House committee reshapes NASA budget

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The House appropriations committee has outlined its recommendations for NASA’s 2017 budget.

Like the Senate the House is pushing more money for SLS and is demanding NASA use it to fly two missions to Europa in the early 2020s (likely delaying SLS’s first manned mission), In addition, the House wants NASA to abandon any plans for an asteroid mission and instead go back to the Moon. They also pumped up the planetary program, and express reservations about the manned commercial program.

Finally, in a wonderful example of congressional micro-managing, the committee ordered NASA to begin work on flying an interstellar mission to Alpha Centauri by the 100th anniversary of Apollo 11.

While some of the changes the committee is recommending (increasing planetary research funding for example) make sense, the overall priorities of Congress continue to appear to me to be misplaced. Their continuing emphasis on SLS while questioning commercial space illustrates their focus on pork rather than actual accomplishments. And their continuing effort to micromanage many NASA missions does not bode well for the success of those missions.

There is one takeaway from this House budget recommendation that most news sources are missing: The first manned flight of Orion is almost certainly not flying in 2021. I have seen numerous indicators in the past four months suggesting that NASA is going to delay it, and this budget recommendation’s insistence that NASA use SLS to fly Europa missions in 2022 and 2024 almost guarantees that delay.


  • mkent

    “The first manned flight of Orion is almost certainly not flying in 2021…”

    This has been known since the SLS CDR when the official date for EM-2 was set to be April 2023. The date was set then because program management best practices dictate setting the date at the 70% confidence level (i.e. they think they have a 70% chance of achieving the April 2023 date.).

    Some folks at NASA have been whispering in Shelby’s ear that with a few billion extra dollars they could fly in 2021, and some SLS supporters have been running with the 2021 date. But the official date is and always has been 2023.

  • It might have been something they noted in the CDR, but they have not made that known to a number of divisions and other government agencies. For example, I read a GAO report on SLS about two weeks ago that had not known about the date change. I’ve also seen other NASA press releases recently that have not mentioned it.

    My understanding has been that officially the launch must happen no later than 2023, and that they are still aiming for 2021. That the people actually doing the work know that this is pr crap does not change the fact that NASA management has not yet made the delay official. Instead, they are leaking it out slowly so that they can minimize the press damage.

    I am hoping they make it official in the next week or so, because if they do, I will use that information in my policy paper, and it will further make SLS/Orion look ridiculous.

  • Edward

    Among my concerns is the manufacture rate for SLS. If they can only make one every two years (the latest that I heard was one every three years), then the 2021 and 2023 Europa missions may leave NASA without another SLS launcher until 2025.

    Last November, Aviation Week & Space Technology had an article on ideas for unmanned probes that could need SLS for launch. Should any or all of these ideas become funded, then they will also compete for SLS rockets, again reducing the number available for future manned launches.

    Since it seems Congress is becoming more interested in landing people on the moon and less interested in the Asteroid Redirect Mission, there would be a greater than expected need for SLS rockets, especially since a launch rate of once every two years limits the pace of moon landings and reduces the accessibility to and usefulness of any permanent lunar base(s) that NASA may wish to build.

  • Dick Eagleson

    The whole SLS-Orion effort is going to be marginal as hell. If the Apollo-8-sans-people Orion test mission with the glorified Centaur upper stage flies first, as planned, that uses up four of the 16 engines in inventory and also the only fully assembled service module we’re supposed to get from the Europeans. If the two Europa missions wind up being the next two flights, then at least we’ll get in two unmanned tests of the Exploration Upper Stage before it flies with crew atop it – something NASA was apparently seriously flirting with skipping until recently.

    That will leave only four original Shuttle engines to power the first manned Orion mission – probably in 2025 or 2026, and probably Apollo 8 again, but with people this time. Last I heard, though, ESA is going to provide only a kit of parts for the second Orion service module; NASA has to assemble the thing itself. Not sure I’d call trading a ride on an untested EUS for a ride on NASA’s first self-assembled service module a step up.

    As of now, AJR is only contracted to build six RS-25E engines. That’s enough for SLS mission five – whatever that turns out to be. But it won’t be an Orion mission unless NASA can figure out a way to conjure a third service module out of whatever it has lying around as the Europeans will be long gone by that time.

    This thing is just one Charlie Foxtrot after another. If the next administration is wise enough to cancel the misbegotten thing before the first scheduled flight maybe we’ll even be spared the sight of the SLS-Orion project leftovers in some museum; they can go straight to the scrapyard instead, as they deserve to.

  • mkent

    “Among my concerns is the manufacture rate for SLS. If they can only make one every two years…”

    The SLS systems engineering requirements document (which I have here somewhere at my desk) specifies a build rate of one vehicle every two years. The system must be able to launch three SLS vehicles in a one-year period — because some design reference missions require three launches — but the build rate is only one every two years. This, not coincidentally, matches the RS-25E production contract build rate of two engines per year (four engines are required to power an SLS).

    Assuming SLS production can continue in the downtime between EM-1 and EM-2 (the EM-2 schedule was originally dictated by Orion, not SLS, though I’m not sure if the switch from ICPS to EUS for flight two changed that), SLS vehicles will become available in 2017, 2019, 2021, and 2023. New-build engines will then be available for SLS vehicles starting in 2025. This jives with flying EM-1 in 2017, EM-2 in 2021 or 2023, Europa Clipper in 2022, and Europa Lander in 2024. It also consumes all of the SLS vehicles between now and 2025.

    Also, even if EM-2 flies in 2023 after Europa Clipper, that still means that the $4 billion (project cost) Europa Clipper will fly on an untested upper stage. That’s only marginally better than using it to send a manned spacecraft BLEO.

    So things seem to be moving down a path that is achievable and internally consistent (though not consistent at all with their own hashtags). It’s just a giant waste of time and money. The same goals could be accomplished much more quickly and at a fraction of the cost without SLS and Orion.

  • Please clarify something for me: It is my understanding that SLS is using the shuttle engines salvaged from the last three shuttles. How many were there, and how many SLS launches can those engines supply? And are they building more of these 1970s era engines for later SLSs?

  • mkent

    “It might have been something they noted in the CDR, but they have not made that known to a number of divisions and other government agencies…”

    I mis-spoke a bit. It was in the official NASA press release, but it was the press release for the Key Decision Point C for the Orion capsule, not the SLS CDR. Which makes sense, since it’s Orion, not SLS, which is the schedule driver for the slip.

    “The decision commits NASA to a development cost baseline of $6.77 billion from October 2015 through the first crewed mission (EM-2) and a commitment to be ready for a launch with astronauts no later than April 2023.” (Source: )

    The details were fleshed out a little bit more in the trade press at the time of the announcement.

    “The KDP-C review found that there is a 70-percent chance Orion will be ready for its first crewed mission, Exploration Mission 2 (EM-2), no later than April 2023.” (Source: )

    I think the reluctance to publicize the date is that many at NASA are hoping — with good justification — that Shelby et al will come through with the extra billions needed to hit the 2021 date. There seems to be a lot of communication going on between NASA and Congress that is not passing through either the White House or NASA HQ. SLS, Orion, and the Europa missions are all benefiting from that.

  • mkent

    There were 14 engines with flight experience available at the end of the Shuttle program. An additional two rookie engines were built-up from flown components, making a total of 16 engines. All 16 engines are getting a few enhancements, such as a new engine controller, but are basically the same as the Shuttle’s engines. The 16 engines are enough for the first four SLS vehicles.

    NASA recently let a contract for six additional RS-25E engines (four flight engines plus two spares — enough for a fifth SLS launch) to be delivered by 30 Sep 2024. The “E” variant is new. Its main differences are producibility enhancements that are meant to lower the cost of the engine compared to new-builds of the older “D” variant at the expense of maintainability. Since the SLS is an expendable vehicle, there’s no point in adding features to the engine for easy refurbishment, so those features are removed in the “E” version. It also uses more modern manufacturing techniques such as 5-axis machining, 3-D printing, and digital X-rays, to further reduce cost.

    “Reduce” being relative, of course. The six engines (plus a seventh test engine for qualification) are going to run about $1.16 billion. That figure includes non-recurring costs such as the E-model design, manufacturing process validation, and standing-up the supply chain, so further engines won’t cost that much. But they won’t be cheap either.

  • Then my understanding is correct. They have not yet made it official. Instead, they are describing the 2023 date as a “no later than” deadline, and are still making believe publicly that the 2021 date is the official launch date. Meanwhile, they are not going to be able to meet that 2021 date and are likely to launch in 2023. That means it will have taken NASA 17 years to go from contract award (2006) to launch (2023). If you ask me, that’s quite shameful, especially if it is the capsule (a damn capsule!) that is the cause of the delay.

    Seventeen years to build a capsule. Think about that.

  • Alex

    Mr. Zimmerman, the situation that you described in context with SLS/Orion does not appear very different to that what you criticize in respect to so-called Soviet methods in Russia or it is even somewhat more worse as that because there is no real need for SLS/Orion, at least of this kind which satisfy these expenses.

  • You should read my book, Leaving Earth. One of its themes is how the U.S. ended up emulating the Soviet Union’s way of doing things in space in the latter half of the 20th century. Sadly, with SLS/Orion, we are still doing it.

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