The Washington Empire strikes back!


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In response to the revelation earlier this week by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine that the agency is considering replacing SLS with commercial rockets for Orion’s first unmanned lunar test mission in June 2020, the swamp in Washington quickly rallied to SLS’s defense.

Not surprisingly, porkmeister Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) led the charge:

“While I agree that the delay in the SLS launch schedule is unacceptable, I firmly believe that SLS should launch the Orion,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said in a statement to SpaceNews.

This was followed by statements from industry groups and other lawmakers, all supporting SLS. Next came Bridenstine himself, who emphasized his strong support of SLS at a conference yesterday, then issued a memo to NASA employees reiterating that support.

As far as I can tell, the only way SLS will eventually die is when private companies begin doing things that SLS is designed for, for less money and faster, and for profit. And that won’t happen if this Washington swamp has its say. Rather than see an American success, these cronies have made it clear in the past decade that they will work to squelch any such success if poses any threat to their boondoggles. And it appears now that they are moving to block Bridenstine’s suggestion for that first Orion flight.

Whether this new big government campaign against private enterprise succeeds however is not clear.

SLS is still running behind schedule. It is very likely it will not be ready for that June 2020 launch. In a few weeks Bridenstine’s review will come out, and it is likely going to show that a combination of private rockets can do the job, on time and for less money. Faced with further SLS delays, Bridenstine will likely have the political clout to enable him to make the switch, especially because he clearly intends to also continue his public and strong support for SLS for later launches. Such statements will act to placate these naysayers

Get that first Orion launch up using private rockets however and game will shift. It will then become very obvious that SLS is unneeded, and too expensive. While the corrupt political class in Washington will likely continue pouring taxpayer money into this black hole for years to come, the political winds will steadily begin shifting against it. And this shift will become even more evident should SpaceX succeed in getting its Starship/Super Heavy rocket operational in the next few years. At that point even Washington lawmakers will have to bow to reality and shut SLS down.

What will they then do? Don’t fool yourself. The pork and corruption will not cease, as long as these people remain in power. They will find a new boondoggle they can fund that will use these cheaper private rockets. Gateway immediately comes to mind. It won’t get us back to the Moon, but it will give lawmakers a big space project which will allow them to funnel money to their big old space contractors like Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

Worse, it will act to capture the new commercial companies, forcing them to work within the government’s bankrupt framework. “You want those big government contracts SpaceX? Then you better reconsider flying any private manned flights to the lunar surface. Do that, and we might decide to give our business to Blue Origin or ULA.”

The result will likely be that we shall be stymied in space, while China, India, and others begin its real exploration. Gateway will likely take as long to build as SLS, meaning it won’t be operational and in orbit around the Moon until the 2030s, at the earliest. And even then it doesn’t get us to the surface. All it does is let us circle the Moon and watch as the Chinese colonize it.

This is the America of the 21st century. It has less to do with freedom and a can-do spirit and more to do with keeping the cronies in power in Washington, be they government employees or the contractors that work hand-in-glove with them.

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21 comments

  • “While I agree that the delay in the SLS launch schedule is unacceptable, I firmly believe that SLS should launch the Orion,”

    Do these people even listen to what comes out of their mouth? That is logically incoherent. I don’t suppose any ‘professional’ journalists asked the Senator just how he reconciled those mutually exclusive statements.

  • Edward

    From the article: “Larry James, deputy director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, noted the potential use of SLS for other missions. ‘It opens up the outer planets for exploration,’ he said. ‘From a science perspective, you open up a whole new domain of rapid exploration of the outer planets with the SLS.’

    James didn’t note that the administration’s budget proposal for 2020 proposed moving the Europa Clipper mission, one such outer planets mission that had been planning to use the SLS, to a commercial launch vehicle, citing a savings of more than $700 million.

    How many more deep space exploration missions could there be if they saved $700 million in launch costs by not using SLS? How limited would the number of missions be if there were only one SLS launch every other year, and JPL had to compete with the manned space program for launches?

    When the Space Shuttle first started flying, the unmanned space exploration scientists did not like that the Shuttle was so expensive for the limited amount of use; they believed that money was going toward the disappointing Shuttle program that could have been used for unmanned exploration. I know, because at that time I was working for some of these scientists, making instruments for NASA satellites. The Space Shuttle was flying about six times per year for the same cost as the previously promised 24 flights per year (and the same cost as the even earlier proposed 60 flights per year for which the Shuttle system had been designed).

    From the article: “An exception came from Bob Smith, chief executive of Blue Origin, a company with its own ambitions to develop heavy-lift launch vehicles. ‘You build a bespoke government system if you have sufficient bespoke government missions,’ he said. ‘If there’s enough demand there for SLS, then you should go build SLS. If not, you should do what you do on anything else: you go rely on the commercial alternatives available.’

    So, how many specialized missions will require the SLS rather than less expensive alternatives? A couple of years ago, NASA sent out a request for ideas for missions that would use SLS, but so far I have not heard any ideas in response. It seems that the space community does not have a need for such a heavy lift vehicle.

    NASA’s proposals for going back to the Moon include only direct ascent, where one SLS carries all that is needed, just as the Saturn V carried an entire Apollo mission. SpaceX is willing to perform an Earth orbit rendezvous with two rockets (one to lift the fuel to Earth orbit and the other to lift a Starship, with equipment and crew, to Earth orbit) in order to reduce the cost and increase the frequency of Mars missions. NASA could do the same for the Moon, and save a bundle while increasing the frequency of missions.

    Blair Ivey,
    I think you misunderstood the statement. It isn’t two mutually exclusive concepts, but it is one that requires Orion’s Exploration Mission 1 to be as delayed as the SLS is. This delay is fine, for those willing to spend an astronomical amount of money and have little to show for it.

    The senator’s problem is that his pet project has gone from SNAFU to FUBAR (fouled up beyond all recognition), but at least he recognizes that this is an unacceptable situation. It is too bad that he does not have the courage to make clear to his favored Marshall Space Flight Center that it is unacceptable and let Marshall lose an SLS flight to commercial companies as punishment for their horrific management of SLS. Instead, Senator Shelby has political greed, where he will support incompetence in order to keep campaign donations coming his way. (What a putz.) Meanwhile, NASA looks bad and incompetent, and Shelby is part of the problem.

    From the article in Robert’s first link (“the revelation earlier this week”), NASA’s administrator, Bridenstine said that he wants to put pressure on everyone to launch on schedule, not at some unknown date in the far distant future. “NASA has a history of not meeting launch dates, and I’m trying to change that,” [Bridenstine] said.
    ( https://spaceflightnow.com/2019/03/13/facing-fresh-sls-delays-nasa-chief-opens-door-to-launching-orion-lunar-mission-with-commercial-rockets/ )

    It seems to me that Bridenstine, like Robert, does not like “the America of the 21st century” and wants to change the part that he can change. It takes courage to go up against the Washington establishment, and I am glad that Bridenstine has courage. May the force be with him, now that the Empire is striking back.

  • wodun

    They will find a new boondoggle they can fund that will use these cheaper private rockets. Gateway immediately comes to mind.

    Are there any activities that you wouldn’t view this way? The traditional government contractors will be a part of anything that NASA does. Gateway does cater to some of the established contractors but it also allows for new entrants. This will be the same for anything the government does. The problem is less that they compete but that they will use their institutional advantages to hinder rivals. Any company will try and influence contracts so that they work out in the best interest of the company.

    Some companies want to work on their own projects but BO looks like they want to capture government, where the government doesn’t just entangle them but they entangle the government.

    And even then it doesn’t get us to the surface. All it does is let us circle the Moon and watch as the Chinese colonize it.

    This isn’t true. Gateway is designed to provide access to the lunar surface. It is also not the only path NASA is taking to get back to the Moon. NASA is funding both tracks and Gateway isn’t preventing the other track from being funded or implemented. Prior to colonizing the Moon, there are a lot of nitty gritty steps that need to be taken. The same is true with building a lunar outpost. Getting humans back to the Moon isn’t important because the goal isn’t to get people back to the Moon as soon as possible, it is to establish our long term presence on the Moon.

    The key drawbacks to Gateway aren’t that traditional contractors will be participants, it orbit, or its cost. The key drawbacks are that it relies on SLS and that near term developments in launch capability mean that not only are there more routes to the lunar surface, but that what can be built in space will be radically different than what we are capable of today. Now, it looks like Gateway doesn’t need SLS but even with existing launchers, it doesn’t make sense when looking at what could be done with launchers becoming operational in the near term.

    None of the stuff being kicked around make sense when looking at the near term expansion of capabilities. Everything should be rethought from a perspective of using a Super Heavy & Starship class of launchers and vehicles. But as to what to do between now and then, we should be doing extensive prospecting of the lunar surface. This is exactly what NASA wants to do but it is being overlooked for the most part. Putting the focus on human landings doesn’t make sense right now. Whatever plan that uses existing rockets will be made obsolete in a few years.

    Lastly, competing with China is important but we are playing slightly different games. The game isn’t to beat China per se but for both countries to be successful at what they want to do in space, which may or may not be the same thing. When you look at the competition like that, there are a different set of conditions for “victory” and it also changes the perspective of what activities we choose to do and over what timeline.

  • pzatchok

    There isn’t an amount of cash that could be thrown at SLS/Orion to get it completed and flying before Super Heavy/Starship is flying.

    We could offer a billion cash if its completed and flying before 01/01/20 and they would still fall short and ask for more.
    And if it does get completed I want the next one completed in a year at a cost of 10 billion.
    It will NEVER happen.

    NASA’s relationship with Lockheed and Boeing is incestuous.
    There will never be an assembly line of SLS/Orion’s, they don’t even have a plan to build the next one.

    They do not have the time at any cost. And they definitely do not want the gravy chain to stop. There is no motivation to finish it.
    They should have been finished 10 years ago.

  • Col Beausabre

    “There isn’t an amount of cash that could be thrown at SLS/Orion to get it completed and flying before Super Heavy/Starship is flying.”

    One book we were assigned to read at C&GSC was “The Mythical Man-Month” by Fred Brooks

    “Brooks joined IBM in 1956, working in Poughkeepsie, New York and Yorktown, New York. He worked on the architecture of the IBM 7030 Stretch, a $10 million scientific supercomputer of which nine were sold, and the IBM 7950 Harvest computer for the National Security Agency. Subsequently, he became manager for the development of the IBM System/360 family of computers and the OS/360 software package. During this time he coined the term computer architecture.

    In 1964, Brooks accepted an invitation to come to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and founded the University’s computer science department. He chaired it for 20 years. As of 2013 he was still engaged in active research there, primarily in virtual environments[9] and scientific visualization.[10]

    A few years after leaving IBM he wrote The Mythical Man-Month being triggered to do so by Thomas Watson Jr. who asked him in his exit-interview why it is so much harder to manage software projects than hardware projects. In this book Brooks made the now-famous statement: “Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.” This has since come to be known as Brooks’s law. In addition to The Mythical Man-Month, Brooks is also known for the paper No Silver Bullet – Essence and Accident in Software Engineering.”

    The one phrase from the book that resounds in my memory is the basis for the title of the book

    , “You can’t assemble nine women in a conference room and tell them they have one month to come up with a baby”

  • Orion314

    SLS, … a $35 BILLION DOLLAR [and growing ] bank robbery , a never ending pork barrel that will never get to the launch pad. Drain the swamp? Wish POTUS went after NASA as though they were NATO,,,

  • wayne

    Col Beausabre-
    Great stuff! I’m highly intrigued.

    just a quick search yields–

    CS 428 (Winter 2017)
    “Mythical Man-Month,” part I covering chapters 1, 2, 4, & 5.
    January 29, 2018
    https://youtu.be/nhhZfHqFxGI
    42:21

  • TMLutas

    I think that we, as a country, would do quite well to get behind a superior boondoggle early. Mandate the creation of an orbital planetary thermostat by blocking or enhancing total solar irradiation as needed. Then that boondoggle can battle the New Green Deal boondoggles to eliminate global warming that are scheduled to be more destructive at a scale that is orders of magnitude bigger.

    It’ll be the battle of the boondoggles.

    I’ll just be over here with some popcorn.

  • Max

    TMLutas, I like it, I’ll bring the lawnchair with an attached umbrella, just in case…

    “Nine women in a room with one month to come up with a baby” that’s a good one, I will remember it.
    In NASA’s case, the nine women got an extension of 20 years with thousands of expensive highly educated employees and are still trying to figure out how to finish the project…

    Why are they delaying? I can’t believe it’s all incompetence and politics. It’s almost as if they’re waiting for someone else to catch up and set up a lunar base before us on purpose. I know China was given, or stolen, the rocket technology… is this so they can establish mining / manufacturing infrastructure to service finished parts to lunar orbit (Gateway) for assembly?
    There is no need of a gate between earth and the moon. It only makes sense for the creation of a permanent facility in lunar orbit as a “gateway” to be a jumping off point to the rest of the solar system.
    It is the only logical consideration for its existence.
    Any accidents that may happen (and they will happen) will fall back to the lunar surface leaving earth unharmed. Strategically, it is the best defensive position to watch earth and the moon. Logistically it is the most sensible place to create large structures that can be moved with the least amount of effort to Lagrange points for scientific study, Mars, astroids, or high earth orbit.
    If the short term plan makes no sense, then they must have a long-term plan as their true Goal. They are purposely dragging their feet waiting for something, a partnership?
    The current political situation has China on the rise with google’s help (deep state) with total communist social control of a capitalist system, there will be no debate on how to run things. Or courts or any human rights considerations to slow down the effort. Slavery with rewards and benefits, the illusion of free will.

    The resemblance to firefly is uncanny.

    Over the past 50 years, everything they learned from the Apollo missions has taught us what we need for a lunar colony to be successful. All the technology has been created and miniaturized. All that is left is the useful rocket technology. And yet they purposely drag their feet. Is it for Space X or something else? NASA Will lose the prize if they keep tilting at windmills…

  • henry vanderbilt

    “Worse, it will act to capture the new commercial companies, forcing them to work within the government’s bankrupt framework.”

    That’s already happening. It’s why Dragon 2 now has chutes and lands in water the old NASA way rather than powering down to a pad. (Powered landing is much too risky! Never mind that it’s now routine for Falcon 9 and New Shepard and everything Masten’s flown and dozens of other landers.)

    This wasted years and hundreds of millions, to the point where SpaceX gave up and moved on to Super Heavy/Starship for commercial passenger work. (I’d love to see them now do a commercial Dragon 3 their way as a side project – a bizjet to Starship’s airliner – but even Elon has only so many hours in a week.)

    Multiply that by the entire NASA “Gateway”centric Lunar transportation development path that’s coming, if we don’t watch out. NASA Gateway is of course being defined to absolutely require and thus justify, wait for it, SLS. Another mammoth self-licking ice-cream cone, courtesy of your friendly neighborhood SLS-Congressional Complex.

  • I could barely make out the words on that terrible black on grey combination.

    Perhaps an option to change to a more easily readable black on white, or a different background that provides better contrast?

    A note to other commenters: please don’t flood me with responses that you can read it just fine. You don’t have my eyesight.

  • wayne

    JAWS for Windows 20th Anniversary Video
    [Job Access With Speech]
    Freedom Scientific
    https://youtu.be/0DYjkF59jeo
    16:58

  • Casey: I am sorry that the grey background does not work for you. Unfortunately, any choice I make is going to make problems for someone. This was my choice.

    You should do what I do. Since a grey background is best for my eyes (I find it strains my eyes less), I tell my browser to not use the choices of the websites on line, but to always use this grey background. Why don’t you do the same? You can tell the browser to make the background white, or green, or whatever shade you want.

    You can find this option in preferences under colors – advanced.

  • pzatchok

    Or he could highlight it.

    The click and drag the cursor thing.

  • wodun

    This wasted years and hundreds of millions, to the point where SpaceX gave up and moved on to Super Heavy/Starship for commercial passenger work. (I’d love to see them now do a commercial Dragon 3 their way as a side project

    It doesn’t make sense to put any more work into Dragon. If Musks predictions are true, or even just close, SH/S are going to make all their other products obsolete because they will be priced at the same or lower and have dramatically more capabilities. It also doesn’t make sense from a Mars perspective as landing so few people at a time means that the price will never be low enough for colonization.

    Multiply that by the entire NASA “Gateway”centric Lunar transportation development path that’s coming, if we don’t watch out.

    It is useful to look at what Gateway does and then compare that with what opposing proposals use to do the same thing. Then compare with SH/S. There have been a lot of sensational off base objections to Gateway. I wish there was a place that gave rational information about it and alternatives. Kinda weird that space nerds turn out to be more human than human in a lot of ways.

  • Edward

    wodun wrote: “It is useful to look at what Gateway does and then compare that with what opposing proposals use to do the same thing. Then compare with SH/S. There have been a lot of sensational off base objections to Gateway.

    We are not yet ready for what Gateway is supposed to do. It is too early for a waypoint to the Moon and the rest of the solar system, especially one that is supposed to be a refueling point when we are not even exploring the possibility of getting cheap propellant from the ice on the Moon.

    What ((F)LOP) Gateway (To Nowhere) does is give us an excuse to use SLS. So far, there are no other uses for it. Even the one unmanned probe that might use SLS would use it only due to Congressional mandate, not because it makes sense.

    The conclusion is that NASA is now in the business of making expensive rockets that we don’t need so that we can get to an expensive outpost that we don’t yet need. NASA does not have a business plan or any other plan for the expensive hardware it is now making. At least Bigelow, Blue Origin, SpaceX, and others have plans for the use of the hardware they are building.

    I wish there was a place that gave rational information about it and alternatives.

    Perhaps there is not such a place because there are no good rationales for it or alternatives. Until we see a use for it, there probably is not one, yet.

  • pzatchok

    The Dragon with propulsive landing would make an incredible escape vehicle for any space station.

    Its already designed and built. Just test it.

    Trying to use the Starship as an escape vehicle is like using a yacht as a lifeboat for a yacht.
    Its an incredible waste of a ship to just leave it tied up to a space station. Heck its as big as a station.

    The Dragon was never designed to land on Mars. Yes it could, but you would need a huge mother ship to get it and passengers there. Maybe it could be used to land on the Moon but why?

  • Edward

    pzatchok wrtoe: “The Dragon with propulsive landing would make an incredible escape vehicle for any space station. Its already designed and built. Just test it.

    I certainly hope that SpaceX chooses to use propulsive landing for its other commercial customers (e.g. Bigelow). They may still have to write the software for propulsive landing, but that may well be worth it for the other customers.

    As for lifeboat use, there were days when the lifeboats were low tech. On Titanic, for instance, you didn’t have to worry about propellant boiloff or battery life. Just load up the lifeboats, launch them into the water, and everyone is saved.

    (I guess Titanic was not such a good example, because the planning (too few lifeboats), training (non-existent), and execution (people feeling safer on the unsinkable ship than in a tiny lifeboat, preventing men from taking seats that women refused to take, and keeping steerage passengers below decks when they probably had great incentive to take the unfilled seats) failed miserably.)

  • henry vanderbilt

    Wodun said “It doesn’t make sense to put any more work into Dragon. If Musks predictions are true, or even just close, SH/S are going to make all their other products obsolete because they will be priced at the same or lower and have dramatically more capabilities.”

    Musk’s predictions are made in the context of financing & marketing Starship. Grain of salt recommended.

    Did the 737 (roughly Starship capacity) render all bizjets (roughly Dragon 2 capacity) obsolete and drive them off the market? Not so you’d notice.

    737 loads are just far too much for any number of profitable air transport markets. Eventually SpaceX will get over their disgust for the way old NASA captured Dragon 2 and realize there’s a market out there for a re-commercialized Dragon 3. (If not SpaceX, then someone else will fill the niche.)

  • John

    Unrelated here, I heard that the japanese asteroid probe fired a pyrotechnic projectile at the asteroid to release subsurface components for collection and further study. The projectile was described as an anti-tank style weapon. How did the designers circumvent Newtonian reactions from firing this device, in a craft that utilizes gyroscopic angular momentum to navigate the local weak gravitational fields

  • John: You should do a search on Behind the Black for Hayabusa-2 to learn more about this mission. The projectile was not “fired” at the surface of the asteroid. It was gently released and allowed to very slowly descend to the surface, where it fired an explosive charge.

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