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More SLS delays

Here we go again! At a three-day meeting this week aimed at resolving some of NASA’s scheduling issues for its Space Launch System (SLS), it appears that managers are faced with further launch delays because of the need to insert an extra SLS launch prior to the first manned flight.

The problem is that the first unmanned flight, presently set for December 2019 (but which I am positive will be delayed) will be not be using the second stage planned for later missions. In order to fly humans on that stage NASA needs to fly at least one more more unmanned mission beforehand. Since Congress has mandated that NASA use the SLS rocket to fly a mission to Europa, managers are now planning to insert that mission into the manifest prior to the manned mission.

At a major three day Technical Interchange Meeting (TIM) at the Kennedy Space Center recently, NASA noted that the Europa Clipper mission has a formal, target launch date of 4 June 2022, the opening of a 21 day launch window that closes on 25 June.

A backup launch option exists in 2023.

The problem with the June 2022 launch window is that the mobile launcher that moves the rocket from the assembly building to the launchpad will likely not be ready by then. If it is not, then the next time Europa Clipper can fly, in 2023, will certainly force more delays on the first manned SLS/Orion flight. And even if it is ready, I am willing to bet that NASA will not be able to fly that manned mission in 2023 regardless. For years the agency has made it clear that they will need at least two years turn-around time between SLS launches.

So, my prediction that the first manned mission of SLS/Orion will occur in 2023 was wrong. I now predict it will not occur prior to 2024, more than 20 years after George Bush first proposed it.

Overall, the entire NASA project to replace the space shuttle with a manned rocket and capsule is the perfect poster boy for government incompetence, waste, and corruption. Twenty years, and all we will get, at most, is a single manned mission and one flight capsule. Worse, by 2024 the cost for this entire effort will likely have exceeded $50 billion. What a squandering of taxpayer money.

What makes this more infuriating is that this is not an exception, it is now the standard operating procedure for the entire federal government. From incompetence in the Navy to the failure of the Air Force to do something as simple as properly registering a person in the FBI’s gun national background check system, our federal government is a disaster. And I see only a token effort by Congress and even Trump to fix it.

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On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit. If you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and the author gets a bigger cut much sooner.

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  • ken anthony

    Perhaps going to college and being stupider after you graduate has consequences?

  • Des

    Congress is more responsible for the SLS problems than Nasa, though Nasa are not blameless. Senator Shelby and his friends forced SLS onto Nasa and required that they use the Shuttle contractors. There was no focus on cost, no proper gathering of requirements. The focus of Congress was to keep jobs going in the shuttle contractors when the shuttle project ended.

    Thankfully Falcon Heavy will finally be flying very soon. It has had its own delays but is much more useful due to its focus on minimising costs.

  • wodun

    Des said something I agree with. That doesn’t happen often :)

    Also, And I see only a token effort by Congress and even Trump to fix it.

    The effort to fix it is not killing commercial cargo and crew programs. I think the best we can hope for is a dual track system until SLS runs out of engines or FH spectacularly demonstrates the absurdity of continuing SLS development.

    What I am more concerned about going forward, is whether or not the lessons from the commercial crew/cargo programs will be applied to follow on stations to the ISS. It looks like this wont be the case with the DSG. Building out cislunar space only makes sense if NASA’s efforts enable the private sector. A NASA that builds and controls all of the infrastructure wont lead to the desired outcome. Although, this could also be a place where the private sector just does its thing while NASA does its thing.

  • mkent

    “For years the agency has made it clear that they will need at least two years turn-around time between SLS launches.”

    Close, but not quite right. NASA can only average one SLS flight every two years, because that’s as fast as they can build them. However, some Mars reference missions have a requirement to be able to launch 3 SLSs in a one-year period, so NASA is designing their facilities to accommodate that. In such a case, they’d stockpile the SLSs over a six-year period and salvo-launch them all within a year.

    So if the SLS for Europa Clipper is delivered on time but it misses its launch window due to ground support equipment issues, they will still be able to launch the SLS for EM-2 a few months after Europa Clipper is launched.

    The rest of your post is spot-on, as is typical.

  • LocalFluff

    Government is completely falling down as a concept, in Europe probably even more than in the US. What the government is set out to do simply doesn’t work anymore. The bureaucrats are incompetent, corrupt, lazy and cowards. I think it is unavoidable and comes with time.

    Western governments multiplied in size in the 1960s. Half a century later such things collapse by their own weight. As with NASA, it was dynamic in the beginning, but has stagnated since. Even a planned economy can work well at the beginning when new institutions are created. The problem is that a government doesn’t have any mechanism for creative destruction. A bureaucracy is never renewed, it rottens with time. There can be great enthusiasm during its formation, but there exists no incentives for anyone to adapt a bureaucracy to the changing reality. It is doomed to fail. Bureaucracies love constant reorganizations, that’s one of the reasons they are so expensive and inefficient. The boss has his position for only two years or so until the mandatory promotion, and must reorganize to show that there’s a new boss around (it is what will merit the promotion). But it is only done for show off. The bureaucracy will consume ever more valuable resources in order to produce ever less valuable output. The monster doesn’t have a heart to feel that this is going the wrong way and will not be survivable in the long run.

  • LocalFluff

    @ken anthony
    Congress is only interested in jobs and monies where they are located. This doesn’t force NASA to produce worthless s*uff. NASA could’ve developed the BFR instead of the SLS, and the Congress would have been perfectly happy with that too. They only want to maximize the budget, they don’t care at all about what it produces. NASA deliberately chose to fail and make itself irrelevant and scoffed at.

    Yeah, the SLS is based on the STS (shuttle) production facilities from the 1970s, isn’t it? And they only made half a dozen of them, because they were reusable and didn’t need any mass manufacturing. SLS is conceptually wrong in so many ways. And only now are they starting to develop the first rocket engine, the one for the real upper stage. All other rocket engines are simply taken from the shuttle storage. And it is rocket engine development that can go bad. Scaling up the engine is what has held back Virgin Galactic for a decade or so now.

  • Calvin Dodge

    Looks like NASA needs to …
    (puts on sunglasses)
    pick up the Pace

  • Edward

    LocalFluff wrote: “Government is completely falling down as a concept, in Europe probably even more than in the US. What the government is set out to do simply doesn’t work anymore.

    Government has only three purposes. To protect the people and their rights, to peacefully resolve disputes, and to stay out of the people’s way. We invented government for the first two reasons, and we did not want our governments to interfere with our pursuits of happiness. Because it is now interfering as well as failing the first two purposes, LocalFluff is right, it is completely falling down as a concept.

    What happened sometime after its invention is that governments decided that they were the main entity and the people were support workers. This is probably best exemplified by the use of the royal “We.” Government became the tyrant, not the servant.

    The US was formed to correct this usurpation of power. The Constitution made clear, explicitly, that “We the People” (definitely not the royal we) are the ones with the power and the government’s power is limited. They are to stay out of the people’s way: “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” Emphasis on the word Liberty. The Constitution’s authors specified that this is why they “do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The rest of the Preamble specifies that the duty of government is to protect the citizens and their rights (“insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare“) and to peacefully resolve disputes (“establish Justice“) in a way that works better than the first attempt (“form a more perfect Union“).

    When there are only a few people in power, and they stay there indefinitely, they forget the purpose of government and take on the attitudes of tyranny. Notice the character Senator Paine in the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” He started as enthusiastic and for We the People as did Mr. Smith, but time made him power hungry; by the end, Paine realizes that he has been corrupted by power.

    This is the main reason why I am in favor of term limits for Congress. It is beginning to look like the Supreme Court also suffers from this same malady.

    It is ironic that as soon as the USSR collapsed, western governments became more tyrannical, like the USSR was. They didn’t learn from the mistakes of tyranny but those in power chose to recreate it.

    As for NASA, it is a tool of Congress that is administered by the president. It is yet another sign that government has started to overstep its bounds. Government decided that it could help provide an economic advantage over other countries by supplying wind tunnels and other aeronautical support to US aircraft companies, so it formed the NACA. One could make the argument that it promoted the general welfare. Later, when government prestige (again, not necessarily the general welfare) was on the line, NACA was turned into NASA, and aviation was the little “a” in the acronym — almost forgotten by the government bureaucracy.

    Congress specified some of the requirements for SLS, including the lift capability and the first stage fuel. They didn’t have, and still do not have, a mission for the rocket, so designing it properly for future missions is difficult. They likely will not be able to use it as Congress intended back then or as Congress will eventually intend. For example, the two-year manufacturing process is likely not going to be sufficient for Congress’s eventual needs, but it may be sufficient for Congress’s current needs.

    BFR, on the other hand, has reusability as a requirement and at least three missions specified: launches to Mars with return capability, launches to the Moon with return capability, and intercontinental passenger rapid transit service. That is quite a diversified set of missions for one rocket system, but SpaceX may be able to make it work. With reusability, even if it takes two years to build each one, like SLS, BFR will rapidly become a common launch sight.

    LocalFluff noted: “Scaling up the engine is what has held back Virgin Galactic for a decade or so now.

    For similar reasons, scaling up the Shuttle’s Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) was what caused fatal problems with Constellation’s Ares rocket.

    LocalFluff asked: “the SLS is based on the STS (shuttle) production facilities from the 1970s, isn’t it?

    It is based on the STS’s SRB, External Tank, and Main Engine production facilities of the 2000s. The Orbiter production facilities of the 1970s and 1980s stopped producing orbiters long ago; if the buildings still exist, they are producing other things, now.

    However, SLS is clearly a boondoggle intended to produce jobs, not results. Otherwise SLS and Orion would have been organized differently and would have had an actual mission to accomplish.

    SpaceX, Blue Origin, Bigelow, NanoRacks, Made In Space, Moon Express, Vector, the late Kistler, The resurrected Firefly, and many, many other companies, past and present, are signs that We the People are taking a stand in pursuing the happiness and prosperity that can be secured (for our posterity) from activities in space.

    Too bad SLS only squanders money as well as the skills and talents of thousands of NASA and industry engineers, scientists, and technicians.

  • Kirk

    33 months to modify the Mobile Launcher to handle the taller Block 1B seems like a very long time, but what confuses me more are the weight issues. They say that “The recently upgraded Super Crawler, CT-2, was built to carry 18.5 million lbs, but the combined weight of the SLS Block 1 and ML at rollout will now be at least 18.7 million lbs.”, but that 200,000 lbs overweight is not so much of a problem since the crawler is rated with a safety factor of four, and that would still give them a factor of 3.95.

    However, between changes to the ML support Block 1B and the Block 1B itself, “a total SLS Block 1B/ML combined rollout weight of 19.5 to 19.7 million lbs. That creates a lower than desired safety factor of 3.78 to 3.74.”

    3.74 doesn’t sound so bad. You’d think they could just do some more engineering studies to verify that the crawler really can handle the load and go with it. That beats their alternative plan of modifying the ML for cargo only Block 1B operation (and thus yielding a lighter ML), and building a new ML for Block 1B crew operations which is designed from the start to be lighter.

    They say that any idiot can build a bridge that stands, but it takes an engineer to design a bridge that barely stands. I wonder why a 3.74 safety factor isn’t acceptable.

  • Edward

    Kirk wrote: “They say that any idiot can build a bridge that stands, but it takes an engineer to design a bridge that barely stands. I wonder why a 3.74 safety factor isn’t acceptable.

    If you design a bridge that barely stands, what happens when the first rain comes along and the weight of the water gets added to all the other loads? An engineer might be able to design a bridge that barely stands, but he is unlikely to build it.

    You never know what kind of flaws in the materials, unexpected loads, degradation, or misuse might be waiting to destroy your bridge that barely stands:

    Bridgewalk ’87 was quite the fiasco, and if the bridge had not been designed with a good safety factor, the fiasco would have been a disaster. In 1987, for the 50th anniversary, the Golden Gate Bridge was closed to traffic so that people could walk across en masse. Unfortunately, people can be idiots, and instead of staying to the right, they walked all abreast in both directions. The two masses met in the middle, and with more masses following behind, no one could move, and everyone was trapped on the bridge for a couple of hours. The result was a load that was greater than the celebration planners had expected, but not a load that would permanently damage the bridge.

    We don’t expect NASA to do anything quite so stupid, and they inspect for degradation, so the big worries are unexpected loads (e.g. high winds) and unseen flaws in the materials.

    So, why shouldn’t a factor of 3.74 be OK?

    It depends upon why they required a factor of 4 in the first place. Changing a design without understanding the original design is dangerous, and changing a factor of safety without understanding the reasons for the original is likewise dangerous.

    Or maybe they already do understand.

    (Coincidentally, reCAPTCHA asked me to identify bridges, just now.)

  • ken anthony

    We have a system in place where the voices against SLS simply do not matter no matter how perfect the argument.

    It is a problem bigger than NASA or govt. and will be the end of this country. Makes me almost glad I’m dying. I really don’t want to be around when we become Venezuela. We’ve trained decent Americans to shut up and take it while at the same time trained the entitled to sound off and riot. It is the most amazing result it’s possible to conceive.

    These were easy problems to solve in past generations.

  • Edward

    ken anthony wrote: “Makes me almost glad I’m dying. I really don’t want to be around when we become Venezuela.

    Eek! Don’t die too soon. I think we can still avoid Venezuela-ization.

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