NASA admits that 1st SLS launch likely to be delayed to 2021


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In testimony yesterday at a House hearing NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine twice hinted that SLS’s first launch will not occur as scheduled in 2020, but will be delayed until 2021.

Twice during testimony before the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Bridenstine referenced 2021 as the expected launch date for Artemis-1. “I think 2021 is definitely achievable for the Artemis-1 launch vehicle,” Bridenstine said in response to a question from Sen. Roger Wicker, the Mississippi Republican who chairs the committee.

However, Bridenstine said he would not set a new date for the mission yet.

Meanwhile, internal NASA sources say the launch can’t happen earlier than late 2021, and then only if the agency gets a lot more money, over and above the more than $25 billion that Congress has alocated.

Falcon Heavy was developed for $500 million. It took seven years, and is now operational, having flown three times. If the first launch of SLS does not occur until 2021 it will have taken NASA seventeen years to make that flight, for fifty times the money.

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15 comments

  • geoffc

    I absolutely hate to do this, defend SLS, since I am convinced it will fly once for sure. But unlikely ever again. I agree that it is a giant waste.

    But it seems slightly unfair to compare just the $500 million for F-H to SLS. The boosters for F-H are 2/3rds identical to the previously developed F-9 Block 5 and probably should include some or all of the costs of F-9 Block 5 (So F-9 then the revisions and dev costs). On the other hand, SLS is reusing the SRB’s but needing to be redesigned. Reusing the SSME’s but need to be recertified. (Which is ridiculous really). And so on.

    On the gripping hand they were supposed to re-use the Shuttle components to make it cheap and fast. Ha! Like that was ever going to happen.

  • Chris Lopes

    Since the idea is high tech employment rather than actual space flight, the SLS is doing exactly what it is designed to do.

  • Col Beausabre

    “Meanwhile, internal NASA sources say the launch can’t happen earlier than late 2021, and then only if the agency gets a lot more money, over and above the more than $25 billion that Congress has allocated”

    Which brings up what they intend to do with it. Hire more people? That will make it LATER as people currently working on the project have to stop what they are doing to bring the newcomers up to speed.

    Fred Brooks wrote about this a generation ago – apparently NASA never got the memo. He based his book on his experiences in software but it has been generalized into any large, complex project.

    “The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering is a book on software engineering and project management by Fred Brooks first published in 1975, with subsequent editions in 1982 and 1995. Its central theme is that “adding manpower to a late software project makes it later”. This idea is known as Brooks’ law, and is presented along with the second-system effect and advocacy of prototyping.

    Brooks’ observations are based on his experiences at IBM while managing the development of OS/360. He had added more programmers to a project falling behind schedule, a decision that he would later conclude had, counter-intuitively, delayed the project even further. He also made the mistake of asserting that one project—involved in writing an ALGOL compiler—would require six months, regardless of the number of workers involved (it required longer).

    Brooks discusses several causes of scheduling failures. The most enduring is his discussion of Brooks’s law: Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later. Man-month is a hypothetical unit of work representing the work done by one person in one month; Brooks’ law says that the possibility of measuring useful work in man-months is a myth, and is hence the centerpiece of the book.

    Complex programming projects cannot be perfectly partitioned into discrete tasks that can be worked on without communication between the workers and without establishing a set of complex interrelationships between tasks and the workers performing them.

    Therefore, assigning more programmers to a project running behind schedule will make it even later. This is because the time required for the new programmers to learn about the project and the increased communication overhead will consume an ever increasing quantity of the calendar time available. When n people have to communicate among themselves, as n increases, their output decreases and when it becomes negative the project is delayed further with every person added.

    Group intercommunication formula: n(n − 1) / 2
    Example: 50 developers give 50 · (50 – 1) / 2 = 1225 channels of communication.”

  • MDN

    As with most anything managed and dictated by the government you can buy better but you can’t pay more. And JWST is yet another sterling example.

    What annoys me is that the world of BIG is over, and that writing has been on the wall for a long time. Falcon Heavy is a fine vehicle, and made sense because it was a reasonable evolution of the Falcon 9, thus the bargain basement development cost. And we NEED a big launch platform, just not too many of them anymore with SmallSat technology now blooming. And while Elon is pursuing Starship and the Raptor engine with grand ambitions for Mars, where their designs are indeed appropriate and make a lot of sense, Starship is not likely to play much in our contemporary commercial launch market. But Mars aside I would not bet against some experimental Asteroid Mining endeavors where it’s all about Delta V, and Starship is positioned to pioneer a new and potentially very lucrative market. But of course this may run into space lawfare, so faces much uncertainty.

    What disappoints me is to think of what we could be learning with the $30B plus wasted on SLS and JWST if we’d focused on funding 15 to 20 billion dollar research missions instead. We’d have Falcon Heavy to launch interestingly large payloads and high velocity exploration missions, and likely be gaining a lot more insight into the nature of our solar system, the universe, and they mysteries of dark matter, dark energy, and other stuff we don’t even know we don’t know about yet. And those 20 distributed missions would have employed just as many high tech workers, just not in the right congressional districts sadly.

    WRT JWST I’d cancel it now and eat the $9B wasted. The reason is it is a non-serviceable platform and while it may be great, the risk of failure is high and the PR debacle that would be would be worse than simply cancelling it now. Rather, go modern and design a standardized and cheap ($50M each) 1 meter IR telescope and commit to launch 50 of them into a constellation. Collectively they should be able to achieve most of the science goals of Webb when scheduled together, but also support 1000s of additional observational programs that would never be possible with a single monolithic platform. And this would allow for Block Level evolution as well, with new and better instrument options emerging as the constellation is deployed. SWARMs are the new paradigm, and we need to engineer wolf packs, not elephants.

    MHO

  • wayne

    Col Beausabre-
    Great stuff!

    DPC2019: Software Management Lessons from the 1960s –
    Larry Garfield June 2019
    https://youtu.be/ZkG-CWXezoQ
    44:19

    “This session will present a modern overview of the ideas presented by Brooks and a look at what we can still learn from them even today.”

  • Edward

    From the article: “under current plans … the Artemis-1 mission would not be ready for launch until at least ‘late 2021.’

    This is a year and a half delay from June of next year. The schedule is now slipping a year and a half for every year of progress. This is worse than the year for year slips of the past. At this rate, SLS will never launch.

    geoffc wrote: “it seems slightly unfair to compare just the $500 million for F-H to SLS. The boosters for F-H are 2/3rds identical to the previously developed F-9 Block 5 and probably should include some or all of the costs of F-9 Block 5 (So F-9 then the revisions and dev costs).

    Many of the upgrades to Falcon 9 so that block 5 could be used as Falcon Heavy units is where much of the half-billion dollar cost came from.

    they were supposed to re-use the Shuttle components to make it cheap and fast. Ha! Like that was ever going to happen.

    Since the engines and the SRBs were supposed to be exactly like the Space Shuttle’s, the only design changes were to turn the Shuttle’s External Tank into a larger tank. This sounded relatively simple. A new upper stage was needed, but how hard is that? SpaceX did theirs in half a dozen years, or less, and they are the new guys on the pad, not the experienced professionals. So what went wrong that took so long and cost so much? Can’t NASA do a simple design anymore?

    Col Beausabre,
    I suspect that the additional money is probably mostly to pay the current crew for the additional 18-ish months.

    MDN wrote about the James Webb Space Telescope: “Rather, go modern and design a standardized and cheap ($50M each) 1 meter IR telescope and commit to launch 50 of them into a constellation. Collectively they should be able to achieve most of the science goals of Webb when scheduled together, but also support 1000s of additional observational programs that would never be possible with a single monolithic platform.

    An additional advantage is that the loss of one of the smaller telescopes would not be as terrible as the loss of JWST would be.

    SWARMs are the new paradigm, and we need to engineer wolf packs, not elephants.

    Although I disagree that the world of BIG is completely over, it is likely going to be much less of a world than the world of small. Moving people through space is still going to require large or big. Starship is likely to be more of a passenger ship than a cargo ship, and the smaller launchers should have little to worry about for the foreseeable future.

    I think that NASA and Congress, back in 2004 and 2010, did not see the coming paradigm change from big to small. I’m not sure whether they now see that it has happened, but I hope that they do.

  • pzatchok

    As for the fuel tanks.
    NASA as it always does wanted to do things all new. Thus expensive.
    They wanted to make the tanks lighter so they are trying to use a new aluminum alloy.
    They wanted to use an all new non standard welding technique. Friction stir welding.
    For this they needed all new machines and tooling. Even an all new building to build them in. They built the building wrong the first time.

    The whole claim that NASA was going to reuse old shuttle parts and tech was just a ruse to get the budget started. They knew that once the project was started it would be almost impossible to stop.

  • Patrick

    Replying to MDN, “…while Elon is pursuing Starship and the Raptor engine with grand ambitions for Mars, where their designs are indeed appropriate and make a lot of sense, Starship is not likely to play much in our contemporary commercial launch market. ”

    Consider this previous post: https://behindtheblack.com/behind-the-black/points-of-information/reused-falcon-9-wins-nasa-launch-contract-instead-of-pegasus/

    Elon says Starship will be cheaper per launch than F9 (he may even have said F1, but not sure about that). If Starship even comes close to that, why wouldn’t commercial-space customers choose a ride that’s cheaper than its competitors? I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t.

  • Edward

    pzatchok wrote: “The whole claim that NASA was going to reuse old shuttle parts and tech was just a ruse to get the budget started. They knew that once the project was started it would be almost impossible to stop.

    When Obama cancelled Constellation in 2010, Congress went ballistic and funded another large rocket, because they wanted a large rocket. By Supreme Court ruling, money must be spent on what it has been earmarked for, so NASA is building the Constellation “follow-on,” SLS.

    As long as Congress insists upon funding it, it cannot be stopped. Trump cannot stop it on his own, because there is no “line item veto” power in the presidency. It is a flaw in the system that the president must accept or veto everything, so this allows Congress to get away with putting a lot of excessive, unnecessary, and wasteful spending into the budget.

    This is Congress’s baby, and it cannot be stopped until Congress becomes too embarrassed to keep funding it. I root hard for Starship and Super Heavy, so that these two rockets can do more than SLS can do and for less cost. Then NASA can stop hemorrhaging money on SLS and start hiring commercial manned rockets to accomplish the great things that its people are capable of.

  • pzatchok

    Congress might provide the funding but NASA spends it one things it wants.

    No congressman went over to NASA and told them to make and use all new fuel tanks. NASA engineers thought that was a great idea.

    No congressman told NASA to use CNC machining to manufacture the whole Orion frame.Which cracked needed welded back together, and later re-engineered and built different on the succeeding ones.

    Granted none of the problems are directly attributable to NASA personnel but the reaction to ALL the problems and cost overruns is directly attributable to NASA.
    If a private company did this to another private company they would have been fired, no questions asked. But just because its a government agency a private company thinks it can get away with delays like this.

    This whole system would be shut down if it was changed to a set cost and payment on delivery. No more cash for “research”.
    Obviously these contracts went up for bids so the second place company would automatically get the ‘pick up’ contract when the first fails.

  • Edward

    pzatchok wrote: “No congressman went over to NASA and told them to make and use all new fuel tanks. NASA engineers thought that was a great idea.

    Actually, they did. All of Congress did. They directed NASA to build a rocket of a certain lifting capability using hydrocarbon fuel in the first stage. The Shuttle’s External Tank was not large enough to provide enough fuel, was designed to hold cryogenic hydrogen rather than RP1, and was designed to feed engines on a vehicle to the side rather than engines under the tank. A different tank was mandatory. Congress pretended to be rocket scientists, but they just aren’t as smart as they think they are.

    No congressman told NASA to use CNC machining to manufacture the whole Orion frame.

    Well, I suppose they could have done it all on Bridgeports, but that has become passe, largely due to its expense. Then again, did Congress budget the manufacture for Bridgeport machining or for CNC machining? Their budget may have required NASA to use CNC.

    Granted none of the problems are directly attributable to NASA personnel but the reaction to ALL the problems and cost overruns is directly attributable to NASA.

    NASA is the supervisor to the program, and they chose the contractors, presumably thinking that they were competent. It may be fair to put some, most, or all of the blame on NASA (mis)managers.

    If a private company did this to another private company they would have been fired, no questions asked. But just because its a government agency a private company thinks it can get away with delays like this.

    It is more like a “military-industrial complex” thing. There is a very long (70 years?) tradition of doing things this way. Congress does not get on anyone’s case for fouling up, so foul ups have become standard operating procedure. It looks like Trump and Pence might finally be trying to do something about it, at least for SLS/Artemis.

    This whole system would be shut down if it was changed to a set cost and payment on delivery. No more cash for “research”.

    I’m not quite sure what “No more cash for ‘research’” means. Research is what NASA does best and what it is really for. However, I agree that commercial space is far more efficient than government space. It has to be, because commercial space spends its own money, and government space spends an endless supply of other people’s money (where we the taxpayers are the “other people”).

    Obviously these contracts went up for bids so the second place company would automatically get the ‘pick up’ contract when the first fails.

    This contradicts the earlier statement that the contractors know they can get away with sub-standard performance. Second-place companies do not automatically get contracts if the primary contractor fails. At best it goes back out for bid, because conditions change over the intervening period of time (years?). At worst (or maybe this is better than the previous sentence’s best-case scenario) the project gets cancelled.

    At this point in time, I do not see how project Artemis can put the first woman and the next man on the Moon by the end of 2024. I have yet to see a practical plan with a timeline and proposed hardware. SLS is looking useless for this deadline, and commercial space does not seem to have in place, yet, what it will take. It may be possible to kluge together a Manned Dragon and one of Blue Origin’s proposed lunar landers, but I have doubts that Starship will be ready for a Moon landing and return trip in time. ULA seems to have shelved XEUS, at least for now, so they most likely will not have a manned version ready by the end of 2024.

    On the other hand, maybe Congress is eager enough for heavy lift capability that they will be willing to present fixed price no-interference contracts to Blue Origin, SpaceX, and ULA to have hardware ready in time.

    Or maybe (the gripping hand) they are so Trump-a-phobic (Never Trumpers) that they would rather defund SLS than let Trump get even a small win. Now there’s that can-do spirit. What a pro-USA position. That’s some serious sarcasm, which I hope came through loud and clear.

  • pzatchok

    Cash for research is mainly intended for the stuff like the fuel tanks.
    NASA should no longer pay for unproven, untested and operational techniques like the friction stir welding that was wanted for this job.
    TIG welding could have done the same thing and has been used for years in industry.

    If all these tanks needed to do was hold RP1 or basically diesel fuel then they could have even been spun out of carbon fiber.
    If they needed to hold LOX then the old way could have been used.

    Clearly several billion dollars spent on new style tanks was money spent on research into making those tanks.

    A bet well over half the money spent on this ‘ship’ has been money spent on forcing new unproven tech into production. All because NASA is trying to employ as many engineers as possible and the companies involved are looking for ways to make bank on EVERY aspect of this project.
    They make money on building new buildings. Just own the construction company.
    They make money on perfecting the new tech. The longer it takes to perfect the longer the cash roles in.
    They make money on the finished product. Anyone every hear of a 500 dollar hammer or a 2500 dollar coffee maker for a B-52.( a large thermos could have done the job.)

  • Edward

    pzatchok,
    You wrote: “NASA should no longer pay for unproven, untested and operational techniques like the friction stir welding that was wanted for this job.

    You think that NASA should not be innovative and advance the state of the art (technology)? That sounds much like Congress, which has no idea what a technological marvel it has on its hands. What a waste of talent, skills, and knowledge. Congress squandered the abilities of NASA over the past half century.

    TIG welding could have done the same thing and has been used for years in industry.

    The same thing except for the strength problem, but no matter that the pieces have to be 1/3 again thicker (thus heavier) in order to provide the same strength. It isn’t as though weight is a priority on rockets.

    If all these tanks needed to do was hold RP1 or basically diesel fuel then they could have even been spun out of carbon fiber.

    When NASA tried carbon fiber for a tank on the X-33, it led to disaster and the end of the project. I thought you wanted proven and tested techniques.

    A bet well over half the money spent on this ‘ship’ has been money spent on forcing new unproven tech into production. All because NASA is trying to employ as many engineers as possible and the companies involved are looking for ways to make bank on EVERY aspect of this project.

    You’re on.

    I win. Management, bean counters, inspection, and overhead take the lead. The incorrectly-built manufacturing building was not due to new technology or techniques; it was due to poor management (didn’t meet requirements). I’m not sure why they dropped a LOX tank dome, but that craning operation was not new tech, either.

    They make money on building new buildings. Just own the construction company.

    I may be misunderstanding this sentence, but it sounds as though you want government to get into running businesses and competing with private commercial operations.

    They make money on perfecting the new tech. The longer it takes to perfect the longer the cash roles in.

    As I noted in another thread, this has been the tradition of the military-industrial complex since the end of WWII. The same military companies were the ones that were best for NASA to hire, and Congress and NASA allowed this tradition to continue with many post-Apollo projects. Robert notes this same problem in one of his recent posts:
    https://behindtheblack.com/behind-the-black/points-of-information/northrop-grumman-to-build-gateway-habitation-module/
    This is what NASA does routinely, for all its projects. It lies about the initial cost, low balling it, so as to get the politicians to buy in. The result for the past two decades however is that NASA fails to build much of anything, while wasting gobs of taxpayer dollars on non-productive jobs here on Earth.

    The low-balled bids were a problem with defense spending when I first got into the space industry, way-back-when.

    One of the problems, however, is that new defense projects and new space projects tend to want the latest technology, often tech that has been through the proof-of-concept wringer but has not yet been fully developed. This often makes accurate bids difficult. Why insist on the latest tech? Because if you don’t advance the technology, then 1) it becomes obsolete very quickly, and 2) what is the point of a new item if it is just the same as the old one?

    The real problem is that there is no sense of urgency, so no one works hard to develop anything quickly. With Apollo, there was a sense of urgency. With Artemis, there is such a sense of urgency that NASA just let out a sole-source contract.

    This is rare.

    They make money on the finished product. Anyone every hear of a 500 dollar hammer or a 2500 dollar coffee maker for a B-52.( a large thermos could have done the job.)

    Everyone assumes that the hammer was one that you could have gotten at the hardware store and that there was nothing special about it. Although I haven’t heard of a $2,500 coffee maker for a B-52, I’ll assume it is true. A Thermos (R) has a hard time brewing a fresh pot of coffee on a day-long national security flight. B-52s used to be stationed in the air for several crew shifts in order to be war-ready at any moment and to keep them out of harm’s way in case of a surprise ICBM attack.

    We could just buy one of the heavy coffee makers down at the specialty kitchen store, or we could be concerned with weight and keeping the hot coffee contained and off the crew during combat operations.

  • pzatchok

    Lets go with the coffee problem.

    Lets assume that the crew needed 10 gallons of coffee over a 24 hour flight.

    With the 2500 dollar coffee pot you needed 10 gallons of fresh water plus the coffee and the pot.
    Or you could have 10 one gallon thermoses.

    Both need secured during “combat” operations. So that point is moot.
    There might not even be any difference in weight between the two systems.

    The only difference is ‘fresh’ coffee. Well they are not getting fresh food either.

    So why the huge cost difference? What is the reason for them needing fresh coffee when for years a thermos worked just fine?

    My grandfather flew those day long missions in WW2. A thermos was fine for him he said. He dang near chocked on his cigar when he heard about the cost of that coffee pot in the 70’s.

    As for the SLS saving weight.
    Wasn’t it enough to save the weight of the whole shuttle craft itself? Getting rid of that alone would have doubled if not tripled the cargo for the SLS without some fancy new fuel tank material.

    Old tech, as in shuttle era, not only saves cash but also saves time.

    If Space X flies its next rocket before SLS flies then NASA might as well just pack it in and accept they just can not build rockets anymore.

  • Edward

    pzatchok wrote: “The only difference is ‘fresh’ coffee. Well they are not getting fresh food either.

    Said like someone who does not care whether the coffee is palatable. How kind you are to our men in uniform. Coffee goes stale much faster than most foods.

    As for the SLS saving weight.

    If you are going to meet Congress’s design requirements, then you can’t be careless with your weight budget. You have to be careful with airplanes, too. A hundred pounds here, a hundred pounds there, pretty soon you can’t even get off the ground.

    If Space X flies its next rocket before SLS flies then NASA might as well just pack it in and accept they just can not build rockets anymore.

    What? Just because Congress squanders much of their talent, skill set, and knowledge, NASA shouldn’t be allowed to do what it does best: exploration?

    I think that we should start using commercial launchers to get into space, and there are now some companies that are able to do it, and soon some will be able to launch people, too. It is too bad that the Space Shuttle was designed to put satellites into orbit, because that probably delayed the commercialization of the space launch industry by two decades. In the early 1980s, Robert Truax (rocket engineer extraordinaire) wanted to start his own rocket company, but because the shuttle was going to do that job, Truax could find no funding.

    Two decades later, Bezos, Kistler, and Musk got into building launchers. Kistler ran out of money before succeeding, Bezos has so much money that he is in no hurry, and Musk had just enough money that he could succeed only if he didn’t fail too many times in the early years of his company. Kistler came close to doing it right; Bezos is emulating NASA; Musk is doing it just right. Too little money, too much money, just the right amount of money. How is that for a Goldilocks story?

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