The coming death of NASA’s Space Launch System
In the past week there have been a slew of stories that all suggest strongly that the political support for the NASA-built rocket dubbed the Space Launch System (SLS) is fading very quickly, and might soon be weak enough that the political class in Washington might finally have the courage to cancel it.
First, a group of eleven Democratic Party senators on February 3rd wrote a letter [pdf] to the Biden administration, begging it to continue the manned lunar program dubbed Artemis that the Trump administration had instigated.
What made that letter remarkable was that it made no mention of SLS at all. Instead, its focus was to encourage Biden to not abandon construction of the Artemis manned lunar lander, what NASA dubs the Human Landing System (HLS).
Until that moment it had always been assumed in political circles that if you continue Artemis it means you continue SLS. Artemis itself was conceived as a program to give that heavy-lift rocket a purpose. SLS had been mandated by Congress a decade ago when Obama cancelled Bush’s Ares heavy-lift rocket. The problem was that Congress had not proposed any mission for SLS, and thus Artemis was born to give it that mission.
That these Democrats were pushing Artemis but not SLS was politically significant. It meant that they no longer considered Artemis synonymous with SLS. The former could exist without the latter.
Next, only two days later, we had the announcement by the Biden administration that it now endorses the Artemis program, and fully intends to continue its effort to send Americans back to the Moon. Once again, the administration’s statement made no mention of SLS. It committed the country to a program to return to the Moon, but left vague how this would be done. Since the Trump administration had made an effort in the preceding three years to award many contracts to many different private companies to build much of Artemis, without SLS, the implication was that the Biden administration was going to continue that policy.
Over the next week we had strong confirmation of that implication with the announcements of three different commercial contracts. First, on February 5th NASA awarded the new startup Firefly a contract to build an unmanned lunar lander. While this award had nothing to do with SLS itself, as the mission did not require it and never would have, it proved that the Biden administration was going to continue the Trump policy of letting private enterprise build the components of its lunar program, rather than NASA.
Second, and far more significant, on February 9th NASA awarded SpaceX the contract to use its Falcon Heavy rocket to launch the first two modules of the Lunar Gateway space station. Gateway is a core element of Artemis, conceived as a lunar way station for many future interplanetary missions. It was also initially conceived as a payload for SLS to deliver, part of the effort by the Washington political community in Congress, the White House, and NASA to give SLS a reason for existing. Now NASA was suddenly making it clear that it considers SLS irrelevant to Gateway because it can be replaced by commercial carriers that are already operational and cost much less to use.
Third, this switch from SLS was underlined when the very next day NASA announced that its Jupiter unmanned probe Europa Clipper was definitely going to fly on a commercial rocket, not SLS. For years Congress had mandated by law that SLS be Clipper’s rocket. In January however the new NASA budget had finally released NASA of that mandate, and the agency wasted no time in exercising its option to dump SLS. The likely replacement will once again be SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, but NASA is reserving that decision for a year.
All these stories were then topped off with the announcement on February 9th by Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) that he would not seek re-election in 2022. Shelby, head of the Senate appropriations committee under Republican rule and now the ranking member under Democratic rule, had been for years SLS’s most important supporter, since much of it was being built in his state. No NASA decision on SLS could happen without his okay, and no negative decision on SLS was possible with him in power.
Now he was telling everyone he was leaving, which means his ability to stymie any effort to cancel SLS was now gone.
All in all, these events strongly suggest that the political winds are now blowing against SLS.
Sometime near the end of February Boeing and NASA will attempt the second static fire test of SLS’s core stage. The first had aborted only one minute into a planned eight minute test. If this second test fails, it will likely require a third test, which in turn will guarantee that the first unmanned flight of SLS, now set for late this year, will slip into ’22. That launch will then be about four years behind schedule, and would have cost the taxpayer about $28 billion.
Twenty-eight billion dollars for a single unmanned launch after a decade of development: Seems a pretty bad deal if you ask me.
For SLS these facts are damning. Even if that static fire test later this month succeeds, the cost and cumbersomeness of SLS make it a poor long term choice for any future space effort. Those numbers become even less favorable when compared to the low cost options now offered by the commercial market.
What really matters however are not these simple, common-sense facts but what the political class in DC wants to do. For a decade they have wanted SLS because of the pork it funneled to their states and districts. It was irrelevant to these corrupt politicians that from almost the beginning it was obvious that SLS was unworkable and expensive and unlikely to ever get us anywhere in space.
Now it appears they are finally beginning to see the private sector as a viable alternative to SLS for providing them that pork, and it appears they are getting ready to make the switch.
When that decision comes the effect will be Earth-shattering. While NASA will still lay out the long term plans for America’s space effort, it will no longer be in charge. Private companies will be providing the technology, the resources, and the products that will make NASA’s program possible. And those same private companies will own those products, not NASA or the government. They will be able to offer them to others to buy, so that not only will free Americans make money from space exploration, free Americans will be able to go themselves, if they wish it and are willing and able to pay the price.
The exploration of space will finally be truly free, in the philosophical meaning of the word. Any future you can imagine under those circumstances will likely underestimate the possibilities.
Now available in hardback and paperback as well as ebook!
From the press release: In this ground-breaking new history of early America, historian Robert Zimmerman not only exposes the lie behind The New York Times 1619 Project that falsely claims slavery is central to the history of the United States, he also provides profound lessons about the nature of human societies, lessons important for Americans today as well as for all future settlers on Mars and elsewhere in space.
Conscious Choice: The origins of slavery in America and why it matters today and for our future in outer space, is a riveting page-turning story that documents how slavery slowly became pervasive in the southern British colonies of North America, colonies founded by a people and culture that not only did not allow slavery but in every way were hostile to the practice.
Conscious Choice does more however. In telling the tragic history of the Virginia colony and the rise of slavery there, Zimmerman lays out the proper path for creating healthy societies in places like the Moon and Mars.
“Zimmerman’s ground-breaking history provides every future generation the basic framework for establishing new societies on other worlds. We would be wise to heed what he says.” —Robert Zubrin, founder of founder of the Mars Society.
All editions are available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all book vendors, with the ebook priced at $5.99 before discount. The ebook can also be purchased direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit, in which case you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner.
Autographed printed copies are also available at discount directly from me (hardback $24.95; paperback $14.95; Shipping cost for either: $5.00). Just email me at zimmerman @ nasw dot org.
I think significant that the Democrat senators recognize that SLS is likely to be the usual NASA money pit with little chance of flying, but they are backing the 3 private corporations with a realistic chance of accomplishing a successful manned lunar landing. If mankind is to reach the planets, it won’t be with NASA in the lead…not that they won’t try to take the credit.
The SLS has that limited number of times it can be fueled. They have to use one for the test and certainly have to do a fill if & when the stack gets on the launch pad. There would be many chances left.
Great post Bob. Very informative!
Won’t this also kill Orion? I am under the impression that it is too heavy for Falcon Heavy.
Ron Desmarais: I don’t know the exact numbers, but I am certain Falcon Heavy could launch Orion.
Orion might survive, but Lockheed Martin is going to have to give it a major rethink to make it marketable.
Who took over from Shelby on the space committee ??
This is just indicative of the change that needs to be made in the entire US procurement process. The ‘good ole’ boy’ network must be buried and I am not saying that rockets can be done on the cheap. But companies like SpaceX are accountable to the taxpayer and prove their ability to deliver on on regular basis. Boeing has too many ‘friends’ in congress to be held accountable for their blunders. The 737X, Starliner, SLS. Not exactly rousing successes. And, even though they aren’t the prime contractor it is just another example of the ‘good ole’ boy’ network in action… why is the James Webb Telescope so far behind schedule and so far over budget? Yeah. It is advanced technology but that excuse don’t hunt no more.
I worked as an engineer in the department of energy for my last couple of years before retiring. The government procurement process is possibly the most exasperating thing I faced in my entire career. The purchasing agents rather than the engineers make the final decisions, bureaucracy makes it almost impossible to add suppliers and actual performance is never a priority. The only priority is to not make any bureaucratic mistakes.
SLS should at least have launched Clipper-so it might work with Juno. Clipper will have to do an Earth fly-by now-just like Cassini…which had Kaku and the anti-nukes up in arms. I was hoping to avoid that.
“Twenty-eight billion dollars for a single unmanned launch after a decade of development: Seems a pretty bad deal if you ask me.”
Seems like a pretty good deal if you are Boeing and NASA/MSFC, and have the work ethic of a 30 year old living in his mother’s basement (but I repeat myself).
“Who took over from Shelby on the space committee ??”
Do you mean the Appropriations Committee?
Membership and chairmanships have not been voted on yet. By default, for the moment, it is Parick Leahy (D-Vermont), with Shelby as Vice Chairman.
@Foxbat: similar experience, but working for private contractors. Learned how to attract the least amount of attention.
SLS had life so long as there were missions that needed a human-rated SHLV. Mars as the “horizon goal” was ultimately the rationale as to why we had to continue with SLS despite cost and schedule.
FH was not an adequate replacement for all of that capability. But Starship will be. When Starship first achieves orbit (the Tipping Point Criteria) it will have demonstrated that it will, relatively soon, be an adequate replacement for SLS for unmanned missions. What would be very helpful would be for there to be a public-private partnership between NASA and SpaceX to help the later human-rate Starship in order to fully replace Starship. Starship’s lack of a LAS is one issue to be overcome. An interim solution could be to launch crew on a Dragon to LEO and then transfer them to Orion. It would be nice to have our KSP friends simulate all of the alternative scenarios to SLS.
Honestly, I have the sense that the senators’ letter did not mention SLS, only because they didn’t feel it was under any threat.
Perhaps this is just my cynicism in play.
I still just don’t think (alas) that SLS is close to the chopping block. Yes, losing Europa Clipper and even Gateway to commercial slims its portfolio. But its true raison d’etre has always been launching crew to the Moon, and that mission remains undiminished. And in any event, it’s kinda been baked into the pie for the last few years now that the Gateway stuff would be mostly done via commercial launchers.
I think once we see Starship, Vulcan, and New Glenn making regular flights to orbit, the political situation *could* change. But boy, it sure does have a lot of contractor jobs in a lot of districts, and not just in Alabama. It’s gonna die hard, I fear.
Thanks Doug. The SLS and Marshall hate on the web is sickening.
I’m in Alabama. As much as I hate to see the pain on Huntsville from SLS being canceled, I care far more about Americans (of the can-do variety) achieving dominance of space exploration ASAP. If only SpaceX would buy up the production facilities of SLS in Huntsville, I would totally apply to work there.
I have questions for you all regarding the cancellation of SLS , and indeed the “pork” it brings to otherwise underprivileged communities over there… Given that the withdrawal of a major employer can have devastating effects on a community, ( as has occurred both over there, and over here in the last half dozen decades ), would it be possible to give SpaceX, Blue Origen, and the rest an incentive to open operations in the areas formally used by NASA? Something along the lines of tax breaks for companies in the sector? I have no doubt that the scientists and engineers employed at these NASA facilities will have little problem finding work elsewhere, but it’s the janitors, catering staff, drivers and warehouse workers who will suffer the most in the community should the SLS be cancelled. It’s a socialist perspective, and thus totally alien to many of you, but while I agree that SLS is a waste of your money, and should be cancelled, there should be steps to shore up the population of people who would be left jobless should these facilities in “poor” states close down. In my mind this is a perfect example of where government has the obligation to step in and use it’s power to help the people it represents. This is a question focusing on the micro effects rather than the macro, but in my mind an issue where perhaps our left and right wing brains could meet?
I’m not understanding what else there is really to accomplish in manned space travel especially to the moon or Mars that couldn’t be done cheaper, more efficiently and with less risk than robots.
Color me skeptical.
It would be cheaper to move the people to the work than move the work to the people.
But the people would have to want to move.
Instead of giving all those companies tax breaks or even no interest loans to move the work, instead spend the same amount on the people and re-educate them. If they are smart enough and willing.
You will find that a LOT of people who fill those no skill jobs can not do anything else because of personal problems.
Problems of their own making.
Drug abuse. Can not drive. Bad work record. Did not finish high school.
They have had years to correct these problems but chose not to. Why would they change now?
“I’m not understanding what else there is really to accomplish in manned space travel especially to the moon or Mars that couldn’t be done cheaper, more efficiently and with less risk than robots.”
Oh, there’s quite a lot – *if* you’re willing to pay the price.
Let us consider the Curiosity rover. It’s an amazing machine, a nuclear powered roving geological laboratory on wheels. Since 2012, it has covered over 15.6 miles on the Martian surface, studying rocks, soil and climate, zapping the results back via UHF and X band to earth, mostly through two NASA orbiters for 16 minutes each day.
Now consider the last Apollo mission to the Moon, Apollo 17. In three EVA’s spread over 22 hours over three days, Gene Cernan and geologist Jack Schmitt covered 22 miles of lunar surface, thanks to the mobility of the lunar rover and plain old human legs. They erected a series of science instruments and brought back 240 pounds of surface samples to Earth.
Even allowing for the advance of technology between 1972 and 2012, it’s pretty hard to say we did not generate more science on Apollo 17. Of course, we paid around $200 billion in 2021 dollars for Apollo, and about $2.5 billion for Curiosity. Curiosity gives us a lot less science per diem, but it also happens to be what NASA could afford to do in the 2010’s.
In addition to what pzatchok said. There have been quite number of experiments doing what you suggest. The ones that I am aware of failed to improve the lot of the victims. There are legends of Appalachia coal towns with no productive work to be had, and the people stay there for generations due to government support.
Having been involved in a few efforts to help people move forward, I have seen some success and much failure. The best that can be done is to remove any real roadblocks to self improvement. You cannot force people to improve, somewhat like involuntary rehab. Having watched almost illiterate (at first) immigrants move ahead to live the American dream, I have far less sympathy for those that choose not to try.
There are plenty that do work thankless jobs and have trouble moving ahead. The things that can and should be done to help them are often done best at the local level.
@pzatchok and John hare, good points well made, although I would argue that in general people want to work, it’s just lack of opportunities that holds them back.
I originally come from what was the industrial heartland of the UK, but starting in the 70s ( facilitated by Margret Thatcher ) industry started to move abroad, and now the area regularly tops the UK league tables in unemployment, teenage pregnancy, poverty and drug/alcohol abuse ( which is a symptom, not a cause.). My education was pitiful, but fortunately I am blessed with good social skills and the ability to work well with my hands so I was always been able to make a decent living in the bar and building trades ( often both at the same time ), but many of my peers are stuck in dead end jobs or unemployed. If they were given a chance to re-train they would jump for it, if they were given the chance to do a fair days work for a fair days pay, they would jump for it. The opportunity is just not there. This is a very similar situation that I encountered in my trip to WV, Mannington is full of people that would love to better themselves. It’s all well and good to say the people should move to the work, but moving is hard when you are literally living one week to the next.
You may be correct that government money would be better spent on training and education than encouraging business to the poorest areas, but will this happen? And blaming good honest blue collar workers who find themselves in in the unemployment trap for a situation out of their control is doing a disservice to your fellow citizens. I believe that most of us here are fortunate enough to have either work or a decent pension, but their are many, both there, here, and world wide that don’t, and will never have the opportunity. I postulate that it should be the duty of government to at least make opportunities available for folk that want to improve their lot. Simply saying that they should try harder is not a solution.
Short reply from phone.
A large part of the problem is the well meaning government programs with unintended consequences. More when time permits.
Just a post script, @pzatchok, a Wearhouse worker is not a “no skill job”…. I am currently working in a wearhouse, and I have had to learn a very specific skill set to earn the nickname ” the kamikaze fork lift driver”!!! … In all seriousness, it is the people that work the “lower class” jobs that keep the economy rolling… They deliver your mail, and your pizza, they pack your latest purchase from Amazon, they take your cash and give your change at the supermarket, and indeed fill the shelves so you have something to buy at Walmart, the economy would grind to a halt without people who are willing and able to perform these tasks. Not everyone can be an engineer or a biologist, but they may be able to change your tires or indeed wash your car. My point is that without the folk who are willing and able to sweep a floor, the floor stays dirty. He is important. What happens to the guy who sweeps the floor, when the job goes away?
@John hare, I agree to an extent… Looking forward to your next post!
government has nothing, it hasn’t taken by force, from someone.
Taking my money and giving it to someone else, does not produce any economic growth.
If you want to know why your Country (Britain) almost failed, it wasn’t Thatcher, it was socialism.
The British Attempt to Construct a Socialist Commonwealth, 1945-1951
Professor Vernon Bogdanor
Gresham College Public lecture
Aneurin Bevan and the Socialist Ideal
Professor Vernon Bogdanor
Gresham College Public lecture
The National Health Service Crisis, 1951 –
Professor Vernon Bogdanor
Gresham College Public lecture
The (British) General Election of 1945 –
Professor Vernon Bogdanor
Gresham College Public lecture
forgive me if I have asked you this in the past— can you pick up a dime, (a small coin) with your forklift?
Spent some time working in a factory in College, my boss regularly picked up a quick $20 betting on his skill.
That being said– have a comment in moderation for ya’.
The war on drugs for a start. We can’t hire people that can’t pass a drug test. Which means that many people with problems are forced out of the legitimate work force. Often on some form of government assistance and no route forward even if they wanted to. No business wants people around that are too stoned, wired, drunk, etc to work safely. The problem being that what people do on their own time should be none of my business. There are millions of functioning alcoholics, and there used to be millions of functioning drug users in the work force. By shutting them out of the work force and legal income, it makes it harder to staff factories. Which in turn makes many factories go elsewhere. Which makes it even harder for others to find work, and so on. Also has the effect of increasing the crime rates by people forced out of normal society. Making criminal cartels wealthy and powerful is another side effect.
Minimum wage laws are not a floor to hold people up, they are a hurdle for the less skilled. In some cases making them unemployable. The amount of money spent to support people not working could be more effectively spent helping the ones willing to try. Often called a reverse income tax, it would be better to subsidize someone working for $5.00 an hour than someone that is not working at all. Many people are prevented from climbing the ladder because several of the bottom rungs have been cut off.
As to whether a fork lift operator (or anyone else) is skilled, the question is, “how hard is it to train someone to do your job?” If a new hire can be trained to take your place in a couple of days, you are not in a skilled job. Sure you will (or should be) better than the new guy, but if there is no serious difference in over all productivity….
One of the largest things that could be done is to quit lying to people. We are not all the same or I could play against Michael Jordan and Elon Musk on level ground. It has become politically incorrect to note that people from different backgrounds will have different strengths and weaknesses. The constant stream of “you deserve” bypasses the question of “WHY?”. Whether it is legacy aerospace or an unskilled dropout, deserve is what you can do for others. Paying teenage girls to have babies they can’t afford by men that don’t care is one side of the entitlement coin that has SLS and company on the other.
That’s more than enough off topic from me I believe.
@wayne.. forgive me, but I don’t watch YouTube links… Anyone can prove any point they wish on that platform… I read peer reviewed papers, and intelligent opinion pieces, I don’t even have a regular TV connection, the kids have a Chromecast so they can stream a movie, and we have a first generation WII so we can play Wii sports, but I haven’t watched regular TV in years, and YouTube links are even more toxic.. I prefer to read my news from a wide range of sources, from Al Jazeera to Fox…. If it’s in print (so to speak ) there is accountability. Your reply of 4 hours of YouTube videos actually means less than nothing, I’m pleased you found some videos that support your viewpoint, I’m sure I could find videos of the decline of the US, the downfall of capitalism, and how communism is the only way forward if could be bothered. I can’t. I prefer an argument without YouTube links.
All that said, I can’t pick up a krona with my forklift, but I can make awesome doughnuts in the snow!!
Lee like you I am one of those unskilled workers.
I have done my time in warehouse work. Learned how to drive ANY forklift and yes can pick up that dime.
Before that I was in the US Airforce. I fueled aircraft. I was licensed to drive anything including semi trucks.
Not everyone was though. I just happened to know how to drive manual transmission vehicles. That was getting rare forty years ago, now its virtually a theft prevention devise.
In the job I have now I can used to run multi head CNC machines now I am in the inspection department. it takes 6 months to a year to become qualified in my inspection job.
But I have no advanced education, no collage. Some of the people I do the very same job as have geology degrees, religious study degrees and even a teacher. And they do my same job.
They are doing the same job as me because they do not want to move to the work.
Education does not mean someone will make more money. They have to be willing to make sacrifices.
Jeff Wright wrote: “The SLS and Marshall hate on the web is sickening.”
It isn’t so much hatred as it is disappointment. SLS is the third “flagship” project that is very costly while not performing as originally hoped. What could we have already done in space had we spent the development money more wisely and SLS had started flying on the originally intended date?
What would we have already done in space if each SLS launch cost much less and could keep up a rapid cadence, similar to the Space Shuttle? What could we have accomplished in space if the ISS had cost the original $32 billion rather than $100 billion to put into space, and could we have had three space stations for that same price with three times the productivity than we have now? What could we have accomplished in space if Bush had not saved a mere 3% of the cost by reducing the manned capacity by 50%? What would we have done in space had the Space Shuttle cost far less per launch and could fly the originally planned 64 times per year? If we had that more efficient Space Shuttle, could we have had an SLS-like rocket in the 1990s and would we have been back on the Moon in the early 2000s? Could we have people on Mars by now?
SLS looks to be a good launch vehicle for capacity, but it has a high price and a low launch rate. Like the Space Shuttle, the ISS, the James Webb telescope, and Roman Space Telescope (WFIRST), there is much science and exploration that could have been done with the same money as we spent or are spending on these overpriced projects.
The unemployment that you assume could be avoided by spending the same money on more productive projects. Being a NASA facility, the Hunstville facility will not be closed, and the contractors could be working on those more productive projects. Allocating the same expenditures to more effective and efficient projects keeps the employment but also produces more results. The results should be the important item, but some people think that government’s job is to provide jobs. That government should be mother and father. Instead, we end up with people unwilling to do what it takes to get a job or to move to where the jobs are, and rather than be productive and add to the economy they spend their time relaxing in the government’s safety net as though it were a hammock.
The problem is not that money is being spent at NASA but that we are getting too little return for that money. This is a problem with most government operations, especially since the income tax was introduced. Once government had easy access to cash, it did not have to be efficient, and NASA management has by necessity fallen into Congress’s socialist way of thinking.
Falcon Heavy can put 26,700 kg (58,900 lb)in GTO, and Lunar orbit is about the same. Especially the irregular Lagrange kind of orbit suggested for Artemis. Orion with service module has a launch mass of 25,800 kg (57,000 lb). So that should work, barely.
But with the launch abort tower it’s 33,446 kg (73,735 lb). It is ejected early on, but it seems to be impossible for FH to manage that. There might be other issues with aerodynamics and center of mass and such with putting a LAT on the FH.
However, FH could launch an uncrewed Orion. And with changes that make it possible to resupply the service module in space, Orion might be reused for a while in space. Shuttling between Earth and Lunar orbit for example. Orion can support an EVA (once, as the capsule is then emptied and has supplied to be once refilled with air), allegedly supports its crew for three weeks which enough to visit Sun-Earth Lagrange point 2 to upgrade a space telescope. And Orion is more spacious than Dragon, and even has a camping toilette.
Elon Musk once said that FH could land a crewed Dragon on the Moon, but would need a second launch for the return vehicle (and I think that one would have to be smaller than Dragon).
The Gresham College public lectures by Bogdanor to which I linked, comprise 7-8 lectures in total, covering “Britain in the 20th Century.” I have no clue what political bent the professor might have, nor does he openly advocate one system over another. I originally started delving into British history to answer one question in my head, “what on Earth, happened to the British?” (It’s your history, not mine.)
-One thing became startling clear— both major British parties imposed socialism and nationalization of industry, early on, and they never looked back. Even Thatcher wouldn’t touch your National Health Empire. (Reminds me of progressive American Republicans who feign belief in free market capitalism but when push comes to shove, they LOVE big government. There’s nothing “American,” for example, about our social-security welfare state, it was all a European import and now we’re stuck with it, forever, thanks to FDR and his wizards of smart.)
“The Anarcho-Capitalist Theme Song”
Randy Goble 2010
“If we all just sat around everyday smoking weed,
If punk rock became all acoustic,
Due to the shutting down of the electric company….
And if our dread locks finally grew together,
Into one giant hairball of unity.
Then we’ll have finally achieved egalitarian society.
Think of it as going camping – only forever… no thanks.”
Thanks for the figures, I guess it would depend on how long it takes to get Starship/Super Heavy human rated as to whether it makes sense to make the FH/Orion work long term. Even with SpaceX’s development pace that will take a while to do. Seems like they could make Dragon work as a transfer vehicle in the interim.
To get back to SLS. It is the best choice for human Mars missions. Here is how I see things. Gateway is added onto-solar electric panels, etc. It gets sent to Mars unmanned-with Orion docked to a fuel-fat Agena-like insertion stage for Earth return. With ample water just under the surface, the methalox method is abandoned. Hydrogen and oxygen are harvested in a biconic aeroshell pre-positioned there. SpaceX launches the Mars Base Camp lander of Lockheed. Two SLS rockets launch back to back-one with hydrogen and a NTR engine, the other with hydrogen and lox for a Stan Borowski afterburner-power generator. The two fuel modules are linked together and the lander becomes the command module. The nuclear drive gets the crew there quick, and the topped off lander docks with the Gateway for check-out. The NTR section becomes part of Gateway. The lander comes down and is refueled. After surface exploration-the lander ascends, and docks with Gateway. The lander remains docked-left in place. The crew then get into Orion and return to Earth. The big Agena, now empty, becomes a tethered counter-weight for Orion’s artifical gravity. Orion cuts that loose-burns its service module to depletion, then re-enters using a skip like Apollo.
Interesting scenario but why can’t Starship/SH do the lifting you have assigned to SLS?
Seems to me that every dime we continue to spend on SLS is a waste.
Even if it takes two Starship launches to accomplish what SLS can do in one, it will still be way less expensive to use the two Starships.
SpaceX just doesn’t do hydrogen. Super-Heavy will take some time-and I worry that Starship will require Shuttle-level complexity to work. SLS has stage-and-a-half to orbit system potential. An external tank type wet workshop does not need landing legs or heat shields-it is reusable as floor space-and I think it worth its price as a fall back. Now, the thing about my plan is the abort options. If the NTR cluster fails, the basecamp lander can detach and burn home early. The hypergolic stretch Orion can perhaps play a role. The Gateway solar electric drive is yet another option. The goal is to open up possibilities-not kill them off. I would support SLS even if it meant Alabama lost all its space jobs-the concept itself is worthy in my estimation.
One last thing. A Green zealot kills off frac’ing jobs in America. China still pollutes-so jobless families were devastated…why? A libertarian zealot kills SLS. His taxes don’t drop any-and families are devastated all the same. Right-wingers tell engineers ‘no’ because they want tax breaks-and we get Flint. Left-Wingers want social programs, and also tell engineers ‘no’ just for different reasons-and we get black-outs. A pox upon both their houses. Zealots war-but only the common man gets hurt.
I am a long time opponent of the SLS, also called the Senate Launch System, the Franken-rocket (since the Congress keeps reviving it), and the Rocket to Nowhere. All of the engineers working on it are not to blame, the people in the “Swamp” are to blame. My first anti-SLS article came out within a month of the program’s announcement in 2011.
For reference without posting URL’s, (you can probably find the titles by googling them), my main anti-SLS articles in the Space Review are:
“The SLS: too Expensive for Exploration” 11-2011, “Revisiting SLS/Orion Launch Costs” 7-15-2013, and “Doing the Right Thing when it’s Steamboat Time” 1-14-2014. More recently, I have addressed more current issues.
The fundamental problem with the SLS, ignoring all of the other problems, is that it is an EXPENDABLE rocket and thus supporting space operations with it is unaffordable. I do not understand why this simple fact is not obvious to many people. To the people getting the SLS money, it is irrelevant, as their aim is not to enable large scale space operations but simply to make billions of dollars for as long as they can.
We have been trying to predict when the political tipping point for the SLS will be reached and each time a predicted tipping point event happens, the SLS survives politically in spite of all the problems.
SpaceX will gradually, then faster and faster, make NASA human spaceflight programs irrelevant, and so we should just support SpaceX and any other company working on reusable rockets and sort of ignore what is going on in the “Swamp”.
member NSS board of directors