Experts: NASA’s SLS Mars proposals bunk

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The death of SLS begins: At House hearings this week, congressmen listened to several space experts who lambasted NASA’s asteroid and Mars mission proposals.

Paul Spudis of the Lunar and Planetary Institute and an expert on lunar science, was especially harsh.

“America’s civil space program is in disarray, with many aspirations and hopes but few concrete, realizable plans for future missions or strategic direction,” he said, adding that NASA lacks what it needs to pull off the mission (and throwing some shade at the agency’s strong Twitter game). “We pretend that we are on a ‘#JourneytoMars’ but in fact, possess neither the technology nor the economic resources necessary to undertake a human Mars mission now or within the foreseeable future. What is needed is a logically arranged set of short-term, realizable space goals–a series of objectives and destinations that are not only interesting in and of themselves, but whose attainment build space faring capability in the long term.”

The testimony claimed that it could cost anywhere from $500 billion to $1 trillion for NASA to get humans to Mars, numbers that are reasonable based on using NASA’s very costly and overpriced SLS/Orion rocket and capsule. The congressmen were of course interested in this, not because they want to get to Mars, but because they see gobs of pork for their districts in these numbers.

However, I expect that when SpaceX begins successfully launching its Falcon Heavy rocket in the next two years while simultaneously putting humans in space with its Dragon capsule, and does both for a tenth the cost of SLS/Orion, those same congressmen will dump SLS/Orion very quickly. Though they want the pork, they also know they don’t have $500 billion to $1 trillion to spend on space. The private sector gives them an option that is both affordable and of strong self-interest. The more realistically priced and designed hardware of private companies will give them a more credible opportunity to fund pork in their districts.


  • Steve

    “What is needed is a logically arranged set of short-term, realizable space goals…”

    That is right on the money.

  • pzatchok

    They know that periodically small rocks show up in our Earth/Moon Lagrange points. They will stay there for a little while then for some reason be moved out.
    Meaning these rocks are moving very slow and not spinning rapidly if at all. Perfect targets for a practice capture.
    If they can not even park a vehicle up there to watch and wait for one then what hope do they have of doing anything useful with a larger rock much farther out?

    I bet several of the private companies working on things like this are in a better position to get something done than NASA.

  • Edward

    Moon vs. Mars is an argument that has been going on since at least the 1970s.

    With the moon, we’ve “been there, done that,” thus many people are not interested. However, with Mars there is the problem that such a mission would necessarily last longer than one presidential administration, and we already saw what the change of administration did with Bush’s moon initiative. We went from having a definite mission for our next-generation manned rocket to having a wishy-washy mission proposal, including a cancelled rocket to a Congressionally-designed rocket with no mission.

    Some people insist that it takes a nation to do such a large project, but they may be wrong. Such a large government project is not possible if it is at the whim of the executive and not embraced by the entire elected body. It is Congress’s insistence that we have the Space Launch System (SLS), as the president didn’t want it at all. Congress was eager to have the Apollo program, the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station (ISS)

    It has been demonstrated that smaller, less costly projects tend to survive presidential changes, although a president may not support more of them during his time in office. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) has a Mars exploration program that is a good example. Unlike the manned Constellation program, the president did not cancel any of JPL’s missions, but he is responsible for a reduced number of new missions over the next decade.

    Another problem that we have had over the past half century is building lasting infrastructure in space. Apollo was followed up by nothing, so it provided us with some experience, science, and Earth-side infrastructure (e.g. Vertical Assembly Building and Pads 39A and 39B), but Apollo failed to be a stepping stone, as no follow-up programs happened. The Space Shuttle similarly gave us the same benefits but left us with little more additional infrastructure than Apollo did. The ISS is on schedule to do the same, if it is reentered after authorization for it ceases.

    Because it is authorized for specific periods of time, the ISS is not considered a permanent piece of infrastructure that will last the test of time, unlike many of the ground facilities at NASA centers around the country (much of which dates back to the Apollo program).

    It is my opinion that the manned space program should find a series of projects that can be accomplished in five to ten years — each project producing and leaving behind an important piece of infrastructure in space — present them to incoming presidents as important goals to reaching Mars, and devoting itself to achieving the goal(s) of the project that each president chooses. JPL seems to do something similar, and it has been one of the most successful parts of NASA.

    Advantages of such a strategy include breaking up the extreme cost of reaching Mars into affordable and achievable bites. (How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.) Producing space infrastructure that is used for decades into the future. Allowing for a definition of what we need to learn, to build, and to accomplish in order to send people to other worlds, such as the moon, Mars, and other planets. In 2009, when Congress first asked NASA administrator Bolden what the milestones were for getting to Mars, he had not coherent answer, despite the mission being his proposal.

    Back when NASA was the NACA, it provided facilities for US aircraft companies to use in order to test advanced ideas in aircraft designs. The wind tunnels at Ames Research Center are an example. NASA can provide infrastructure for future explorers. Perhaps cis-lunar orbit or a Lagrangian point (e.g. L-5) would make for an excellent base for a jumping off point for manned planetary exploration, as well as for visual or radio astronomy, without the interference of Earth’s atmosphere and radio and light sources. Such stepping stones could be the government’s contribution to a government-industrial partnership in space exploration and expansion. Perhaps industry can contribute the manned spacecraft that get us to Low Earth Orbit, L-5 or cis-lunar orbit, down to the moon, and off to Mars.

    A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. So far, our steps are not taking us on a journey to Mars (or back to the moon) very quickly, and we need to pick up the pace.

  • pzatchok

    All this nation need do to start a new wave of private space investment is to make one claim.

    A we as a nation will back anyone who takes possession of and exploits something in space for profit.

    You build a moon base and start mining something its all yours to profit from as you wish.
    Capture an asteroid and mine it you get all the profit.

    You just have to actually get a person there to make the claim.
    Even if you have to move it a bit to make it easier.
    If its an asteroid your moving by automation think of it as a ship lost at sea. Someone else can come by and place a foot on it before you and make the claim.

    If this is going to be a race let there be prizes.

  • > each project producing and leaving behind an important piece of infrastructure

    I would agree provided that it really is important meaning necessary. Consider that the lowest cost launcher for the forseeable future will be a partially reusable Falcon Heavy. Its cost per kg to LEO will be less than smaller launchers. So the common idea of a LEO depot being filled with numerous smaller launchers may not be economically valid.

    OK, but then how about completely filling a LEO depot with just a few launches of the FH-R in support of really big rockets to Mars? The problem with that idea is that, if you transport from LEO to an EML staging point the large payloads launched by the FH to LEO, then basically, you deliver to the EML point payloads as large as a 90 tonne HLV launch. Two FHs > a 130 tonne HLV. In other words, using this approach means that you don’t need to refuel an HLV at LEO. So again, no need for a LEO depot.

    OK then, how about some sort of assembly facility at the EML point? Completely unnecessary because automated docking can easily assemble large stacks. Same thing applies for going to the lunar surface. Docking of payloads (cargo, crew, propellant modules) launched from Earth with refueled landers from the Moon means no need for a cis-lunar facility. Same thing holds true in Mars orbit.

    So, whereas I am totally for infrastructure especially for propellant where there are the resources (Moon, Mars, asteroids) I’m not convinced that in-space facilities are actually necessary for transportation and logistics.

  • Correction: “if you transport from LEO to an EML staging point” USING ION PROPULSION

  • pzatchok

    Manned Mars missions are nothing but propaganda. Fluff to get a little public interest in NASA.

    Exactly what will a person on Mars do that a robot could not?

    This isn’t the 1960’s where adequate robots didn’t exist and all we had was man power. Exactly what parts of the Lunar missions could not be done with robots now?
    Robots can stay there years and require nothing but sunlight and good planning.

    Man would need quadruple redundant parts just for his life support systems.

    There is no advantage to assembling or staging a mission at an EML compared to LEO.

    And we NEED to start actually building structures in space instead of just docking and stacking them.
    We need the experience for one. Plus docking and stacking is a weak assembly style and internal space inefficient.
    Would you trust the ISS to make it to Lunar orbit if we strapped engines to it? That’s a stack and docked system.
    We need to learn how to transfer fuel in space or at least change fuel tanks. We have very little experience at it now but we need way more expertise at it. Right now we are having trouble getting cooling ammonia up to and replaced/refilled on the ISS.

    We need new and better spacesuits. I am leaning towards the JIM suit idea. Basically a fully pressurized tube with and man inside, thrusters and hard clamps, plus robotic human like hands. Right now the weakest part about our spacesuits for manufacturing are the hands. Those gloves are terrible.

    We must have a LEO assembly and maintenance facility. By the way it could also double as a research facility, just make it bigger.

  • Craig Beasley

    It’s such a catch-22: If NASA proposes small missions, they get criticized for “thinking small”. If the agency aims high, they are flamed for not taking incremental steps. If a big mission is proposed AND a lot of incremental steps are spelled out ahead of time, bean-counters (professional and casual) add up all the steps and say it’s too expensive…

  • Edward

    I love this discussion that has developed.

    The idea of a base (or space station) as a staging area for going into interplanetary space was just an idea, but it allows for the use of lunar material as propellant. The energy cost of lifting material from the Earth to LEO is more than the cost of bringing it from the moon. However, lunar material implies a lunar base(s) to collect and launch the material. Although this is a more expensive proposition than a Mars Direct approach (as proposed by Robert Zubrin, an idea that I like: ), it provides for infrastructure that is useful for decades (or centuries?) into the future.

    Andy Weir’s book “The Martian” described a spacecraft that transported people to and from Mars and was intended for at least five missions. Such a vehicle would count as infrastructure, at least for me.

    The lack of follow up that NASA has had with Apollo, the Shuttle, and now with the ISS demonstrates that we are not coordinating our space technologies well, that synergistic applications are not being utilized as well as they could be. Although the Shuttle was designed to be flexible enough to be used with a space station, it turned out that we abandoned the Shuttle as soon as the space station became operational. Even the ISS has a life expectancy, without an active plan to replace malfunctioning or obsolete modules so that it becomes a useful waypoint or other long-term piece of infrastructure.

    One way to cure the catch-22 that Craig points out is to create missions that are challenging despite not being the large “Mars” missions that people crave. Challenging missions do not look small enough to criticize.

    For instance, the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) is not exactly large, as a manned Mars landing would be, and it is challenging. A problem with ARM is that it does not look useful to most people (including me). If NASA, Congress, and the president can successfully make the case that ARM is actually useful in the mid-term and long-term overall space strategy, then it would undoubtedly start looking like it could be worth the cost. Unfortunately, there does not appear to be an overall strategy for the use of space, just a vague desire to put man on Mars sometime in the future.

    Here is a case for in-space facilities being useful for transportation and logistics:
    A space station that is already a common destination for science or manufacturing doubles as a fueling station and a way station for trips to the moon or to interplanetary space. The station already has regular manned flights, and it has people who can repair malfunctioning fueling facilities. It is analogous to a village at a crossroads. Such a station would work well in LEO in the next few decades, and if the Moon becomes a busy destination and staging point for interplanetary travel then it would have its own such station.

    Another possibility is that the Moon becomes a popular destination so that a way station in lunar orbit becomes handy. Thus, reusable lunar landing craft need not transport their heavy landing gear and high power engines from the Earth to the Moon and back, but only from the lunar surface to the lunar space station. Another craft would then transport people and material from the LEO station to the lunar station (similar to but smaller than Weir’s Mars transport craft), requiring only lighter equipment, such as ion engines, because it never encounters lunar-gravity forces by landing.

    Whatever the infrastructure needed would be derived later as we figure out our space strategy and what is actually needed to accomplish our goals. Commercial space companies may have more say in the use of space than we have previously imagined, especially now that the Space Act has been passed to allow companies to own and profit from what they collect in space, as pzatchok wants.

    Elon Musk seems to have his own strategy, which appears to me to be much more like the Mars Direct method of getting to Mars than the various NASA proposals to build large structures to transport people and material.

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