Tag Archives: Orion

NASA reconfiguring future SLS planning

Link here. This is a long (4 parts) and detailed overview of the changing state of the SLS system and its future missions. As it notes right at the start,

NASA has started updating plans and schedules for additional SLS Block 1 launches in the early 2020s after Washington added federal budget money for a second Mobile Launcher (ML) platform and umbilical tower in late March.

Construction of a new Mobile Launcher frees the first ML from a three-year long downtime for teardown and reassembly after the first SLS launch of Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), currently projected for mid-2020. Instead of being retired after one launch, the Block 1 configuration could fly multiple times.

With two mobile launches (costing almost a billion to build), NASA has more flexibility (assuming it gets full funding). It can now fly both the smaller Block 1 configuration of SLS multiple times without delaying the first launch of the planned more powerful Block 2 version expected to come later.

The article discusses in great detail the possible variations in design and scheduling for the first unmanned mission, the Europa mission, the first manned mission, and possible missions beyond, all of which are based on Congress’s continued blank check support for this very expensive and very questionable program.

Sadly, it increasingly appears that Congress is going to throw a lot of money at this program. SLS looks like it is going to fly several times, and maybe more. It will likely send Europa Clipper to Jupiter, and later astronauts on a stunt mission around the Moon. Later, the Washington cartel of big aerospace companies, NASA, Congress, and our international partners in Europe and Russia are gearing up to get LOP-G funded as well, with SLS the vehicle to launch and supply it.

All of this will cost a lot, take forever, and not make the future exploration of the solar system possible in the slightest. None of that matters however. Congress wants it, and Congress being corrupt and irresponsible is going to get it.

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House committee boosts NASA budget while micromanaging its projects

A NASA budget proposal released earlier this week by the House Appropriations Committee boosts NASA’s budget to $21.5 billion, while also micro-managing some of NASA’s planetary projects.

The bill, though, does specify funding for some programs. It calls for spending $545 million on the Europa Clipper mission and $195 million for a follow-on lander. NASA requested only $264.7 million for Europa Clipper and nothing for the lander.

NASA said in the budget proposal it was seeking to launch Europa Clipper in 2025 on a commercial vehicle, while the bill calls for the use of the Space Launch System and a launch by 2022. In its budget proposal, NASA estimated needing $565 million in 2019 to keep Europa Clipper on track for a 2022 launch but warned of “potential impacts to the rest of the Science portfolio” if funded at that level.

The bill also included $3.5 billion for SLS/Orion, continuing that boondoggle as it continues to fall behind schedule and go over budget. Also in the bill was a half billion dollars for LOP-G, confirming Congress’s desire to get this new boondoggle running, even though the rocket and capsule necessary to fly it, SLS/Orion, hasn’t even come close to completion after almost two decades of work and almost $40 billion so far in spending.

Overall, this NASA budget proposal illustrates once again why we have Trump. Congress is corrupt, is only interested in distributing money to its corporate buddies, and doesn’t care if that cash ever produces anything. In fact, it appears they prefer that nothing ever get built, as a real space effort would carry risk, and we can’t have that!

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Russian to fly on Orion?

In negotiations between NASA and Roscosmos on their hoped-for partnership to build the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G), it has been proposed that when SLS carries Orion and the platform’s Russian airlock to lunar orbit a Russian will go as well.

“Within the framework of talks, draft plans of future manned missions to the lunar stations have been made. Among other issues, the possibility to send one Russian cosmonaut as part of the crew of the Orion spacecraft that will drag the Russian airlock module to the moon is on the agenda. The Russian cosmonaut will have to ensure the integration of the module with the station,” the source said.

A source in Russia’s Rocket and Space Corporation Energia (RSC Energia) that would produce the module confirmed this information to Sputnik, saying that four manned missions were expected to be sent to the station and the Russian cosmonaut should accompany the Russian-made module during its transportation to the Earth satellite.

This all sounds so wonderful. Too bad it is so unconnected with reality. Congress has yet to provide any funds for LOP-G. At the moment, SLS/Orion is only funded through its first manned mission.

At the same time, I am getting the feeling that both NASA and Congress expect SLS/Orion’s $4 billion-plus annual budget that it has gotten since the program started in the late 2000s will simply continue, giving them the money to build this Potemkin Village in orbit around the Moon while funding the Russian contributions.

That’s what happened with ISS. The U.S. footed most of the bills for the Russian portion of ISS, and the Russians are now hoping we will do the same for LOP-G. Sadly, I also expect our corrupt Congress will go along, focused as they are in only distributing pork to local districts while encouraging a global international village having nothing to do with American interests. They see LOP-G not as exploring space, but as a jobs program, both here in the U.S. and in Russia.

And a jobs program is exactly what it is. Just like it will take SLS/Orion almost two decades to complete its first manned launch, LOP-G will likely not get anything built in orbit around the Moon for more than a decade. Don’t expect anything substantial assembled in lunar orbit before the mid-2030s, at the earliest.

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NASA’s horrible management of SLS

In this article from NASASpaceflight.com describing a recent status update from NASA of its SLS/Orion program (which remains years behind schedule and might see further delays) was the following quote, revealing much about NASA’s incompetence and corruption in building this boondoggle:

In contrast to the more centralized organization structure for the cancelled Constellation program, [SLS’s] three major programs [ground systems, Orion, and SLS] are managed independently: Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) based at KSC, Orion based at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, and SLS based at the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama.

Each of the programs has resources to integrate with its other two partners, but ESD [Exploration Systems Development at NASA headquarters in DC] provides the overall coordination between all three. During Constellation, the equivalent organizations were projects directly managed by that now-cancelled program. [emphasis mine]

In other words, when Obama unilaterally cancelled Constellation (something he really didn’t have the power to do) and Congress micromanaged its reinstatement (creating SLS/Orion), the Obama administration and NASA abandoned a sensible management structure and allowed SLS/Orion to be a three-headed monster, difficult to coordinate and certain to go over-budget and fall behind schedule.

With this operational structure, even if SLS eventually flies successfully, it will be impossible for it to operate efficiently. Expect every one of its future efforts to always go over budget and to fall behind schedule.

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Further launch delays for Russia’s next ISS module & space telescope

The race to be last! Russia today announced that the launch of both its next ISS module as well as a new space telescope will be delayed until 2019.

The ISS module, Nauka, is years behind schedule, and is presently being cleaned of contamination in its fuel system that was found several years ago.

“Repairs of the MLM Nauka are taking longer than expected, and the deadlines are yet unclear. This means it will not be brought to Baikonur any time soon, and the launch will be postponed until 2019,” the source said.

It was reported earlier that the mission would be delayed for six months. “The delivery of the MLM Nauka to the Baikonur cosmodrome has been moved from September to late 2018. Hence, the module’s launch to the ISS has been provisionally delayed for another six months,” the source said. The launch was scheduled for September 2018 with the possible alternative date in March 2019.

The article also notes delays for Spekr-RG high-energy space telescope until 2019. The article might also describe delays for another satellite, though the writing is unclear.

Nauka was first built in the 1990s as a backup for ISS’s first module. In the early 2000s Russia decided to reconfigure it and fly it to ISS, with its launch scheduled for 2007. This means its launch is now going to be twelve years behind schedule.

It sure does appear that Russia’s Roscosmos is competing with NASA to see which government agency can delay its missions the longest. In fact, for fun, let’s put together the standings!

  • Nauka: 12 years behind schedule (originally scheduled for 2007, now 2019)
  • James Webb Space Telescope: 9 years behind schedule (originally scheduled for 2011, now 2020)
  • SLS/Orion: 8 years behind schedule (originally scheduled for 2015, now 2023)

Stay tuned. This race to the bottom is far from over. NASA could still win, especially because it has more than one project in the running.

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NASA chief argues against purchasing Falcon Heavy over SLS

When asked at a meeting of a NASA advisory council meeting why NASA doesn’t buy a lot of Falcon Heavies instead of building a few SLS rockets, NASA chief of human spaceflight Bill Gerstenmaier argued that only the SLS could launch the large payloads NASA requires to establish its Lunar Orbiting Platform-Gateway (LOP-G).

Gerstenmaier then said NASA’s exploration program will require the unique capabilities of the SLS rocket. “I think it’s still going to be large-volume, monolithic pieces that are going to require an SLS kind of capability to get them out into space,” he said. “Then for routine servicing and bringing cargo, maybe bringing smaller crew vehicles other than Orion, then Falcon Heavy can play a role. What’s been talked about by [Jeff] Bezos can play a role. What United Launch Alliance has talked about can play a role.”

The problem with this argument is that the “large-volume, monolithic pieces” Gerstenmaier proposes don’t exist yet, either in design or in budget. NASA could very easily design LOP-G’s pieces to fit on Falcon Heavy, and then use it. Instead, they are purposely creating a situation where SLS is required, rather than going with the most cost effective solution.

Unless someone in power, such as a president, puts his foot down and demands NASA do this intelligently, I expect NASA to accomplish nothing significant in manned space in the next decade. That does not mean Americans will be trapped on Earth, only that NASA will not be the way they will get off the planet. And unfortunately, based on the most recent budget passed by Congress and signed by Trump, I do not expect this president to do anything to change things. Right now, NASA is being run by the big contractors (Boeing and Lockheed Martin) that need SLS and Orion, and thus NASA is going to give them a lot of money to build things that we can’t afford and can do nothing to put Americans in space.

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The ever-receding Space Launch System

Today a story at Space News reveals that NASA has decided to forgo construction of a second mobile launcher for its Space Launch System (SLS). Instead, they will modify the one they have.

The mobile launch platform, originally built for the Constellation Program and currently being modified to support the SLS, will be used for one launch of the initial Block 1 version of the SLS, designated Exploration Mission (EM) 1. That platform will then have to be modified to accommodate the taller Block 1B version that will be used on second and subsequent SLS missions.

Agency officials said late last year they were considering starting work on a second mobile launch platform designed from the beginning to accommodate the Block 1B version of the SLS. They argued that doing so could shorten the gap of at least 33 months between the first and second SLS missions caused in part by the modification work to the existing platform.

The first mobile launcher was built and modified for an estimated $300 to $500 million. NASA obviously has decided that the politics of building a second won’t fly. The cost is too great, as would be the political embarrassment of admitting they spent about a half a billion for a launcher they will only use once. (That this mobile launcher is leaning we will leave aside for the moment.)

What this does however is push back the first manned SLS/Orion launch. At present, the first unmanned mission is likely to go in June 2020 (though don’t be surprised if that date sees further delays). If it takes 33 months after that launch to reconfigure the launcher for the first manned mission, that manned mission cannot occur any sooner than April 2023. That second launch however is planned to be the first to use SLS’s new upper stage. To put humans on it untested seems foolish, doesn’t it? NASA is going to have to fly an extra mission to test that upper stage, which is going to add further delays to the schedule.

In November I predicted that the first manned SLS/Orion mission would not happen before 2025. At the time it was assumed that the second flight of SLS would have to launch the unmanned Europa Clipper mission, in order to test that upper stage. Now however it appears that the Trump administration wants to shift Europa Clipper to a commercial launch vehicle, probably Falcon Heavy.

This means that either astronauts will be flying on an untested SLS upper stage, or NASA will have to add a test launch in April 2023, followed some time thereafter by that manned mission. Since NASA does not at present have a budget for a third mission, I am not sure what is going to happen here.

What I do know is that SLS is certain to get delayed again. By 2025 we will have paid close to $50 billion for SLS and Orion, and the best we can hope for is a single manned mission. And that one mission will have taken 21 years to go from concept to launch.

This is not how you explore the solar system. With a schedule like this, all SLS and Orion are doing is distributing pork to congressional districts and to the big space companies (Boeing and Lockheed Martin) that are building both. Establishing the United States as a viable space-faring nation is the last thing these players have in mind.

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Lockheed Martin starts assembling first manned Orion capsule

My heart be still! Thirteen years after winning its contract to built the manned Orion capsule, Lockheed Martin proudly announced this week that it has finally begun building the first capsule that will carry humans.

I should add that this first manned flight is not scheduled to happen for another five years. Moreover, they have so far spent at least $14 billion on this capsule, and will likely spend another five billion by the time it finally launches. That’s 18 years and $19 billion, for a single manned mission. Seems somewhat shameful to me.

The article is filled with much of the dishonest hyperbole that has surrounded the Orion capsule from the start:

  • “NASA’s first of a new generation of manned deep space exploration craft”
  • “Orion will be a major step in the American program to establish a Deep Space Gateway station, return to the Moon, and eventually make a manned landing on Mars”
  • “Orion has tremendous momentum.”
  • “This is not only the most advanced spacecraft ever built, its production will be more efficient than any previous capsule.”

What Orion really is is a lie. It is nothing more than the ascent/descent capsule for the as-yet still undesigned, unfunded, and unbuilt interplanetary spaceship that will be needed for any real deep missions. It is also a boondoggle of the worst sort, providing pork for congressional districts while accomplishing nothing.

Lockheed Martin is lying in its press release here, and it is shameful that any journalist who knows anything about space should buy into those lies.

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Washington swamp creature hints that SLS could be in trouble

Congressman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) today expressed strong disappointment with the repeated delays in the the launch of SLS and Orion, noting that the problems could lead to Congress considering “other options.”

“After all these years, after billions of dollars spent, we are facing more delays and cost overruns,” Smith said. While he noted that some delays were caused by factors out of NASA’s control, like a tornado that damaged the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans in February, “many of the problems are self-inflicted.”

“It is very disappointing to hear about delays caused by poor execution, when the U.S. taxpayer has invested so much in these programs,” he added.

Smith, who announced Nov. 2 he would not run for reelection next year after more than three decades in the House, including serving as chairman of the science committee since 2013, warned about eroding support for the programs should there be additional delays. “NASA and the contractors should not assume future delays and cost overruns will have no consequences,” he said. “If delays continue, if costs rise, and if foreseeable technical challenges arise, no one should assume the U.S. taxpayers or their representatives will tolerate this forever.”

“The more setbacks SLS and Orion face, the more support builds for other options,” he said, not elaborating on what those options would be.

Smith is part of the establishment in Congress that has been supporting SLS and Orion blindly for years. Unfortunately, he is retiring this year, and the other members of his committee did not seem as bothered by SLS’s endless delays.

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More SLS delays

Here we go again! At a three-day meeting this week aimed at resolving some of NASA’s scheduling issues for its Space Launch System (SLS), it appears that managers are faced with further launch delays because of the need to insert an extra SLS launch prior to the first manned flight.

The problem is that the first unmanned flight, presently set for December 2019 (but which I am positive will be delayed) will be not be using the second stage planned for later missions. In order to fly humans on that stage NASA needs to fly at least one more more unmanned mission beforehand. Since Congress has mandated that NASA use the SLS rocket to fly a mission to Europa, managers are now planning to insert that mission into the manifest prior to the manned mission.

At a major three day Technical Interchange Meeting (TIM) at the Kennedy Space Center recently, NASA noted that the Europa Clipper mission has a formal, target launch date of 4 June 2022, the opening of a 21 day launch window that closes on 25 June.

A backup launch option exists in 2023.

The problem with the June 2022 launch window is that the mobile launcher that moves the rocket from the assembly building to the launchpad will likely not be ready by then. If it is not, then the next time Europa Clipper can fly, in 2023, will certainly force more delays on the first manned SLS/Orion flight. And even if it is ready, I am willing to bet that NASA will not be able to fly that manned mission in 2023 regardless. For years the agency has made it clear that they will need at least two years turn-around time between SLS launches.

So, my prediction that the first manned mission of SLS/Orion will occur in 2023 was wrong. I now predict it will not occur prior to 2024, more than 20 years after George Bush first proposed it.

Overall, the entire NASA project to replace the space shuttle with a manned rocket and capsule is the perfect poster boy for government incompetence, waste, and corruption. Twenty years, and all we will get, at most, is a single manned mission and one flight capsule. Worse, by 2024 the cost for this entire effort will likely have exceeded $50 billion. What a squandering of taxpayer money.

What makes this more infuriating is that this is not an exception, it is now the standard operating procedure for the entire federal government. From incompetence in the Navy to the failure of the Air Force to do something as simple as properly registering a person in the FBI’s gun national background check system, our federal government is a disaster. And I see only a token effort by Congress and even Trump to fix it.

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More hints that the first SLS launch will be delayed again

Government in action! The head of the Marshall Space Flight Center yesterday once again hinted that the first unmanned launch of SLS/Orion, presently scheduled for late in 2019, could be delayed again.

In September, the agency said in a statement that it would announce a new target date for EM-1 in October, citing the need to account for a range of issues, including progress on the European-built Orion service module and shutdowns at NASA centers from hurricanes in August and September.

However, an update in October is increasingly unlikely. “Within a few weeks, I think [NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot] intends to codify whatever that date is going to be,” Todd May, director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, said in remarks at the American Astronautical Society’s Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium here Oct. 25.

Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development at NASA, offered a similar assessment. “Probably in the next month, maybe sooner,” he said in an interview.

These hints have been standard operating procedure for announcing SLS’s endless delays for the past decade. First they make hints that a delay might happen, but reassure everyone that it is very unlikely. Then they follow this up later with announcements about how they need more time to accomplish all their goals. By the third announcement they outline a possible new schedule, including some delay but insist that it isn’t likely. Finally, they release the new dates, often as an aside during some other announcement in order to minimize the news.

It should be noted that the new dates have almost never been realistic. NASA has usually known that the new dates are interim, and that further delays will likely require more of this same dance to make them public.

So, here is my prediction: They are preparing us for the fact that the first unmanned flight will likely slip into 2020, which means the first manned flight slips for certain into 2023, as I have been predicting for the past three years.

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Lockheed Martin unveils concepts for Mars ship and lander

The boondoggle lobbying continues! Lockheed Martin today unveiled its concepts for a Mars interplanetary ship, built around its Orion capsule, as well as a fully reusable Mars lander.

The timing of this announcement fits perfectly with last week’s NASA announcement of its concepts for building a lunar space station, along with this week’s announcement to study doing it with the Russians. It also times perfectly with the announcement that the first public meeting of the National Space Council will take place on October 5. And tonight Elon Musk will give an update on his own proposals for getting to Mars.

All these public relations announcements suggest to me that the Trump administration is getting close to unveiling its own future space policy, and they all suggest that this policy will be to build a space station around the Moon. My guess is that Lockheed Martin and SpaceX are vying for a piece of that pie in their announcements today.

Let me also note that Lockheed Martin’s concept above illustrates nicely what a lie Orion is and has always been. They have been touting it for years as the vehicle that will get Americans to Mars, but now admit that it can only really be a small part of a much larger interplanetary ship, and will be there mostly to be the descent capsule when astronauts want to come home. They also admit in the video at the first link that their proposal for getting to Mars is only a concept. To build it would require many billions of dollars. I wonder will it cost as much as Orion and SLS ($43 billion plus) and take as long (18 years plus) to build? If so, it is a bad purchase. We can do this faster, and for less.

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NASA and Roscomos sign agreement to work together to build lunar orbiting station

Extending the pork: NASA and Roscosmos have signed an agreement agreeing to work together in the construction of what NASA calls a deep space gateway, a space station orbiting the Moon.

The goal here is to garner political support for getting funding to fly a third SLS/Orion mission, which would be its second manned flight. It is also to establish some long term justification for SLS/Orion, which presently has no mission and will disappear after its first manned test flight, presently scheduled for 2022. That single test flight will have taken 18 years and more than 40 billion dollars to build, an absurd timeframe and cost for a single mission that does not bode well for future SLS/Orion missions.

The Russian perspective can be found here. They claim that the station would be finished by 2024-2026, an absurd prediction based on the expected SLS launch rate of one launch every one to two years. For Russia, the hope is that they can use this project to get U.S. money, just like the big American space companies like Lockheed Martin (Orion) and Boeing (SLS).

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First manned SLS/Orion flight officially delayed to 2022

Government in action! The first manned flight of SLS/Orion has now been officially delayed one year until 2022, and that date remains questionable.

In addition, the first unmanned test flight of SLS/Orion has now also been delayed until December 2019, something that had been under consideration but is now official. Even with this delay, there are doubts whether that flight can take place then, which is why the 2022 launch of the first manned flight is questionable.

The article outlines in detail the Byzantine scheduling issues that NASA must fulfill to meet these launch dates, including a long timeline of deliveries that seems absurd when compared to how private companies operate.

Assuming that these new dates occur as announced (something I sincerely doubt), the first unmanned launch of SLS/Orion will occur almost 16 years after President Bush first proposed it, with the first manned flight occurring more than 18 years after his proposal. In that time NASA will have spent about $43 billion for this one manned mission. Let me repeat: $43 billion and almost two decades to fly one manned mission. Quite absurd.

The article also details NASA’s proposal for a third SLS/Orion mission, the second manned, to occur in 2023, which would begin assembly of a space station in lunar orbit. I suspect that this mission is going to be announced in what will be President Trump’s version of the typical Kennedy-like speech that Reagan, Bush 1, Clinton, Bush 2, and Obama have all given, announcing big plans in space by such-and-such deadline.

Whether Congress funds it remains to me an open question. Right now I would predict they would, since they love the pork that SLS/Orion provides. In two years, when Falcon Heavy has flown several times and is likely becoming operational, and New Glenn is getting close to its first test launch, I am not so sure. Both will be flying before SLS’s first flight and both will have been developed for a tenth the cost with equal if not greater capabilities. And both will be able to fly more frequently for practically nothing, when compared to SLS.

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SLS first mission delayed again

Government in action! It appears that SLS’s first flight, an unmanned test flight around the Moon, is being delayed again, from early in 2019 to as late as the fourth quarter of that year.

Section 103 of the 2005 NASA Authorization Act (Public Law 109-155) requires written notification from within the agency to the NASA administrator and then separately after that from the administrator to Congress for significant cost or schedule overruns of major programs. In the case of a delay, the law specifies notification is required if “a milestone of the program is likely to be delayed by 6 months or more from the date provided for it in the Baseline Report of the program.”

By this measure, the readiness period would seemingly be pushed out to at earliest the second quarter of 2019, but L2 notes have indicated EM-1 launch date estimates in the third or fourth quarter. [emphasis mine]

In other words, when in April they first announced the delay from November 2018 to 2019, they were really announcing what will likely be a full year delay. This will mean that it is going to take NASA 15 years to fly this single unmanned mission, spending about $38 billion, based on the appropriate numbers that I worked up in my Capitalism in Space policy paper.

Let me repeat that: One unmanned test flight. Fifteen years. $38 billion. Compare that with NASA’s the entire cargo and crew program, involving multiple spaceships and flights, which will cost about $12 billion total, and will include all the cargo and manned flights NASA intends to buy through the end of ISS’s present lifespan in 2024, estimated by contract to be about 42.

I should also add that I expect SpaceX to almost certainly fly its Falcon Heavy at least twice by the end of 2019. Falcon Heavy will have the capability of putting up about 50 tons, only slightly less than the 75 tons expected by this first SLS flight. With a purchase price per launch of $90 million, NASA could have purchased 422 Falcon Heavy launches for the $38 billion it wasted on this one SLS unmanned test mission.

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NASA nixes plan to fly humans on first SLS flight

Common sense prevails! In a joint decision with the White House, NASA announced today that they will not fly humans on the first test flight of SLS, now scheduled for sometime in 2019.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said that the study turned up fewer technical issues with putting a crew on EM-1 than he originally expected. “What I was surprised by was that I thought there would be a whole lot of really negative work that would actually maybe make this not very attractive to us,” he said. “But when [acting NASA administration Robert Lightfoot] and I look at this overall, it does add some more risk to us, because it’s the first crew on the vehicle,” he said. The work to add crew to EM-1 would have cost NASA an additional $600–900 million, and delay the launch likely to the first or second quarter of 2020.

“The culmination of changes in all three of those areas said that overall, probably the best plan we have is actually the plan we’re on right now,” Gerstenmaier said. “When we looked at the overall integrated activity, even though it was feasible, it just didn’t seem warranted in this environment.”

The announcement also included an admission by Gerstenmaier that the first manned SLS flight, now set for 2021, will likely be delayed.

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NASA may have decided to fly humans on first SLS test flight

Doug Messier at Parabolic Arc has a story today suggesting that there are rumors at NASA that the agency has decided that it will put astronauts in Orion for SLS’s first test flight, now tentatively scheduled for sometime in 2019.

At he notes, this will only be the second time in history humans will have flown on a untested rocket, the first being the space shuttle, where they had no choice as the vehicle needed people to fly it.

NASA’s arguments in favor of this manned test flight will probably rest on noting how much of the rocket is based on previously flown equipment. For example, the upper stage for this flight will be a modified Delta upper stage, a well tested and frequently flown stage. The first stage will be made of side-mounted first stage solid rocket boosters that are essentially upgrades of the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters. And the first stage engines are actual shuttle engines salvaged from the shuttle’s themselves. In addition, NASA will note that Orion will have a launch abort system, though it appears that there will be no test of this system prior to the flight.

These arguments don’t carry much weight. The Delta upper stage will also be modified for this flight, and this will be that version’s first use. Similarly, the solid rocket boosters have been modified as well, and this will be their first flight. And as I noted, the Orion launch abort system will not have been tested in flight.

Finally, and most important, the goal of this test flight is to see if these different parts have been integrated together properly. As a unit, none of them has ever flown together. To put humans on such a flight is very foolish indeed.

Messier sums this up quite well:

The flight might come off just fine. But, I fear that NASA’s concern about keeping the program funded, and Donald Trump’s desire for some space spectacular to boost his re-election chances, could combine to produce something very unfortunate.

I pray that people in the Trump administration put a stop to this silliness, as soon as possible.

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NASA officially delays SLS first flight to 2019

Government in action! Despite spending almost $19 billion and more than thirteen years of development, NASA today admitted that it will have to delay the first test flight of the SLS rocket from late 2018 to sometime in 2019.

“We agree with the GAO that maintaining a November 2018 launch readiness date is not in the best interest of the program, and we are in the process of establishing a new target in 2019,” wrote William Gerstenmaier, chief of NASA’s human spaceflight program. “Caution should be used in referencing the report on the specific technical issues, but the overall conclusions are valid.”

Anyone who is a regular reader of Behind the Black will not be surprised by this. Beginning as far back as March 2015 I began noting the various issues that made a 2018 launch unlikely. All that has happened here is that NASA has gone public with what has been obvious within the agency now for two years.

The competition between the big government SLS/Orion program and private commercial space is downright embarrassing to the government. While SLS continues to be delayed, even after more than a decade of work and billions of wasted dollars, SpaceX is gearing up for the first flight of Falcon Heavy this year. And they will be doing it despite the fact that Congress took money from the commercial private space effort, delaying its progress, in order to throw more money at SLS/Orion.

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NASA to rely more on private space for deep space missions

Capitalism in space: NASA officials stated this weekthat they plan to rely more on private space companies for its future deep space missions.

NASA’s statement is the most direct agency indication so far that projected U.S. government funding may need to leverage private-sector investments and commercial expertise in order for crews to fulfill the agency’s target of reaching Mars by the late 2030s and establishing settlements there by the 2040s. NASA said it also expected to persuade some foreign governments to participate in crewed voyages to Mars.

William Gerstenmaier, the head of NASA’s human-exploration office, wrote to the inspector general that efforts to use private cargo rockets as part of the overall drive to send crews to Mars “are continual and will also be reflected in the exploration road map” slated for delivery to Congress at the end of 2017.

This story is merely noting NASA’s response to the recommendations of the NASA inspector general report [pdf] that came out earlier in the week that noted the delays and costs of SLS/Orion and suggested alternative approaches. What that response indicates is that NASA is increasingly bending to the cost pressures that they face with SLS/Orion, and are now more willing to consider private and less expensive and quicker alternatives.

The Inspector General (IG) report is itself a sign that the agency and the executive branch is beginning to see the light about the ineffectiveness of SLS/Orion. Previous IG reports in the past five years have tiptoed around the delays and gigantic cost of SLS/Orion. If anything, they were written to allow NASA to prepare Congress and the public for more delays and larger budgets. This report however was much more blunt and critical, and went out of its way to outline alternatives to SLS/Orion.

Another sign that the political winds are shifting is this story about a request by 20 House members to the Air Force to expand its program encouraging the development of competing private launch systems. In the past some of these same House members had tried to force particular companies and products on the Air Force and on ULA. Now they seem more willing to let the Air Force put out the bids competitively and allow the chips to fall where they may.

More important is this quote about two members who did not sign the letter request:

Absent from the list of members who signed the [letter] are Reps. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the chairmen of the full House Armed Services Committee and its Strategic Forces Subcommittee, respectively. In February, the two sent a letter to Acting Secretary of the Air Force Lisa Disbrow and James MacStravic, performing the duties of the under secretary of defense for acquisition, calling on the government to have “full access to, oversight of, and approval rights over decision-making about any engine down-select for Vulcan (assuming they will be requesting government funding).”

In the letter, they argued that since ULA is accepting government funding to support the development of Vulcan, the government should also have insight into that process, “especially where one of the technologies is unproven at the required size and power.” That was a reference to Blue Origin’s BE-4, which will be the largest rocket engine developed to date using methane as a fuel, rather than the kerosene used by the RD-180 and AR1 engines.

Thornberry has since backtracked on the comments in that letter, telling reporters last month it was not his intent to micromanage subcontracting decisions.

Rogers, in a recent SpaceNews interview, said he was not satisfied with the pace of development of an RD-180 replacement, but also praised the capabilities of commercial launch companies. “My subcommittee, our full committee, this Congress, is committed to not stop until we have an American-made engine that can get our national security space assets launched,” he said. [emphasis mine]

That these congressmen appear to be backing off from pushing their favorite rockets or insisting that the Air Force micromanage the development of these private rocket engines is a positive sign. It appears that there is increasing political pressure to support private development, free of government control.

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Audit finds SLS unlikely to launch in 2018

A NASA audit has found that it is unlikely that the first SLS test flight will take place as scheduled in 2018, and that the first manned flight is also likely to be delayed from its 2021 launch target.

“NASA’s first exploration missions — EM-1 and EM-2 — face multiple challenges that will likely delay their launch,” the report states. The missions “are not likely to launch by 2018 or 2021, respectively,” it continues.

When might a crew launch? Hard to say.

The report says incomplete NASA information makes it “more difficult for both the agency and external stakeholders to gain a full understanding of the costs of that mission or to assess the validity of the agency’s launch date assumptions.”

If the first manned flight happens in 2023, as now expected, it means that it will occur 20 years after George Bush first proposed the Crew Exploration Vehicle (Orion) and the heavy lift rocket to put it into space. The total cost to fly this one mission will be approximately $43 billion.

Let me repeat that: $43 billion and 20 years to fly a single manned mission. Does no one in government see something wrong with this picture?

Posted from the West Bank settlement of Beitar Illit.

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SLS faces more delays

Delays by ESA in the construction of the service module for Orion, plus the tornado damage at the Michoud facility in Louisiana, could force NASA to delay the first unmanned test launch of the SLS rocket, presently planned for late in 2018.

NASA is also considering delaying the flight further should the agency decide to make this first unmanned test flight a manned one. They also say they will need more money if they have to put people on the first flight. I guess $43 billion and almost 15 years wasn’t enough.

By the way, it took less than four years to win World War II. From Kennedy’s speech to the Apollo 11 landing was only eight years. One wonders when we, as a nation, will finally wake up and realize that SLS is not a rocket to the Moon, but an never-ending jobs program unable to accomplish anything in space.

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Killing both commercial space and American astronauts

This all reeks of politics: A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released yesterday says that NASA it should not permit Boeing and SpaceX to fly humans on their capsules and rockets until they fix certain issues and test both repeatedly on unmanned flights before the first manned flights to ISS.

This GAO report was mandated by Congress, and it requires NASA to certify that both Boeing and SpaceX have met NASA’s requirements before allowing those first manned flights. While the technical issues outlined in the report — to which NASA concurs — might be of concern, my overall impression in reading the report, combined with yesterday’s announcement by NASA that they are seriously considering flying humans on SLS’s first test flight, is that this process is actually designed to put obstacles in front of Boeing and SpaceX so as to slow their progress and allow SLS to launch first with humans aboard.

For example, the report lists three main problems with the commercial manned effort. First there is the Russian engine on the Atlas 5. From the report itself [pdf]:
» Read more

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NASA considers putting astronauts on first SLS/Orion flight

Faced with indications that Trump wants a manned lunar mission during his first term, NASA’s acting administrator has asked his engineers and management to look into the possibility of putting humans on the first SLS/Orion launch, now set for late in 2018.

As the Acting Administrator, my perspective is that we are on the verge of even greater discoveries. President Trump said in his inaugural address that we will “unlock the mysteries of space.” Accordingly, it is imperative to the mission of this agency that we are successful in safely and effectively executing both the SLS and Orion programs.

Related to that, I have asked Bill Gerstenmaier to initiate a study to assess the feasibility of adding a crew to Exploration Mission-1, the first integrated flight of SLS and Orion. I know the challenges associated with such a proposition, like reviewing the technical feasibility, additional resources needed, and clearly the extra work would require a different launch date. That said, I also want to hear about the opportunities it could present to accelerate the effort of the first crewed flight and what it would take to accomplish that first step of pushing humans farther into space. The SLS and ORION missions, coupled with those promised from record levels of private investment in space, will help put NASA and America in a position to unlock those mysteries and to ensure this nation’s world pre-eminence in exploring the cosmos.

This is incredibly stupid. That first flight will be the very first time SLS will fly. It will also be flying with an upper stage engine that has also never flown before. It will take the Orion capsule to the Moon, when the capsule itself has not yet even done one orbit around the Earth. To put people on it makes no engineering sense at all.

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Trump to the Moon!

Two stories in the past two days strongly suggest that the Trump administration is planning a two-pronged space policy approach, with the long-term goal of shifting most of space to private operations.

From the first link:

The more ambitious administration vision could include new moon landings that “see private American astronauts, on private space ships, circling the Moon by 2020; and private lunar landers staking out de facto ‘property rights’ for American on the Moon, by 2020 as well,” according to a summary of an “agency action plan” that the transition drew up for NASA late last month. Such missions would be selected through an “internal competition” between what the summary calls Old Space, or NASA’s traditional contractors, and New Space characterized by SpaceX and Blue Origin. But the summary also suggests a strong predilection toward New Space. “We have to be seen giving ‘Old Space’ a fair and balanced shot at proving they are better and cheaper than commercial,” it says.

Another thrust of the new space effort would be to privatize low-Earth orbit, where most satellites and the International Space Station operate — or a “seamless low-risk transition from government-owned and operated stations to privately-owned and operated stations.” “This may be the biggest and most public privatization effort America has ever conducted,” it says.

Essentially, they are going to do exactly what I suggested back in late December, give SLS/Orion a short-term realistic goal of going to the Moon. This is what it was originally designed for, and it is the only technology presently available that has even the slightest chance of meeting the three year deadline outlined above. More important, this will give Congress something in the negotiations, as SLS/Orion has been Congress’s baby — pushed and funded by Congress over the objections of the previous administration and without a clear mission to go anywhere — in order to keep the money stream flowing to the big “Old Space” companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Obama tried to simply cancel its predecessor, Constellation, and that did not sit well with Congress. Trump however understands negotiation and how to play the game. In order to eventually eliminate SLS Trump is going to provide Congress some short term excitement and some viable long term alternatives.

The long term alternatives will be private enterprise. Even as they send SLS/Orion on its grand finale to the Moon, the Trump administration will accelerate the restructuring of NASA to make the agency less of a design and construction operation and more a mere customer of private space. All non-military Earth orbital operations will be shifted to the private sector over time, so that once SLS/Orion has achieved that goal of completing a lunar mission there will be a strong enough private space sector to replace it, allowing Congress to let it go the way of Apollo and the space shuttle.

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NASA SLS/Orion facility in Louisiana sustains tornado damage

A tornado has damaged the building NASA uses at its Michoud facility near New Orleans for building SLS and Orion.

[One official] says a 43-acre building where they build rockets suffered significant damage on one end. A number of areas in the facility have lost parts of the roof or walls. He says the hardware and tooling used in the Orion and Space Launch System were not damaged. But they’ll have to do a “significant effort” to cover everything up and make sure any subsequent bad weather doesn’t affect it while the roof and walls are repaired.

Based on this report, this damage should not effect the SLS/Orion launch schedule. At least, if this was a private company it would not. We shall see how NASA responses.

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NASA asteroid redirect mission delayed again

Due to the uncertainty of its budget NASA has decided to delay the award of the contracts to begin work on its asteroid redirect mission (ARM).

The uncertainty is that Congress has never budgeted any real money for it. The mission was proposed by Obama but only vaguely, without any real support. First it was to be a manned mission to an asteroid, using Orion. Then it was to be an unmanned mission to bring a large asteroid closer to Earth to be later visited by astronauts in an Orion capsule. Then the large asteroid became a mere boulder, with the manned mission delayed until the unforeseen future.

I think NASA sees the writing on the wall here. They expect this vague unsupported mission to die with the next administration, and have decided it is better not to waste money on it now.

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Trump interested in lunar manned mission?

After meeting with Donald Trump a historian now says the president-elect appears very interested in the idea of sending a man to the Moon.

All of these stories continue to be speculation, but I strongly suspect that much of it also consists of trial balloons pushed by the various supporters of SLS/Orion in their effort to give that very expensive and so-far completely unproductive boondoggle a mission it can actually achieve. Right now, SLS/Orion has no mission. It is only funded through the first manned test flight in 2021 (likely to be delayed until 2023). Since it has been a pork barrel favorite of a number of Senators and Congressmen, I would not be surprised if they are trying to convince Trump to fund it by giving it a new Kennedy-like mission.

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Europe commits to a second service module for Orion

The European Space Agency today agreed to build a second service module for Orion to fly in the spacecraft’s first manned mission, presently scheduled for 2021.

This still leaves Orion hanging, as there is no agreement for any further service modules after these first two flights. Nor is any money committed to build them, from either Europe or the U.S. Congress.

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The ever shrinking and delayed Orion/SLS

NASA is considering changing the first Orion crewed mission so that, instead of orbiting the Moon, the spacecraft will merely whip past it on a course that will take it directly back to Earth.

In a presentation to a Nov. 30 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council in Palmdale, California, Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, discussed what he described as a new proposal for Exploration Mission 2 (EM-2) that would last eight days. The concept, called the multi-translunar injection free minimum mission, would initially place the Orion spacecraft and its Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) into an elliptical orbit around the Earth with an apogee of 35,000 kilometers. After spending one day in that orbit, the spacecraft would separate from the EUS and use its service module engine for a final burn to send the spacecraft towards the moon. Orion would fly on a “free return” trajectory around the moon without going into orbit and without requiring another engine burn. The mission would end with a return to Earth eight days after launch, but with an option to extend the mission to up to 21 days.

The entire SLS/Orion project is idiotic and incredibly dangerous, not because it is going to the Moon but in how they plan on doing it, with literally no preparation flights beforehand. With Apollo, NASA was very careful to test each part of the package first, then proceed with a more ambitious mission. The only exception to this process was Apollo 8, which went to the Moon without a Lunar Module. That happened because they were in an intense space race with the Soviets and were under pressure to achieve Kennedy’s commitment to land before the end of the decade.

With SLS/Orion there is no such pressure. What is driving their lack of testing is a lack of money, caused by the project’s ungodly cost. They not only can’t afford to build multiple rockets to fly a variety of missions building up to the Moon, Congress hasn’t given them the money. Right now all they have allocated is enough to fly one unmanned mission in 2018, and this one manned flight in 2021 (which by the way is almost certainly going to be delayed until 2023).

The worst aspect of SLS/Orion is its stuntlike nature. They aren’t building anything that will have any permanence or allow for future colonization. It costs too much. Instead, SLS/Orion is designed to do one or two PR missions that will look good on some politician’s resume, but will do little to further the colonization of the solar system by the U.S.

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Software issues threaten Orion/SLS schedule

Despite having more than a decade to develop the software for SLS and Orion, NASA now faces the possibility that the rocket’s first test flight in 2018 might be delayed because that software is not ready.

Specifically, a NASA advisory board has revealed that Orion’s flight software is behind schedule and might not be ready in time. This, combined with schedule problems for the capsule’s service module, being built by the European Space Agency, threatens the 2018 launch date.

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