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Another detailed essay demanding SLS be cancelled

Link here.

The analysis is detailed, thoughtful, thorough, and technical. It is worthwhile to read every word, slowly, carefully, and with an open-mind. The lead:

The SLS axiomatically cannot provide good value to the US taxpayer. In that regard it has already failed, regardless of whether it eventually manages to limp to orbit with a Falcon Heavy payload or two.

The question here is whether it is allowed to inflict humiliation and tragedy on the US public, who so richly deserve an actual legitimate launch program run by and for actual technical experts.

The best time to cancel SLS was 15 years ago. The second best time is now.

While this essay is brilliant, its real significance is that it is another data point in the growing sense I have that the Washington community is preparing itself for cancelling SLS at last. Such an essay would not have been written or paid attention to five years ago. I know. I wrote my own and got no traction.

Today attention is getting paid. More importantly, we are seeing a range of people and news organizations advocating similar anti-SLS positions, positions that would have been thought politically impossible only a few short years ago.

The clock is ticking on SLS. If any of its planned upcoming tests or flights fail, it will face a firestorm of hostility. And even if they succeed, its days appear numbered.


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    Looking forward to seeing it in the museum of obsolete technology. Hold it up as a shining example of how not to conduct a engineering endeavor.

  • James Street

    I agree completely with the linked article.

    I still think SLS should be built.

    One way or another the money will be spent. SLS is innocuous. There are a lot more horrifying ways the government can spend that money, like bringing down the full force of the justice system to destroy the lives of “domestic terrorists” like the McCloskeys of St Louis.

  • Jeff Wright

    I actually don’t have a problem with much of what he said against Boeing. They wanted to launch scores of smaller, low volume EELVs in Rube Goldberg assembly plans to where ULA man Josh Hopkins felt the need to write “Doubts About Depots” for The Space Review. Now where this latest hit piece falls down is in playing down the importance of the greater specific impulse of hydrogen, and most of his piece is out of date. The O rings were fixed, and composites are being looked.
    Now if the author was honest, he would have pointed out the fact that shuttle-like Starship-had no escape tower…where SLS does. The silence of that little omission is deafening.
    SLS haters try-in one breath, mind you-to accuse NASA of being too cautious…and of being butchers at the same time.

    Best for the SLS haters to stick with just one lie and run with it.

  • pzatchok

    Why does an escape tower matter?
    The shuttle didn’t have any escape capability.

    Airplanes do not have escape systems and they fly hundreds of millions of people a year.

  • Jeff Wright

    And Starship is barely in its barmstorming period. Dragon has one. And still no hydrogen-which I believe Zubrin called for in Mars-methane production.. -another glaring omission in this laughable article that couldn’t more misleading if it tried.

    An SLS launched Mars Base Camp lander will use hydrogen same as SLS-and it only needs to crack water. It will use an RL-.10 which is free of coking. At some point-Musk will have to embrace hydrogen.

  • john hare

    While hydrogen has high Isp, that Isp comes with a high price tag that renders it uneconomical for many uses. The heavier tanks that are more expensive along with heavier engines that average far more expensive for just a start. The required ground infrastructure and the known safety issues with handling (hydrogen escapes through micro-cracks other propellants wouldn’t notice) make it a far from ideal propellant. While the very best under many conditions, it is problematic under many other conditions, such as economical launch.

    Selecting your propellant based on a single criteria such as Isp, bears a strong resemblance to selecting your wife based on the single criteria of bra size. While attractive at first, you may soon learn that she is a test pilot for a broom factory.

  • Jeff Wright

    High Maint’ Babe’, thy name is Starship. Some might say the chant of reusability uber alles also to be blinding religon. But I am a polytheist here at the One True Church of the Heavy Lift-in that I would like to see both rockets get tax dollars–even if some anti-gravity discovery tomorrow made them both obsolete. SLS killers are wrong for the self same reason the engineer bashing suits at Boeing were wrong in wrecking lives under the aegis of “cost-cutting.” And now you want to do that again? Rocket guys hate changing mold lines where Boeing interior designers came up with 787 exterior lines. SLS guys are more cautious-and they have that held against them. The Russians got ahead because they didn’t skimp-because they didn’t have to beg funding from Mr. Wonderful at Shark Tank. The profit motive can get in the way of the cause of spaceflight. What if Elon had listened to bean counters like what got in Bob Lutz’s way at GM: “aerospace turns billionaires into millionaires-you’ve spent good money after bad, sunk cost and all that-Falcon One was a cute toy, but now you want to skip Falcon five for this nine engine monster? What a waste of dough!”

  • John Pickens

    The mobile launch tower for SLS costs more than the entire development cost of both Falcon 9 and Falcon heavy. Even the most optimistic SLS projection is that it will be used…4 times!

    What an utter waste, kill it, nuke it from space, it’s the only way to be sure!

  • John hare

    It is precisely because SLS didn’t have a profit motive that made it a nonviable vehicle. Simple vehicles such as you are claiming don’t take $20B+ and decades to reach first flight.

  • David Ross

    Jeff Wright has three comments here up to now, some of them abusive (“stick with one lie”). So here is my one comment, hopefully more polite, to answer “An SLS launched Mars Base Camp lander will use hydrogen same as SLS-and it only needs to crack water”
    Mars also needs to store the hydrogen, in an environment much less air-dense than Earth’s. Making methane or methanol on Mars is hardly an expensive process. Carbon (in carbon dioxide) is everywhere, and we are agreed on the water. I understand the Sabatier reaction can do this job.

  • LocalFluff

    @Jeff Wright
    There isn’t room for much else than SLS+Orion in NASA’s budget, after $40 Billion having been wasted on this fraud. And counting. So it has certainly been “nocuous” (=deadly)! The current value of SpaceX is on the order of $70 Billion, given what invited investors pay for their shares. NASA invested on the order of a unit % to help make that happen. 100 times that in order to make NOTHING happen. But you still like it! Incredible. Can you explain to us who do not see anything at all of that which you see? Do you like NASA accomplishing nothing at all? What has SLS+Orion accomplished in the last decade?

    And the 1960s launch abort tower rocketry is a poor idea nowadays. It is obviously much better to combine landing engines UNDER the payload with the launch abort capability, which the Dragon does. The launch abort tower adds substantial mass to the crewed payload, which in the best case is wasted as it is thrown off if not having to be used. And it HAS TO be thrown off, or else the crew will die! With that ridiculous tower attached to them they are too heavy to either reach orbit or land softly enough to survive. The tower, untested as on the SLS, adds substantial risk to the mission. It is a 60 years old idea. Understandable back then, but thinking people have advanced beyond that by now. Only not the SLS fraudsters who think it looks good in their propaganda to fake a 1960s replay while they eat tens of Billions of NASA’s budget diverted from real space exploration. And you, Jeff Wright, you say that you like it! You owe us an explanation.

  • Trent Castanaveras

    Excellent article, well written and well researched, spot on conclusions.

    For the SLS folks in their fantasy dreamland, keep the comments coming! Best entertainment of the year so far!

    Love to stay and chat about it, but there’s a webcast to a Starship engine firing I’ve got to watch…

  • pzatchok

    I guess Jeff is just trying to keep his job.

    The UAW union knows the feeling.

  • Jeff Wright

    So no escape tower is better than an older, proven type escape tower? Gotcha! As for the cost-don’t blame the rocket-blame the folks slow walking it from within- who’d rather hawk Vulcan. If bin Laden had flown a jet into the VAB, we’d call him a villain for attacking infrastructure. Libertarians so bent on their cost cutting religion, allowed jobs to go overseas-and every time you shop at Wal-Mart, you fund CZ-9, but the American rocket is what you want to kill? I’m a taxpayer same as you-and compared with F-35, this is a bargain. Tax dollars also went to the ARPANET without which there is no paypal-so it’s a wash.
    Lastly-I thought libertarians believed in competition-but it sounds to me like you want a POLITICAL solution-in having SLS killed-making Rand-zombies no different from others who would have leaders pick winners and losers.
    So let’s have a fly-off between SLS and Super-Heavy over the next few years without you cutting the air-lines on the other team’s bus-and we will settle this on the field of honor, as it were-without anyone having to be called yella’


  • LocalFluff

    @Jeff Wright
    Oh, those evil libertarians. Since you are lethally uneducatable and completely uninterested in reality, you of course do not know that libertarianism per definition is your right to live your life without being forced by others. But if your mental disability makes you really want a ruler, let me be your ruler! I’ll beat you up and steal what ever you own and force you into slavery. Exactly what you wish for. After all, Venezuela is Paradise on Earth, isn’t it?

    And we already see the competition between (the libertarian!) Elon Musk’s SpaceX and the socialist government. I asked you to say what you think of the results of your comparison SLS/Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. But I’m sorry, I’m asking you about something in reality, something about which you know nothing and refuse to learn anything about. You live in Maduro’s propaganda fantasy land. To you poverty and starvation is “good for the climate”. Corruption and failure are your ideals.

    When, some day in the 2030s, the SLS scrap heap fraud tries to actually fire its 40 years old engines, I’ll be chanting: “Blow up, blow up, blow up!” And feel a great joy as it does so and takes away its useless multi-billion dollar launchpad infrastructure.

  • wayne

    Dave Smith and Michael Malice
    on The Red Pill

  • Jeff Wright

    I’m no lefty at all. I am a pro-American populist. Long before Trump- I hated out-sourcing Mitt Romney. If anything, I question the patriotism of free-trade libertarians who only think of America as a place to make money. I could not STAND John McCain because he was an anti-space fighter-jock. I remember what the fly-boys in the Air Farce did to the ABMA and space infrastructure. There is a book called “Countdown to Decision” I want you all to read. Remember, both libertarians and liberals have been enemies to certain mil-space programs in their Hitler-Stalin pact. I remember a C-SPAN program where, after a pro-space advocate talked about lack of space-funding-a libertarian piped up about how we shouldn’t counter one socialist space program “with another socialist program,” and McCain agreed. That really set my teeth on edge because he all but said that space workers here were no different than their foes in the Eastern Block. Such a lie! By that token, I guess John McCain was no different than Zero pilots over Pearl, since both used planes. This is why we need a space force, because there will always be a Rand Paul or a John McCain to try to cut our legs off. And no, I am not fighting for my job-I work two jobs because I don’t lay down and quit. No, I fight for my friends because they don’t deserve the disrespect they have gotten. In the past, Romney off-shorers talk about “re-training workers” only for men to lose data entry jobs overseas too. Now John Kerry tells hydrocarbon workers they chose badly, with SLS bashers piling on tn destroy more American infrastructure. The folks at Marshall aren’t spongers-they’re Patriots!

  • john hare

    I think I understand your position a bit better after your last. I believe you are looking at the SLS through the lens of the dedicated workers on it that you know personally and the billions already spent (sunk cost). I can respect the workers doing the best they can while still understanding that the project (SLS) as managed is hopeless. Your defense of the SLS is personal and emotional on the same level as those calling for Saint Elon to take over yet another industry with current problems. Eventually, whether it is one year or several decades from now, Elon Enterprises will hit snake eyes on projects that will shake the organization(s) to the core. What happens after that will be interesting and instructive. For those of us observing without an emotional commitment, SLS/Orion rolled snake eyes many years ago, but did not stop burning through Dirksens and decades with any shift towards a more viable system, or simply stopping the rot. That there are many dedicated workers on it is not connected to whether it is a viable system.

  • This whole discussion brings to mind a Hewlett-Packard ad slogan from my young days as an engineer …

    When performance must be measured by results …

    And while the full story hasn’t been written yet, we are seeing the private sector outrun NASA on the path to capability development over the last decade. In part, by placing a focus on practical, maintainable design suitable for “Space Truckin'” … instead of staying in the Big Space box of treating every aspect as a science project where “no man has gone before”.

    Big Space is still operating as though they are Columbus and Magellan … as the private sector sails towards a cosmic Jamestown.

    Something that needs to be kept in mind … the 1960’s space programs worked well, in part because they were contributing, and/or leveraging other efforts, to meet urgent defense and foreign-policy needs of the time. Government does fairly well at managing tasks (nearaly always one-size-fits-all) that directly pertain to its primary mission: protecting and assuring respect for life and liberty.

    The problems start when it loses its focus upon that, and sees itself as the essential actor in assuring today’s flavor of the “common good” via top-down command/control, even when the characteristics of a problem are so individual-specific that calling it “common” is akin to stretching a condom over a watermelon.

    The 1960’s space program engaged 400,000 tough-and-competent engineers and technicians, at a cost of around $20 billion 1960’s dollars … to put TWELVE men on the moon … using hardware with a useful life of weeks, days, or even minutes. Compared to the objective of detailed management of 330 MILLION individual lives over their individual lifetimes, going to the Moon is an exercise in LEGO® assembly.

  • No, I fight for my friends because they don’t deserve the disrespect they have gotten.

    My question is, Jeff,. have they … CAN they, in a government-run system … fought to put their management on a path to success that is moving at least as fast as private-sector space? Or do they, by choice or compelled by the structure of the system they work in, just go with the flow while enjoying access to a money-printing press that numbs that system to accountability, until What Can’t Go On, Won’t™?

    This speaks to a fundamental problem that extends well beyond space flight … we sit there and panic that our jobs might be going away and that those “in authority” are falling down on the job when it comes to forestalling that … but what are WE, as ordinary people, doing to either maintain/grow the productivity that will keep those jobs here, or find better ones and protect our own future?

    If we keep trusting others, in grand Flounderian fashion, to make sure our jobs stay here while we just go with the flow, our jobs will either leave (again), or simply disappear as our society declines and turns into the Garbutt, NY that Kevin Williamson caught so much hate writing about.

    None of us are owed a job.

  • Dean Hurt

    If 1960’s NASA frittered away money and time like NASA of the 80’s, 90’s, and 2000’s…we would still be trying to get men to the moon! NASA needs to stick to it’s successes delivering robotic probes to the outer planets and scientific research and leave active manned exploration to bold pioneers like SpaceX.

  • pzatchok

    How many non government customers does SLS/Orion have?
    How many jobs or projects are slated to be carried by SLS?

    If SLS/Orion production was stopped today what American company would step forward and buy it in order to finish it and continue the work?

    Its not just the few people here who have no trust or hope in the SLS but the whole of the industry.
    They redesigned the wheel and got it absolutely perfect. just 10 years too late and 10 times over budget. In the mean time someone else came up with a working wheel at one tenth the cost and half the time.

  • Edward

    Jeff Wright wrote: “I thought libertarians believed in competition

    A rocket that costs 100 times more and flies 1/100th as often is not competitive. Not everyone who thinks that SLS is not the right solution (expensive rocket without a mission) is a libertarian, but all of them want value for their money. Jeff Wright may not be a lefty, but he looks at libertarianism in the same way that a lefty does. If we consider his preference of a government launcher over a free market capitalist launcher, then we see that he is definitely left of center.

    When we let government be in charge, we get what Jeff Wright wants. When We the People are in charge, we get what we want.

    john hare responded to Jeff Wright: “I believe you are looking at the SLS through the lens of the dedicated workers on it that you know personally and the billions already spent (sunk cost). I can respect the workers doing the best they can while still understanding that the project (SLS) as managed is hopeless.

    This is what I mean when I say that Congress is squandering the talents, skills, and knowledge of NASA’s workforce. I include the workforces of NASA’s contractors, who are stuck working on projects that are sometimes too expensive to produce cost effective results. These people could be doing so much more for the money spent, but bad management by government holds them back from such glory. Successful management is why SpaceX has so many more fans than Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.

  • Jeff Wright

    Thank you John Hare for your understanding of this crazy true believer. Unlike Gary, I want Starship to work. My fear is for SLS to die, Starship to fail, and to see a Taikonaut wiping his feet on an American flag already sun-bleached surrender-white. I don’t think I could bear it…we need more Americans among the space-employed.

  • Edward

    Jeff Wright,
    You have complained about several differences that newspace companies do vs. what oldspace companies do.

    Hydrogen is definitely more fuel efficient, but it adds cost and complexity to launches. Oldspace companies have fallen into ways of thinking that technical performance is what should be optimized, but SpaceX is changing that mold and optimizes more for cost performance. This second preference is what commercial customers have been clamoring for over the past four or so decades. The newspace companies are catering to the commercial customer base, and this focus is beginning to pay off.

    From the essay:

    Modern consensus is that once the cost, complexity, and additional mass required to deal with hydrogen is factored in, its performance is not favorable compared to other more conventional fuels, such as RP-1 or methane, especially for launching to LEO.

    Tim Dodd, the Everyday Astronaut, has a video comparing various fuels, RP-1, Methane, and hydrogen. Perhaps Wright could learn a thing or two about why hydrogen, despite its high specific impulse, is not always the correct choice. (watch the next 10 minutes)

    You have also complained that launch escape towers are necessary, even claiming a “gotcha” for anyone suggesting that no tower is better than flight proven escape towers. However, we have seen tests demonstrating that Dragon’s escape system is sufficient, yet it does not use a tower. What kind of escape tower do you think would work on Starship? A different safety mechanism is definitely necessary for a ship of that size. You and the oldspace companies do not think outside the box, or as I like to say, thinking off the planet.

    You have made the claim that Starship is high maintenance, but all evidence shows that SpaceX works hard to reduce the maintenance needed between flights of its Falcons and Dragons. Why would you think that Starship is being designed otherwise? Why would you think that Starship has not learned the lessons taught by Space Shuttle operations? Clearly the oldspace companies have not learned these lessons, otherwise Constellation and SLS would not have reverted to 1960s methodologies but would have improved on the Shuttle’s reusability paradigm.

    The good news is that oldspace Boeing is making Starliner reusable, which is newspace thinking.

    Perhaps you could consider complaining about Marshall Space Flight Center not helping develop better methods for reducing the complexity and cost of hydrogen fueled spaceflight. If anything, that is where the talent, skills, and knowledge of NASA workers could be gainfully focused. Instead, we are using fifty year old technology on a rocket that could have been and should have been using twenty-first century propulsion.

  • pzatchok

    Liquid methane like liquid NG is easier to handle than Hydrogen..

    Plus think about Musks goal of Mars.
    Once on Mars do you want to crack a huge amount of water to make rocket fuel or use it to build with, drink and grow plants?
    Human and animal waste will be making methane, what would you do with that stuff?
    Also can’t you break O2 out of CO2? Plants alone can not convert enough CO2 to breathable atmosphere.

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