The ever-receding Space Launch System


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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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18 comments

  • Orion314

    SLS, the ultimate monument to the swamp.

  • fred k

    It is interesting to see the budget requests include plans for

    * Initial DSG module launched ON A COMMERCIAL LAUNCHER
    * Europa mission looking toward A COMMERCIAL launch

    Looks like the crack in the dam of SLS

  • Localfluff

    When the first SLS finally launches in 2029, it will detonate on the launch pad. And the launch escape tower will then drag the (hopefully uncrewed) Orion capsule horizontally to crash into the assembly building. I’ve read Atlas Shrugged, I know how these things work. Or rather how they don’t.

  • Richard M

    “To put humans on it untested seems foolish, doesn’t it?”

    Especially when the same agency insists on seven (7) successful flights of the Block 5 Falcon 9 before they will certify it for human-rating.

    Now we grant that NASA does not have quite the same insight into the Falcon 9’s design and operation as it will SLS, which it is designing and operating itself. But 7 versus 0? From what I hear, the Astronaut Office (understandably) is none too happy with the prospect of putting crew on the first flight of the EUS. Time will tell as to whether their objections force a change in policy.

  • Steve

    How is it they couldn’t design the mobile launcher platform to accommodate the final version of SLS and be backwards compatible with this one-off version? Would it literally be impossible?

    Heck, NASA launched the Saturn 1B from LC 39 using the Saturn V platform by putting it on a pedestal so they didn’t need something different. It looks so tiny. They managed to make that work in the ’70s.

  • Joe From Houston

    It’s going to boil down to this. Commercial space announces a flight into space that is occupied by some unnamed passengers that is obviously not employed by NASA. There are thousands of wealthy risk-takers on this planet that would consider it. Perhaps some were turned down by NASA’s astronaut office due to their public fame and or fortune. They are likely to get huge publicity for the flight. It is likely going to be more captivating of the public attention (i.e., politicians collecting votes) than the inspiring Falcon Heavy launch of Starman and his Tesla automobile towards Mars. Who could have predicted that was ever going to happen? And yet, it did. Why? Because a businessman without his hands tied made a bet with a huge pile of money to solidify future government funding that takes a big bite out of the old space companies. Its the only way to pierce a legalized monopoly. The scales could tip towards commercial space when followup bets with huge piles of cash are made by businessmen that do not have their hands tied. Old space companies already have their hands tied with long term government contracts and are locked in enough to simply double down their bets for continued funding until their last hand is revealed someday.

  • Andrew_W

    The continuation of SLS is just insane, even in the most socialist of countries they’d’ve have put down this sick puppy by now.

  • Andrew_W: In Soviet Russia they kept building Energia, completing two launches with mixed success, even though it was bankrupting them. In fact, I think Energia is a very good analogy for SLS. Our government, socialist in its tendencies these days, will likely insist on at least two SLS launches. They will then, like Gorbachev, be able to declare the rocket a success and shut it down.

  • Andrew_W

    I was actually thinking of Buran, and comparing it to the Shuttle, but you’re right, it probably had more to do with them being unable to sustain the program than better economic decision making.

    I’m skeptical that a program like this would get as far in many other democratic market economies because from what I’ve seen there’s less pork trading, due to the greater party control over individual politicians the vote buying is more on the national scale than the local scale. Probably mostly swings and roundabouts though.

  • Joe’s repurposing of the SLS acronym looks more prescient with each NASA press release.

  • rickl

    Steve:

    I’ve seen photos of LC-37 from the early 60s when they were testing Saturn 1 rockets with only the first stage live and dummy upper stages. The launch towers were much taller than the rocket, because at the time they envisioned multiple variants with different upper stages.

  • Commodude

    The pork system is why defense contractors have something for a footprint in almost all Congressional districts. Rep. Maurice Hinchey, who was as liberal as they came, fought like a wolverine in favor of certain defense contracts. Why? BAE and LockMart have a foot print in the district.

    SLS appears to have become the NASA version of a bridge I drive over daily, which I refer to as Our Lady of perpetual jobs. They’ve been working on repairing it for 6 years. It’s going to be demolished when the highway through the city is rebuilt in a couple years, but they still keep working on repairing it while the rest of the highway goes to hell. Why? Jobs. SLS will live on for the same reason.

  • Andrew_W: Your naivety about government and pork never ceases to amuse me.

  • Andrew_W

    Mr. Zimmerman, I’m not too concerned about your amusement because, having followed your reasoning, I know it’s almost inevitably evidence that you’ve chosen to interpret others comments incorrectly. You use it as a method of creating your own false reality of other peoples positions and arguments, a sort of strawman of your own imagination.

  • Ben

    ***NEWS FLASH***
    ***SPECIAL REPORT***

    NASA released a statement that the SLS will finally launch it’s first test flight before the end of the year.

    Other news: The Elon Musk Foundation has announced that the first Human child conceived on Mars has been born. The boy was given the name Elon in honor of the late businessman and visionary. It should be noted that the first Human child born on Mars was Ellen Jones, however she had been conceived on the trip out to Mars on the BFR-2 Flight # 136. To allay any conflict on the “First Born” honor, the Barsoon City leaders agreed to Celebrate both days as the first Female and Male born on Mars.
    A minor conflict erupted when the small “Transgen” community in Barsoon City protested that lack of the same honor for them, but the Barsoon City leaders pointed out that you had to be born as a Male or Female first before you could become “Transgen”.

    New Flash: Transwave News Service – March 4, 2032.

  • Ben: When it comes to SLS, don’t you think you are being a bit optimistic?

  • Ben

    Robert you are absolutely right. I’m being too optimistic. The first line should have read:

    NASA released a statement that the the first launch of the SLS would again be delayed for three more years before the first test flight.

    —Better?

  • Max

    Ha Ha, did the miners on Phobos spaceport set off fireworks?

    From administration to administration somethings never change.

    From open secrets.org
    The two companies that received the most in federal contracts also contributed to the inauguration efforts last year and have seen benefits in the first year of the Trump presidency.
    Lockheed Martin, the top recipient of federal money, received $46 billion in contract awards, a 14 percent increase from 2016.
    Boeing, the second-largest government contractor, ran into early opposition from Trump in December 2016 when Trump tweeted the following about Boeing’s Air Force One contract, which he claimed was over budget.
    https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2018/01/companies-that-funded-trumps-inauguration/

    They also have a good article on campaign contributions that the retirees are not eligible to keep but they do anyway. 50 million all totaled.

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