Tag Archives: SLS

Blue Origin proposes unmanned lunar mission

The competition heats up: Blue Origin has proposed building for NASA an unmanned lunar mission to visit Shackleton Crater at the Moon’s south pole by 2020.

The Post says the company’s seven-page proposal, dated Jan. 4, has been circulating among NASA’s leadership and President Donald Trump’s transition team. It’s only one of several proposals aimed at turning the focus of exploration beyond Earth orbit to the moon and its environs during Trump’s term.

As described by the Post, the proposal seeks NASA’s support for sending a “Blue Moon” lander to Shackleton Crater near the moon’s south pole. The lander would be designed to carry up to 10,000 pounds of payload. It could be launched by Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, which is currently under development, or by other vehicles including NASA’s Space Launch System or United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5. [emphasis mine]

The important take-away from this story is not the proposal to go to the Moon, but the proposal, as highlighted, that other rockets could do it instead of SLS. Though the proposal includes SLS as a possible launch vehicle, NASA’s giant rocket simply won’t be ready by 2020. That New Glenn might be illustrates again how much better private space does things, as this rocket is only now beginning development. If it is ready by 2020, which is what Blue Origin has been promising, it will have taken the company only about four years to build it, one fourth the time it is taking NASA to build SLS.

ULA lets the press see part of SLS

Link here. The upper stage of SLS is undergoing its final testing in Michoud prior to shipment to Florida, and ULA had a press event to show it off.

“This is the first piece of integrated flight hardware for the SLS system to be shipped down to the Cape in preparation for our very first launch,” said Jerry Cook, Deputy SLS Program Manager for NASA. Cook noted that the ICPS test article is currently undergoing stress and load tests at Marshall.

The completion of the ICPS is yet another landmark in SLS’ development, though some contend it’s still a drawing-board vehicle. John Shannon, Boeing’s Vice President and General Manager of the SLS Program, disagrees. “The SLS has, in various forms, been called a paper rocket […] and, if I think you look to your right, you’ll see that absolutely is not true,” stated Shannon. “If you had the opportunity to go to the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where we’re putting the bigger core stage together, you would also see that it is not true because we are putting hardware together as we speak.”

This upper stage engine is a brand new design and has never flown before, and the rocket it is part of has yet to be assembled. Yet NASA is considering flying humans on it during its first test flight, even as it harasses SpaceX and Boeing about using the Falcon 9 and Atlas 5 rockets, both proven repeatedly in operational flights, for their manned ISS missions.

The article also gives an update on the situation at Michoud since it was hit by a tornado on February 8. It appears that the facility is operating again, but not fully.

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]:
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Two congressmen propose naming SLS for astronaut Gene Cernan

Two congressman yesterday introduced legislation that would rename SLS after Eugene Cernan, the last Apollo astronaut to walk on the Moon.

I don’t think anyone would argue with this. First, SLS is a terrible name for the rocket. Second, Cernan deserves the recognition.

At the same time, I suspect this is happening as part of an overall push within the Washington community to sell SLS to Trump and his administration. This proposal, as well as the recent news stories proposing SLS/Orion Moon missions and putting astronauts on SLS’s first flight, all point to a lobbying effort inside NASA, Congress, and the big space community to save SLS, which when compared to the successes and achievements of commercial space since 2010 appears an abject failure.

That comparison is at the heart of my policy paper, Capitalism in Space, which will hit the newstands next week. It makes it very clear how much a failure SLS/Orion has been, and how embarrassing that failure stands when compared to commercial space.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

NASA considers alternatives to Orion

The competition heats up: Faced with long delays and an ungodly budget, NASA is now considering alternatives to replace the Orion capsule.

NASA has initiated a process that raises questions about the future of its Orion spacecraft. So far, this procedural effort has flown largely under the radar, because it came in the form of a subtle Request for Information (RFI) that nominally seeks to extend NASA’s contract to acquire future Orion vehicles after Exploration Mission-2, which likely will fly sometime between 2021 and 2023.

Nevertheless, three sources familiar with the RFI, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, told Ars there is more to the request than a simple extension for Orion’s primary contractor, Lockheed Martin. Perhaps most radically, the RFI may even open the way for a competitor, such as Boeing or SpaceX, to substitute its own upgraded capsule for Orion in the mid-2020s.

The article also has this juicy quote:

The new RFI states that Lockheed will continue with development of Orion through a second uncrewed flight set for late 2018 and Exploration Mission-2, the first crewed mission, as early as 2021. However, once this “base vehicle” configuration is established, the RFI signals NASA’s intent to find a less expensive path forward. “This RFI serves as an examination of the market, which is an initial step in pursuing any of the available acquisition strategies, including the exercising of existing options,” the document states.

The end of SLS and Orion is beginning.

Orion faces more delays

Faced with looming schedule problems for Europe’s effort to build the service module for the Orion capsule, NASA has created a working group to attack the problem.

The European Service Module (ESM) element of Orion has been classed as a major schedule driver for the program for some time. The Service Module for Orion was originally going to be an all-American system, under the control of Lockheed Martin. However, a deal back in 2012 resulted in an alliance with the European Space Agency (ESA) to utilize hardware associated with its Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV).

The deal made sense. NASA’s goal of international collaboration is deemed to be an essential formula for spreading the costs and increasing the viability of NASA’s exploration goals, building on the success of the partnerships that built the International Space Station. Also, the ATV is proven technology, having already proved its worth via a string of successful resupply missions to the orbital outpost.

However, the challenge of combining the technology into what is essentially an American vehicle has resulted in schedule pressures.

Let me once again point out that Orion was first proposed by President George Bush in 2004. Its first official flight, with service module, is now scheduled for 2018. That means it took NASA 14 years to build and launch a unmanned single complete capsule, assuming they can get the service module built in time. That it took that long to build this is shameful. That there is even the slightest possibility that 14 years won’t be enough time to build the service module is downright disgusting, and is another illustration of the complete failure of the federal government.

Note that the previous unmanned Orion test flight in 2014 really doesn’t count. That capsule was a engineering test capsule, designed to test the capsule’s heat shield, even though NASA had already decided before the flight to abandon that heat shield design. In other words, it was a complete waste of money.

SLS schedule changes impending

NASA’s refurbishment plans for the mobile launcher and SLS launchpad suggest that the first manned flight of SLS is increasingly likely to be delayed from its present 2021 launch date.

The situation is complicated. The SLS configuration that will launch an unmanned capsule in December 2018 will use a Delta rocket upper stage, and will only have the capability of launching about 70 metric tons into low Earth orbit. After this one flight NASA wants to begin using SLS’s own upper stage, which it calls the Exploration Upper Stage and which will raise the rocket’s payload capacity to 105 metric tons. Because these changes will make SLS taller, however, they have to refurbish both the mobile launcher that brings the rocket to the launchpad as well as the launch tower used to fuel the rocket during countdown. These changes, now scheduled, will shut down the launchpad from January 2019 until the end of 2020.

The problem with doing this is that SLS’s second flight, presently scheduled in 2021, is supposed to be manned. To use the Exploration Upper Stage untested on this manned flight is something NASA doesn’t really want to do. Flying another unmanned flight to test that upper stage however will require NASA to delay the first manned flight again, probably to 2023.

Based on the article at the link above, those delays now seem almost certain. Because NASA is moving to refurbish the launchpad right after that first unmanned flight in December 2018, this means all later SLS launches will use the Exploration Upper Stage. Since Congress has also ordered NASA to fly its upcoming Europa orbiter mission on SLS, it seems to me that NASA is now quietly moving to add a second unmanned SLS test flight between the rocket’s first flight in 2018 and the first manned flight and will use it to launch the Europa orbiter some time in 2021. This will in turn delay the launch of that first manned flight, probably until 2023, a date that is presently listed in many NASA documents as the latest SLS’s first manned mission will fly.

If this is the case, it means that it will have literally taken NASA two decades to build and fly a single manned Orion capsule, beginning when George Bush ordered the construction of the Crew Exploration Vehicle in January 2004.

Does no one but me see something wrong here?

Charles Bolden poo-poos private space

In remarks at a conference yesterday NASA administrator Charles Bolden expressed his distrust and lack of confidence in the ability of private companies to build large heavy lift rockets.

“If you talk about launch vehicles, we believe our responsibility to the nation is to take care of things that normal people cannot do, or don’t want to do, like large launch vehicles,” Bolden said. “I’m not a big fan of commercial investment in large launch vehicles just yet.”

…Despite the demonstrable efforts by both SpaceX and Blue Origin, Bolden nonetheless said that “normal people” cannot, or do not want to, develop large launch vehicles. What the administrator appears to be asserting here is that NASA is more special, or better, than those in the private sector when it comes to building rockets.

The article at the link notes the strangeness of Bolden’s remarks, especially since NASA itself has failed, despite repeated efforts, to build its own new rocket since the 1970s. The author also notes the high cost of SLS, though the numbers he cites — $13 billion to develop and build SLS — is actually about half the real cost, which will be about $25 billion to build two SLS rockets.

Bolden here illustrates the old way of doing things. He will be gone soon, however, and a new way will replace him, private, competitive, innovative, and fast moving, everything that NASA has not been in the past four decades.

The status of SLS for its first launch in 2018

Link here. The article gives an excellent and detailed overview of where construction of SLS presently sits, what the problems are that still remain, and what they have done to overcome them.

What struck me most however in reading the article was how long it takes them to do anything. For example, it appears they will assemble the rocket in the spring of 2018 for a December launch. In fact, the description of this assembly in this article partly explains to me why SLS will have the ungodly slow launch rate of at best once every two years.

In addition, the article describes how NASA has handled a number of engineering issues that have come up, and for each the approach seems to me to be more complicated than necessary. However, I am not an engineer and have never been part of this kind of work. Maybe everyone does it this way.

NASA finalizes more cubesat deals for first SLS launch

Lockheed Martin and NASA have signed a deal to put a science cubesat on the first SLS rocket, planned for an unmanned launch of Orion in 2018.

The adapter ring that connects Orion to the rocket will include 13 bays for CubeSats, shoe-box sized payloads that until now haven’t been delivered in significant numbers into deep space. Each of those payload operators is working to finalize contracts with NASA for the ride into space, and on Monday, Lockheed Martin announced a few details of its 6U CubeSat, called SkyFire. Lockheed’s payload will capture high-quality images of the Moon. And in exchange for the ride into deep space, NASA will receive data from the mission.

“The CubeSat will look for specific lunar characteristics like solar illumination areas,” James Russell, Lockheed Martin SkyFire principal investigator, said in a news release. “We’ll be able to see new things with sensors that are less costly to make and send to space.”

This is without doubt a great opportunity for Lockheed Martin and others to test the use of a cubesat in interplanetary space. Whether it makes sense to use SLS to launch them is another matter entirely.

NASA delays asteroid redirect mission one year

NASA has decided to delay by one year the planned launch dates for both its unmanned and manned missions to an asteroid.

And why might you ask?

Mr. Gerstenmaier further stated that “We had trouble getting the funding together for this thing. So this slip of the one year that you see wasn’t caused by technical. It was really caused by budget availability. We just didn’t have the budget available to go do this.”

Also, the article notes that the launch rocket for the unmanned mission, now set for 2021, will be one of three possible rockets.

No elaboration was given as to what those “three rockets” are, though SLS, one of SpaceX’s Falcon family of rockets, and Atlas V are understood to be the prime contenders at this time.

The unmanned mission might happen (though I wouldn’t bet on it). As for the manned mission, there is a reason NASA has had trouble getting funding. SLS/Orion cost too much. Congress simply doesn’t want to spend that much for the actual missions. They will dole out a lot of cash for development (and the pork that goes with it), but even they can’t afford the gigantic budgets NASA needs to actually fly real missions.

July 29, 2016 Zimmerman/Batchelor podcast

The podcast is now fixed and available! John Batchelor thanks Willi for spotting the problem.

Embedded below the fold. John Batchelor titled this appearance very accurately: “Condemning Orion.” He likes to say that I am sometimes cranky. I was especially cranky tonight in reviewing why I think the way NASA is selling Orion is an outright lie.
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GAO warns of more cost overruns for SLS/Orion

The Government Accountability Office today issued two reports, both of which said that the SLS and Orion programs are faced with more cost overruns and schedule delays.

The GAO found that cost overruns for Orion could be as high as $707 million and that work is “not being accomplished as scheduled.” It also found challenges with the capsule’s software and heat shield, and said that the space capsule’s cost and schedule “estimates are not reliable.”

Other than that, everything is peachy keen! These reports, (the Orion report is found here [pdf] and the SLS report here [pdf], especially the Orion one, also suggest that the first manned Orion mission, now scheduled for 2021, stands a good chance of being delayed again, possibly for two more years.

This just confirms what I have written in my soon-to-be published policy paper, Exploring Space in the 21st Century. In fact, I need to add these GAO reports to my sources!

The Lie that is Orion

Several weeks ago NASA put out one of its periodic press releases touting the wonders of the engineering the agency is doing to prepare for its future missions to Mars. In this case the press release described a new exercise device, dubbed ROCKY (for Resistive Overload Combined with Kinetic Yo-Yo), for use in the Orion capsule.

“ROCKY is an ultra-compact, lightweight exercise device that meets the exercise and medical requirements that we have for Orion missions,” said Gail Perusek, deputy project manager for NASA’s Human Research Program’s Exploration Exercise Equipment project. “The International Space Station’s exercise devices are effective but are too big for Orion, so we had to find a way to make exercising in Orion feasible.

As is their habit these days in their effort to drum up support for funding for SLS and Orion, the press release was filled with phrases and statements that implied or claimed that Orion was going to be the spacecraft that Americans will use to explore the solar system.

…engineers across NASA and industry are working to build the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket that will venture to deep space for the first time together…

…Over the next several years, NASA’s Human Research Program will be refining the device to optimize it not only for near-term Orion missions with crew, but for potential uses on future long-duration missions in Orion…

These are only two examples. I have clipped them because both were very carefully phrased to allow NASA deniablity should anyone question these claims. For example, in the first quote they qualify “deep space” as specifically the 2018 unmanned lunar test flight. And the second quote is qualified as referring to missions to lunar space. Nonetheless, the implied intent of this wording is to sell Orion as America’s interplanetary spaceship, destined to take us to the stars!

Don’t believe me? Then take a look at NASA’s own Orion webpages, starting with the very first words on their Orion Overivew page.
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SLS engine shuts down prematurely during test

A static firing test of one SLS’s rocket engines, repurposed from the shuttle, ended prematurely on Thursday.

It appears there was “a minor issue with the test stand” that caused the early shutdown. Some history about the engine itself:

The test involved development Engine 0528, back in the test stand at Stennis for its first test firing in seven years. E0528 was last fired from the nearby A-2 stand on July 1, 2009, in the second-to-last Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) ground test for the Shuttle program. Now out of storage and ready to fire again, the Aerojet Rocketdyne engine is being used in a second series of tests of the RS-25 configuration that will fly on SLS.

This is a test program, so having things go wrong is not necessarily a problem, as the failure teaches you things you need to know. However, they aren’t supposed to be testing the test stand, they are supposed to be testing the engine.

A description of SLS’s first launch

This article provides a detailed look at the planned 2018 first launch of SLS, describing step-by-step the launch process that will send an unmanned Orion capsule toward the Moon.

As my readers know, I am not a fan of SLS. I consider it an incredible waste of money that will never accomplish anything. Nonetheless, that first launch will be a cool thing to watch, as the rocket will generate comparable energy as the Saturn 5.

Airbus begins assembly Orion service module

My heart be still! Airbus has announced that it is beginning assembly of the first Orion capsule service module.

Considering the cost to build about three Orion flight capsules, about $25 billion, one would think that would be enough to also build the capsule’s service module, especially since this is not cutting edge technology, having already been done with Apollo.

Not however when you are dealing with pork-laden government operations, where the customer, the taxpayer, is a good mark that you can suck for as much money as possible without any bad consequences. Make it sound cool and they will buy it, hook, line, and sinker!

The Orion fantasy

There is a commercial space conference going on in Colorado this week, which explains the plethora of breaking stories from the new commercial space companies both yesterday and today.

Two stories today from Aviation Week, however, are more about the old big space industry and the old way of doing things, and both reveal the hollow nature of that entire effort.

Both stories are about work Lockheed Martin is doing in connection with its Orion capsule, and both try to convince us that this capsule is going to be the central vehicle for the first missions to Mars.

Function starts in the bones of the spacecraft,” [Mike Hawes, Lockheed Martin vice president and Orion program manager,] said in an April 12 interview at the 32nd annual Space Symposium here. “To be a deep space spacecraft, you have to build differently than you would if your requirements were to stay in low Earth orbit and be quiescent at the International Space Station for a few months. That’s driven Orion from the beginning. Any architecture you look at needs a crew capability, a long-term design requirement. So, you can debate a lot of different missions, but you need that fundamental capacity we have invested in Orion.”

I say balderdash. Orion is an over-priced and over-engineered ascent/descent capsule for getting humans in and out of Earth orbit. Spending billions so it can also go to Mars makes no sense, because its heat shield and other capsule technologies for getting through the Earth’s atmosphere are completely useless in interplanetary travel. Moreover, such a small capsule is completely insufficient for a long Mars mission, even if you test it for a “1,000 day” missions, as Hawes also says in the first article. To send a crew to Mars, you need a big vessel, similar to Skylab, Mir, ISS, or Bigelow’s B330 modules. A mere capsule like Orion just can’t do it.

Eventually, it is my hope that Congress will recognize this reality, and stop funding big space projects like SLS and Orion, and instead put its money behind the competitive private efforts to make money in space. Rather than trying to build its own capsules, space stations, rockets, and interplanetary vessels (something that NASA has repeatedly tried to do without any success), NASA should merely be a customer, buying the capsules, space stations, and interplanetary vessels that private companies have built, on their own, to make money, on their own.

Consider for example Bigelow’s B330. Each module is about as big as Skylab or Mir, and costs mere pennies to build and launch, compared to those government-designed stations. Moreover, Bigelow can build it fast, and repeatedly. Similarly, Orion has cost billions (about $16 billion when it makes its first manned mission in 2021 at the earliest) and will have taken 15 years to build. SpaceX built Dragon in seven years, Orbital ATK built Cygnus in five years, and Boeing is going to build Starliner in about four years, all for about $10 billion, total.

The contrast is striking, and though ordinary people with the ability to add 2 plus 2 can see it, it takes Congressman a little longer (as they need to use their fingers to count). Sooner or later they will get it, and Orion and SLS will disappear. Bet on it.

NASA picks Aerojet Rocketdyne engine for SLS upper stage

Government in slow motion: Only six years after program start, NASA has finally chosen Aerojet Rocketdyne’s legacy RL10 rocket engine for the upper stage of the SLS rocket.

The RL10 is an expander cycle liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen rocket engine typically used on upper stage applications. It was first developed by Pratt & Whitney in the late 1950s and first flown in 1963. It has flown on hundreds of launches, logged approximately 15,000 hot fires, and accumulated more than 2.3 million seconds of hot fire operation time with a demonstrated reliability ratio greater than 0.999 throughout its history. The RL10 – which is used in various forms with Atlas’ Centaur Upper Stage (RL10A-4-2) and Delta IV’s Upper Stage (RL10B-2) – has a history back to the Saturn I’s S-IV Stage.

No other engine exists that can be built in time. Even so, the engine will not be ready for the first SLS launch tentatively scheduled in 2018, but will instead be used on the next two flights. The article also indicates that NASA is planning to delay SLS’s second flight two years to 2023, creating a five year gap which they will use to integrate the RL10 into SLS, while also rebuilding the mobile platform used to move SLS to the launchpad. (For some reason, the reconfiguration installed for the first SLS flight won’t work for later flights.)

The delay to 2023 has not been announced officially, but I have seen too much evidence recently, including statements in this GAO report, that tells me the delay is certain. Furthermore, it seems increasingly likely that the second flight will also be unmanned, and it won’t be until the third flight (as yet unfunded by Coingress) that humans will finally fly on SLS.

The cost? I am doing an analysis of this subject right now for a policy paper I am writing for a Washington think tank, and my preliminary estimate exceeds $41 billion for NASA to fly just one manned flight of SLS. That’s a bit more expensive than the $10 billion NASA is paying SpaceX, Orbital ATK, and Boeing to launch more than a dozen cargo freighters and as many as a dozen manned flights to ISS.

For those elected officials out there who have trouble with math, let’s compare again:

  • SLS: $41 billion for one flight, 15 years development to first flight.
  • Commercial space: $10 billion for two dozen flights, 5 years development to first flight.

Which costs less and gives more bang for the buck? Can you figure that out, Congressmen and Senators? If you need help I can provide you a few more fingers so you can count above ten.

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