A review of the Trump administrations’s SLS/Orion reprogramming options

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Link here. This is a nice summary of the technical and political options being considered for the first unmanned Orion test flight, presently scheduled for June 2020, including replacing SLS with commercial launch rockets.

The article also noted that NASA is also looking at simplifying that test flight, because both SLS and Orion are behind schedule and this would make using a commercial rocket easier.

The currently baselined EM-1 [the test] mission would launch an uncrewed Orion spacecraft on a trans-lunar injection (TLI) trajectory; once released from the launch vehicle, it will fly solo for the first time. The Orion would then make two large engine burns to insert itself into a Distant Retrograde Orbit (DRO) around the Moon. Depending on the time of year, Orion would stay in the DRO for a half or one and a half orbits before making two more large engine burns to return to Earth. Preliminary analysis indicates a June, 2020, launch of the full-up mission would fall into the “long-class” category, with Orion staying in a DRO with a twelve-day long period for one and a half laps and flying a five-week long flight.

Prior to Administrator Bridenstine’s announcement of the alternate launch study for EM-1, notes passed to [this website] indicated that NASA Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier had sent out a memo in early March indicating that studies to look at ways to keep the EM-1 launch in 2020 could not compromise any of the mission objectives; besides that, everything else was on the table.

The highest priority objective of the EM-1 mission is a lunar-velocity reentry test of the redesigned Orion heatshield, along with a full end-to-end test of the re-entry sequence and an in-space demonstration of Orion systems, many of which are flying for the first time.

Although Bridenstine’s public comments stressed flying EM-1 as a lunar orbit mission, there has been speculation that launching Orion out to near lunar distance without attempting either a lunar orbit or a lunar flyby could meet the highest priority objectives. Dropping the lunar orbit requirement or lunar flyby options would also relax launch opportunity constraints created by flying to the Moon and could perhaps reduce launch vehicle performance requirements enough to drop the [Earth orbit rendezvous] proposal and [docking] development work. [emphasis mine]

To use commercial rockets and still go into lunar orbit would require at least two commercial launches to get the required material up to orbit. It would also require developing Orion’s docking software now, something NASA had not planned to do until prior to Orion’s third flight several years hence. Avoiding lunar orbit means they can use a single Falcon Heavy launch and avoid these issues.

The highlighted phrase above indicates the most important priority of the test flight. This does not require lunar orbit. In fact, the Apollo mission tested its heat shield without leaving Earth orbit, and Orion can do the same.

It is still bothersome to read how haphazard NASA’s SLS/Orion program remains. They aren’t doing enough testing, their future flights are always in flux for political, schedule, and budgetary reasons, and they always seem to be in too much of a hurry to fly humans on very unproven vehicles. If NASA’s corrupt safety panel applied the same standards to SLS/Orion as it does to SpaceX and Boeing, the whole program would be shut down. It does not, because safety isn’t really its purpose. That panel’s goal is to serve NASA’s bureaucracy, and to protect its biggest projects (SLS/Orion) from any competition.

As for replacing SLS for that first Orion test flight, we shall see. The political forces opposing such a move are vast, and wield a lot of power.



  • Matt in AZ

    So… would this result in the first crewed Orion mission launching on the first ever SLS flight? Assuming it doesn’t fall behind the Europa Clipper mission – if THAT even remains on the SLS!

  • Zed_WEASEL

    If they follow the FY2020 budget proposal, Europa Clipper will fly on a commercial launcher (Falcon Heavy or Delta IV Heavy with STAR-48 kickstage) with a savings of $700M+ to the taxpayers. The SLS Block 1 with the iCPS upper stage is only slightly quicker than the commercial alternates.

    The SLS might get ONE uncrewed flight after 2022 IMO. Boeing is way behind with the software for the SLS according to Nasawatch.

  • David

    This whole concept is a good demonstration of the phrase “rockets aren’t LEGO”. People look at some paper specs and say “oh, Falcon Heavy can lift Orion to such and such orbit, no problem, maybe just some integration work, and SpaceX can do that quickly…” But all you have to do is look one step further. Orion is meant to be vertically integrated, and SpaceX doesn’t have that capability. A full Orion/Falcon Heavy stack is too large for the horizontal integration building, and the TEL doesn’t have the proper support structures. If you look at using Delta IV-H then many of the integration problems go away, but all the remaining Delta IV-H launches are already spoken for, and some of the supporting sub-assembly production lines have already been shut down. So you not only have to get approval to re-purpose one or more launchers, you have to get the funding and go through the process to procure replacements that were never factored into the program. And that’s just for the simpler mission profile. If you want to replicate the initial mission profile and that needs two launches, then neither ULA nor SpaceX can reasonably launch both missions within days of each other, so you split where ULA launches the Orion, and SpaceX launches some kind of TLI stage, and many of the problems are simpler, but there are more of them affecting more people, and then there are new problems relating to docking, etc. These are all solvable problems, but those solutions and their approvals will take place in the same environment that is causing all the SLS cost overruns and delays in the first place. This whole proposal is nothing more than theater. Maybe it will scare Boeing and the SLS people at NASA into getting off the stick, but they probably have enough faith in their fairy god senators to not scare easily.

  • Terrence Stender

    This story confirms what I have known since I was 18. Bureaucracies exist for the benefit of bureaucracies.

  • David: Nice analysis. The fact that the Trump administration is even willing to publicly propose replacing SLS however is a big deal. This lays the groundwork for doing so in the future.

  • Orion314

    I want the stolen $G for SLS refunded , clearly , by definition, a make-work jobs program will never get off the launch pad.
    I hope POTUS will put this bad idea out of its misery, once and for all…I was always surprised the last occupant didn’t 86 it.
    If he had , well it would have been his only mark in the win column . I guess a great deal of SLS “workers’ must be D’s
    I’ll close with BHO’s immortal words…
    “I can’t believe i got away with it”

  • Orion314: Obama tried to 86 SLS, then known as Constellation. Congress stepped in and mandated it go on, under a new name.

  • Chris Lopes

    @Robert Zimmerman
    That’s how I remember it too. Whatever other problems I had with Obama, his space policy wasn’t one of them. I thought Flexible Path was a good idea, given the political realities. Congress was more interested in an aerospace jobs program.

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “The highlighted phrase above [test of the redesigned Orion heatshield] indicates the most important priority of the test flight. This does not require lunar orbit. In fact, the Apollo mission tested its heat shield without leaving Earth orbit, and Orion can do the same.

    Robert saw this coming a long time ago, in 2014, when the original heat shield was tested despite already being obsolete:
    This is another example of why SLS/Orion is an incredible money black hole. What is the point of next month’s test flight of the heat shield if the shield they are testing is not going to be used on future flights?

    Yet, most of the heat shield test data obtained by this test flight will be worthless and inapplicable to future Orion capsules. In other words, this test flight is, as I said, hogwash, a public relations stunt to sell Orion to Congress and to uneducated reporters. It is also an enormous waste of taxpayer money and the limited resources NASA has.

    The option of reducing the scope of the test to not fly around the Moon would reduce the amount of testing performed for this flight and either put those tests onto another unmanned flight, complicating the plan and expending additional “taxpayer money and the limited resources NASA has,” or would be tested on a manned flight, adding risk to that mission.

    Obama tried to 86 SLS, then known as Constellation. Congress stepped in and mandated it go on, under a new name.

    Under a new name and a new design, specified by Congress itself, as though they are rocket scientists.

    Constellation was going to land us back on the Moon, but after all this time, money, and effort, SLS is only going to put up an expensive part-time orbital outpost around the Moon.

    No matter how we look at it, these SLS delays are a cluster bleep.

    From the movie “Heartbreak Ridge”
    Colonel Meyers: That’s for sure. What’s your assessment of this exercise?

    Highway: It’s a cluster [bleep].

    Colonel Meyers: Say again?

    Highway: Marines are fighting men, sir. They shouldn’t be sitting around on their sorry asses filling out request forms for equipment they should already have.

    I love the phrase “fairy god senators.

    You are correct. Changing plans in the middle of executing them is complicated enough, but when payloads are designed to fly on certain rockets, then changing rockets mid-plan can get even more complicated. This would be one reason why Bridenstine was quoted in the article as saying: “‘There are options to achieve the objective but it might require some help from the Congress,’ he added, referring to the appropriation of additional funding.

    Chris Lopes,
    I’m pretty sure that Obama’s space policy was only motivated by a desire to prevent Bush from having a Kennedy-esque legacy. Obama was not much interested in space, which is why he kept the more low-key already planned or underway Commercial Resupply and Commercial Manned programs, claiming the latter for himself. At best his space legacy was to have a manned asteroid rendezvous mission, which excited no one, not even the asteroid science community.

    Flexible Path looked only like a thought without an objective or goal. As in: “we have this shiny new rocket that can do a few things, but we really don’t have a plan for using it for any of those things.” Unlike ISS, SLS continues to be expensive hardware in search of a purpose, and ((F)LOP) Gateway (To Nowhere) looks like an unfunded version of the same thing.

    Ah, what we could have had and where we could be, by now, if only Obama hadn’t cancelled the effort of going back to the Moon to look for water ice that we could use for propellant around the Earth’s neighborhood and around the solar system. We probably wouldn’t have a cluster bleep for a national manned space program, and would probably be back on the Moon, exploring it for resources for future use.

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