smashed!

  • Alex

    Mr. Z.: “… on the first SLS flight in 2010.” Please correct error, I think 2019 is correct.

  • Alex: Typo fixed. Thank you!

  • Nobody will get the “blame” for a total zero result. One reason: SLS development cost of $10B over more than a decade is peanuts compared to other _yearly_ expenses of many departments/agencies’ projects.

    And they still may continue to blow money on it indefinitely. Shelby will be able to proudly sit back in his chair.

    Irrelevance is the only solution to SLS.

  • I think I need to correct a number here. They have spent a lot more than $10 billion. I think it is perfectly reasonable to include the cost for Ares in the rocket totals, which brings this up to about $19 billion through 2017. Since they spend about $2 billion a year on SLS, this will add at least $4 billion before that first launch, for a total of $23 billion. Add another $4 billion for the two more years until the first manned launch, at the earliest in 2021, and you get $27 billion.

    Even if you insist it is unfair to include the $9 billion for Ares, that still leaves us at $18 billion for one manned mission. What a bargain!

  • LocalFluff

    I read about events that happened before I got interested in the space industry, that after Ares I’s design had been finalized, they discovered that Orion and its 3 ton launch escape tower is too heavy for it. So they added a fifth segment to the solid booster, which became the booster SLS Block I will use. So Ares is certainly part of the SLS mess. They still intended to reuse the booster of Ares I. At least they tried to soft land it after the test launch, but only one of the three parachutes worked properly and it hit the sea too hard. Both the fifth segment and Orion were simply mass simulators.

    I think the Ares I concept sounds good. A small solid fuel launcher is potentially the safest kind of launcher for a crew. But Ares V/SLS must’ve looked good on paper too. This upgrade of the STS to an Energia like launcher. Just minor adjustments required, no changes needed in any infrastructure, engines for the first four rockets are for free in storage, it can be developed very quickly and will be much cheaper to operate without the shuttle orbiter. Sounds like a great low budget upgrade. It is the execution of it that has been a total wreckage. I wonder if there’s already published management literature about this monumental failure.

    Not until 2029, on paper, will the SLS Block II fly with new boosters. Until then Block IB will launch 105 tons to LEO, only 1½ times that of a Falcon Heavy expendable.

  • Richard M

    “No one welds the way that we’re welding material at the thicknesses we’re welding.”

    Yet more cost-plus mission and systems creep?

  • Richard M

    “I think the Ares I concept sounds good. A small solid fuel launcher is potentially the safest kind of launcher for a crew. ”

    The Air Force thought otherwise.

    http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2009-07-18/news/new_1_nasa-constellation-program-rocket-ares-i

  • Richard M

    Hello Robert,

    Re: Program costs: Doug Messier had a story on this a year ago:

    “A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report places the formulation and development costs of the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and related ground systems at just under $23.8 billion.

    “The total includes $11.28 billion for Orion, $9.69 billion for SLS, and $2.81 billion for exploration ground systems at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.”

    http://www.parabolicarc.com/2016/04/05/nasa-spending-238-billion-developing-deep-space-exploration-programs/

    Now that’s the cost through just EM-2. That does not include the cost of the Europa Clipper flight, which has now been notionally moved ahead of EM-2 (otherwise the Astronaut Office will go into rebellion, as they want to see the EUS fly at least once without crew first). It does not include the cost of the upgrades to the Block 2 SLS, or any of the operating costs of the architecture from then forward. I’ve seen estimates that include the Block 2 development costs which bring the total to $41 billion. That also does not, I believe, include contributory Constellation development costs.

  • LocalFluff

    I’ve seen claims that the shaking problems were solved before cancellation. And of course they should use retro propulsive landing instead of a launch escape tower and flammable fubbleble parachutes. But there’s nothing wrong with the concept of having a “small” proven solid launcher to get the crew to LEO. 265 out of 266 of those solid boosters did get almost a thousand astronauts to orbit safely.

    SLS/Orion now gets $2 billion a year. No questions asked. If you got $2,000,000,000 a year for nothing, wouldn’t you too shut up and try to hide and wait it out for as long as the mad money rain goes on? No one wants the uSeLeSs/Oreo to fly. It’s just a big tax money scam.

  • Wodun

    Why is the press turning on SLS now? Its the Trump effect. With Obama out of office, it is safe to go after SLS. How long before Trump gets blamed?

  • wayne

    Wodun–
    Good stuff.
    The corrupt media has to create the manufactured fake narrative of lies and then attempt to pin it all on Trump.
    (I’m surprised they haven’t dug up those phony homeless people, yet, but it’s surely on their list. But, too obsessed with Russia, Russia, Russia (Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!)
    But, maybe too soon… )

    The tab for this SLS thing, is unreal.
    [ By comparison, we spend (roughly) 70 billion/year on the SNAP Program (food stamps) with 30-40 million recipients. Free Cell Phones are roughly $4 billion/year.]
    And because we are $20 trillion in Debt, all that SLS cash was borrowed.

  • Sayomara

    I worry to much of critical eye here is because its Trump at the helm. Even though both Bush, Obama and Congresses of both parties deserve much more of the blame to say nothing of countless unelected bureaucrats. But the truth is the truth this problem has been going sideways for a long time and when you can see Spacex even with its set backs doing launches every two weeks more or less.

  • I listened in on that call. The teleconference wasn’t really much different from any of the other ones I’ve been on. Lightfoot and Gerstenmaier discussed the review they did about putting the crew on EM-1. There were some questions about that. Then there was discussion and Q&A about the program status, the delay and a question about private alternatives.

    The slip to 2019 wasn’t anything new; there had been news about that a while back. I’m not sure, but I think this was the first formal event where the press could question Lightfoot and Gerstenmaier about it. Which was fine because they were announcing the results of the review.

    There have been a number of GAO and NASA IG reports about SLS & Orion looking at schedule, challenges, etc. So the only real thing that was new was the decision not to place crew on board.

  • Steve Earle

    Robert, This is a sign that your article/s have had the desired effect with the right people.

    Questions getting asked because of your efforts is a great start. Here’s hoping that you and now a few others can keep up the pressure.

  • Richard M

    SLS/Orion now gets $2 billion a year.

    Actually, it’s up to more like $3.5 billion.

  • Richard M: You are essentially right, though a little high. SLS is expected to get about $2 billion per year, into the foreseeable future, whether it launches or not. Orion makes up the rest, with NASA forecasts and recent appropriations averaging about $1.1 billion per year. Take a look at my policy paper, Capitalism in space:, for a detailed analysis.

    I have been focused on SLS, because it is really the problem Orion is merely an overpriced ascent/descent capsule given a number of unnecessary additional capabilities that will never be needed, or would have been better placed in the interplanetary ship/module that the crews will really inhabit on their trips to other planets.

  • D. Messier: My post was not discussing to the telecon, and the questions therein. I was instead focused on Eric Berger’s article, which posed some tough questions about SLS to the public.

  • Richard M

    “I have been focused on SLS, because it is really the problem Orion is merely an overpriced ascent/descent capsule given a number of unnecessary additional capabilities that will never be needed, or would have been better placed in the interplanetary ship/module that the crews will really inhabit on their trips to other planets.”

    Agreed in full, Bob.

    Orion is over engineered for a LEO access vehicle (which is really what is needed) and underengineered for use in any serious BEO exploration architecture, since it remains basically what it was originally conceived to be: the capstone crew capability for 2 week sorties on the lunar surface in an Apollo-style program.

    It’s overpriced. But it’s not the crippling and wasteful showstopper for NASA’s HSF program that the SLS is.

  • LocalFluff

    ESA is paying for the Orion service module now, aren’t they? So that should be added to the bill.

    What I don’t get is why SLS Block I can only take 70 tons to orbit, while the empty shuttle orbiter weighed 68 tons and could take about 25 tons payload. SLS is more powerful with a fourth main engine and a fifth segment in its solid boosters, and an upper stage. Still it could only lift an EMPTY shuttle orbiter??? Costs aside for a while, I don’t get this part of rocket science.

  • Robert, you did say the telecon seemed to be different. So I addressed that.

    Eric’s story is a nice overview of where things stand with the latest delay and the problems NASA is experiencing with the new booster. He’s right that SLS and Orion could begin to look redundant once Falcon Heavy and New Glenn begin flying, providing both boosters are a success.

    Your criticism of the media coverage of SLS and Orion and your idea that the media has finally begun to turn against the program are off the mark. The media have been well aware of the costs and delays. They’ve done a good job covering them. Second, to base the latter claim on one story is thin.

    The fact is SLS and Orion are programs of record with bipartisan support in Congress. Their existence was part of a compromise between Obama and Congress under which commercial crew was also funded. They’re moving ahead with more than $3 billion per year in funding, whether the critics like it or not.

    Meanwhile, alternatives haven’t appeared yet. Musk is running four to five years behind on Falcon Heavy. He’s years behind on Crew Dragon. Bezo’s New Glenn and New Armstrong boosters are still a couple of years into the future.

    It’s nice to complain about SLS and Orion, but until there are proven alternatives and political support remains strong, it really doesn’t do much good.

  • Stephen Cooper

    When NASA first released the picture of the SLS, I mocked it, saying that they stuck Shuttle SRBs on the side of a Saturn 5. In retrospect, why didn’t they do that? Do an evolutionary change from established tech instead of a blank sheet approach to do a job they have already done? The Saturn 5 doesn’t even need the SRBs the match the SLS block 1 (like there will ever be a block 2)

  • John E Bowen

    Frank:
    “If SLS collapses due to lack of vision and program inefficiency, will anyone in Washington be held accountable for this expensive boondoggle?”

    No, sadly not. However, the winds of change are blowing I think, and at least we’ll see the shift from cost plus to true commercial launch vehicles.

    Bob Zimmerman:
    “I think I need to correct a number here. They have spent a lot more than $10 billion. I think it is perfectly reasonable to include the cost for Ares in the rocket totals, . . .”

    I agree with you. SLS/Orion is just a continuation of the wrong path of Ares/Orion. I don’t know if the media or the public see it that way. But whether you consider them as two enormously expensive failures in a row, or just one ginormous awful failure, the tide has turned. Low Earth Orbit launch services are becoming truly commercial. Now, for those lunar tugs and depots . . .

  • Edward

    D. Messier wrote: “It’s nice to complain about SLS and Orion, but until there are proven alternatives and political support remains strong, it really doesn’t do much good.

    Without complaints, how does one develop political support for change? The alternatives (Falcon/Crew Dragon and AtlasV/CST-100) are just as proven as the baseline (SLS/Orion), if not more so.

    John E Bowen wrote: SLS/Orion is just a continuation of the wrong path of Ares/Orion.

    At least Constellation (Ares/Orion) had a useful mission.

    SLS still has no mission to support. Almost a year and a half ago, NASA asked for ideas for probes to launch on SLS, but so far only a congressionally-mandated probe to Europa is on the schedule, and even that probe could be launched by another rocket.

  • Edward:

    Yes, you can complain about SLS and Orion and point to possible alternatives. Sure, it builds support. But, that really wasn’t what I was getting at.

    You have to understand, from a reporting standpoint, it’s difficult to continue harping on the programs when Congress keeps funding them and the alternatives remain the future. That will start to change once Musk and Bezos start flying their heavy lift boosters and prove they are reliable.

    The press has covered these programs and their delays and problems and the criticisms of them and certainly covered the progress of SpaceX and Blue Origin.

  • D. Messier: You say the press has covered these programs, their delays and problems, but I do not agree. If so, my policy paper would not have been had the impact I have seen it have. As far as I can tell, this was the first time someone had carefully added up the cost of SLS/Orion in conjunction with its lack of success. The comments of surprise about this from many news sources have been most interesting.

    What I have seen in the past decade has been good reporting on these costs and delays from inside space guys like you and me, but little in the mainstream press. The big outlets, the cable news channels, the big newspapers, the television news shows, have remained ignorant and wide-eyed cheerleaders. I think this is now changing.

  • LocalFluff

    There’s a huge SLS-propaganda out there. Including all of NASA’s “educational” effort. Good that WH tries to defund that evil propaganda department! It causes costs 100s of times its budget. Honest space journalists need to call them out and humiliate them for their deliberate sabotage against human space flight. That’s the most important subject in HSF in modern time. Why NASA chose SLS/Orion instead of a human space flight program.

  • Edward

    D. Messier wrote: “it’s difficult to continue harping on the programs when Congress keeps funding them and the alternatives remain the future. That will start to change once Musk and Bezos start flying their heavy lift boosters and prove they are reliable.

    Congress may ignore us when we harp on programs that Congress favors, but it is the best tactic that we have. I agree that when SpaceX, Boeing, and Blue Origin start doing what Orion is supposed to do (e.g. someone has already approached SpaceX to fly a private mission around the Moon) then everyone will wonder why we spent so much money on an obsolete system when that money would have been better spent on more productive space projects, especially when the alternatives are not as far in the future as is the baseline.

    However, I think that it is better to point out their error before or while Congress makes their error so that they look foolish for having made it. Only in that way will they come to realize that they are responsible to We the People for spending our hard earned money rather than responsible to no one. If no one complains before Congress realizes their error, they will think that the error was not foreseeable.

    Think of it as a teachable moment, even if Congress fails to learn the lesson — taught to them at our great expense — perhaps everyone else will learn the lesson and hold Congress more accountable in the future. Teaching people to do it right may take time, but it is worth the effort. It was worth Alexis de Tocqueville’s effort, even though France failed to learn the lesson, and it is worth Robert’s effort to write his Capitalism in Space paper, even if Congress continues to fund SLS at the expense of other, more productive, projects.

    D. Messier,
    I hope that you present similar lessons for your readers.

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