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First manned SLS/Orion flight officially delayed to 2022

Government in action! The first manned flight of SLS/Orion has now been officially delayed one year until 2022, and that date remains questionable.

In addition, the first unmanned test flight of SLS/Orion has now also been delayed until December 2019, something that had been under consideration but is now official. Even with this delay, there are doubts whether that flight can take place then, which is why the 2022 launch of the first manned flight is questionable.

The article outlines in detail the Byzantine scheduling issues that NASA must fulfill to meet these launch dates, including a long timeline of deliveries that seems absurd when compared to how private companies operate.

Assuming that these new dates occur as announced (something I sincerely doubt), the first unmanned launch of SLS/Orion will occur almost 16 years after President Bush first proposed it, with the first manned flight occurring more than 18 years after his proposal. In that time NASA will have spent about $43 billion for this one manned mission. Let me repeat: $43 billion and almost two decades to fly one manned mission. Quite absurd.

The article also details NASA’s proposal for a third SLS/Orion mission, the second manned, to occur in 2023, which would begin assembly of a space station in lunar orbit. I suspect that this mission is going to be announced in what will be President Trump’s version of the typical Kennedy-like speech that Reagan, Bush 1, Clinton, Bush 2, and Obama have all given, announcing big plans in space by such-and-such deadline.

Whether Congress funds it remains to me an open question. Right now I would predict they would, since they love the pork that SLS/Orion provides. In two years, when Falcon Heavy has flown several times and is likely becoming operational, and New Glenn is getting close to its first test launch, I am not so sure. Both will be flying before SLS’s first flight and both will have been developed for a tenth the cost with equal if not greater capabilities. And both will be able to fly more frequently for practically nothing, when compared to SLS.


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  • Kirk

    Wasn’t the second SLS mission supposed to launch the Europa Clipper?

  • Kirk: An excellent question, since this mission was mandated by Congress. I wonder if they are going to try to put Clipper on as a secondary payload. Remember, it is an unmanned planetary probe. SLS has far more lift capacity than it really needs.

  • MacRat

    Clipper actually needs all of SLS since it’s going direct to Jupiter.

  • MacRat: If you are correct then I suspect that NASA is trying to lobby Congress to fund more SLS launches, showing them a schedule that leaves Clipper out knowing that important legislators really really want it. The result, if this lobbying tactic works? They get funding for both.

    This tactic has worked many times in the past. I cannot guess what will happen now.

  • “Government in action!”

    Government inaction?

  • wayne

    For comparison– we currently spend $4 billion year on free cell phones for “poor people.”

    excellent wordsmithery!

    Totally tangential, but I’ll toss it in here–

    Who is planning on watching the new Star Trek iteration tonight on CBS? (8:30pm or when the game ends.)
    Personally–I’ll watch it, but I do not intend to pay for it, going forward.

  • Mitch S

    I predict before any launch there will be another delay due to the need to replace components because they’ve aged past the spec lifetime.
    Then another delay when they realize the last original SLS engineer has retired and they haven’t brought the replacements up to speed.

    SLS is ending up like the B52 – a project that has gone though generations of people.
    But SLS is doing it before ever leaving the ground!

  • Calvin Dodge

    The SLS is the rocket of the future, and always will be.

  • wayne

    Mitch & Calvin-
    Good stuff!

  • wayne

    Star Trek: Libertarian Edition
    (cued to the relevant part)

  • Richard M

    “Kirk: An excellent question, since this mission was mandated by Congress. I wonder if they are going to try to put Clipper on as a secondary payload. Remember, it is an unmanned planetary probe. SLS has far more lift capacity than it really needs.”

    Actually, this is an even bigger question than most realize, because some in NASA – and more especially in the Astronaut Office – remain very skeptical about launching the first crewed mission on an SLS with an untested EUS (Remember that EM-1 will not be launching with an EUS, because it will not be ready yet).

    The thinking is that launching Europa Clipper before EM-2 would kill two birds with one stone – test out the EUS while also getting the Clipper launched.

    Assuming SLS survives until then – and I tend to think it will – I will be very curious to see how this plays out.

  • Richard M: Excellent point. I am also very glad you reminded me of the problem of using an untested second stage on the first manned mission. That second manned mission breaks numerous safety rules, far more than any NASA has whined about regarding Dragon and Starliner.

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “Assuming that these new dates occur as announced (something I sincerely doubt), the first unmanned launch of SLS/Orion will occur almost 16 years after President Bush first proposed it, with the first manned flight occurring more than 18 years after his proposal.

    Actually, Bush proposed the Constellation program and a return to the Moon as a goal. It was Obama who cancelled the Ares portion of Constellation and killed the return to the Moon, and it is Congress that rescued the Orion portion and created SLS. SLS is Congress’s baby. Well … slothful, misbehaving, undisciplined child, now.

    It is the concept of a manned heavy launch vehicle that is taking so long and costing so much. That is what Bush had first proposed, and he had a goal to go with it, too, with a development program that was better as keeping to schedule.

    With Obama’s (mis)management of both NASA’s manned and unmanned programs, well, as Paul Spudis phrased it in his book The Value of the Moon, “Regrettably, strategic confusion currently abounds in the American civil space program.”

    Because of the long delays in developing this manned heavy launch vehicle, the original goal and many of the potential other goals for a government vehicle are now being planned by commercial companies, bringing SLS and Orion closer to obsolescence than originally intended. SpaceX has announced an intention and a rocket for going to Mars. Blue Origin is planning a rocket specifically in the class that would be able to get us back to the Moon. ULA is now designing a vehicle for unmanned cislunar travel, with possible future modifications for manned and unmanned lunar landings and launches.

    Each delay of SLS also delays Orion and reduces the amount of useful time that either or both will have.

    The NASASpaceflight article mentions a Deep Space Gateway (DSG), but this is a lunar space station that supports no mission or goal. Like SLS and Orion, it will just be there, available for whatever purpose someone may or may not think up in the future.

    There is no strategic clarity there, either. It is yet more money being spent without a specified purpose. They may be designing DSG now, but they are designing it to do what, exactly? What happens if some future goal is assigned to it; is it being designed to support that goal? Of course not, unless it is being overdesigned and overbuilt to handle all conceivable missions, which would make it economically infeasible.

    It looks like NASA is spending a whole lot of money for not very much.

  • Mitch S

    The F35 is another program way past schedule and over budget.
    But at least it could be argued that in the end we get an airplane that fills a need current aging aircraft can’t sustain and gives the military capabilities they didn’t have (as I said it can be argued, not that it’s proven).

    But SLS won’t offer any abilities that can’t be provided by the competition and unlike previous decades, the competition isn’t foreign, it’s American private enterprise.
    It’s as if the US gov’t is designing and building a “new” 1976 Cadillac because… uh, we need a large vehicle to transport personnel.
    At best SLS will be a gov’t dinosaur competing with US business. And unlike the F35 there is no prospect for foreign sales
    (Iran would probably be interested – good thing Obama isn’t President!)

    The ultimate spawn of the swamp.
    Please Mr President, kill it!

  • LocalFluff

    Concerning the Deep Space Gateway I emailed you on the Spaceshow about, I understand it that only the SLS can launch the Orion to it, since Orion is so heavy and requires a launch escape tower and it has to go to some Lunar orbit. Dragon and Starliner are smaller and don’t have the life support capacity to support a crew for weeks. Even if Falcon Heavy works and could launch the Dragon to the Moon, the Gateway requires Orion’s life support capacity as a component while crewed. The Gateway is not really an independent space station, it is very much smaller than the ISS. It’s more like the current Chinese space station. The Orion itself will make up a third of the living space.

    Delta Heavy could only launch an Orion to quickly crash down into the atmosphere for reentry testing. Like launching a sounding rocket straight up. The Orion + service module + launch escape tower has a mass of 10+15+9 = 34 tons at launch. The Deep Space Gateway is immune against competition by design. No company would develop products for something that is useless and only has a whimsical temporary government customer.

    DSG is even worse than I thought. And it unfortunately seems to be happening for real, from the talking about it to judge and with Bridenstein appointed. How horrible! In only 5 years the Chinese will dominate human spaceflight with a permanently crewed real space station in an economic, protected and useful orbit and with a usefully large crew to do science and commercial tasks as it is commercially usefully in low Earth orbit. While the DSG can only be visited by a crew of four two weeks at a time once a year, or every second year if the SLS is supposed to sometimes launch uncrewed payloads too, and serves no purpose whatsoever. No research or commercial activities at all can be done under those circumstances. And since there is no use at all for a space station in Lunar orbit, it will never be done “for real” and the experiences learned form the DSG will be worthless.

    [Copied the question to this thread.]
    I don’t see why any administration would like to sit 8 years without any space accomplishments at all. At the top this is just about a moments attention. Corrupt concepts like this pass through because there’s no one higher up who questions it.

  • LocalFluff: Your points are all good ones and only serve to support my general opposition to SLS/Orion. However, I think you underestimate how easy it would be to adapt Falcon Heavy, New Glenn, and the Dragon and Starliner capsules to serve a lunar station. See for example my comparison of SLS/Orion and these commercial systems on pages 4 and 5 of my policy paper, Capitalism in space. Or you could take a look at this essay, The Lie that is Orion. Orion is really not much different than Dragon or Starliner.

    Nonetheless, I do agree with you. Using these capsules to ferry humans to a lunar space station will likely result in far fewer manned missions. None of these capsules will really work for interplanetary travel. All are inadequate. Moreover, it has not been demonstrated at all that a lunar space station makes sense, economically.

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