NASA considering replacing SLS with commercial rockets for first Orion test mission


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Capitalism in space: Faced with endless delays that will likely prevent the first scheduled launch of SLS in June 2020, NASA is now considering using commercially purchased rockets to send the Orion capsule and European service module on that same mission.

NASA now believes the Space Launch System will not be ready for the EM-1 test flight by June 2020, the program’s most recent target launch date. Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator, said Wednesday the space agency is weighing alternatives to keep the Orion spacecraft on track for a lunar mission in 2020 to test the capsule’s European-built power and propulsion module, and assess the performance of the crew capsule’s heat shield during blistering re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere from the moon.

“Some of those options would include launching the Orion crew capsule and the European service module on a commercial rocket,” Bridenstine said in a hearing with the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Bridenstine said it is important for NASA to stick to its commitment to launch EM-1 by June 2020, and his announcement Wednesday marked the first time a NASA leader has publicly discussed launching the Orion spacecraft’s first lunar mission on a commercial rocket, and not the more expensive government-run Space Launch System. “Certainly, there are opportunities to utilize commercial capabilities to put the Orion crew capsule and the European service module in orbit around the moon by June of 2020, which was our originally-stated objective, and I’ve tasked the agency to look into how we might accomplish that objective,” Bridenstine said.

Because Orion and its service module are so heavy they cannot be launched by a single Falcon Heavy rocket. However, that rocket could easily put everything in orbit in two launches, where the two parts could dock together.

There is still a problem with this plan, according to Bridenstine:

“I want to be clear. We do not have, right now, an ability to dock the Orion crew capsule with anything in orbit. So between now and June of 2020, we would have to make that a reality.”

I find this fact incredible. NASA built Orion without the capability to maneuver and dock with other spacecraft? If this is true, it shows once again the outright incompetence of anything our federal government does, including NASA.

Regardless, Bridenstine’s announcement is very good news. If Orion is launched on that 2020 first test mission using commercial rockets, it will demonstrate clearly the uselessness of the expensive and very delayed SLS. It will also make it politically easier to consider shutting it down, before it eats up more funds.

More important, this statement by Bridenstine indicates that there are many people in the Trump administration that have come to this same conclusion. This statement also means that they are beginning to make the political moves necessary to make the cancellation of SLS possible.

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14 comments

  • Jason Hillyer

    Ugh. I’d be contempt to see SLS cancelled, but they sure spent a lot of money and produced nothing, but I guess that’s an oxymoron for government, in general.

  • Orion has docking capability, using its nose sorta like Apollo.

    I think what Bridenstine is proposing: you have one launch that puts the Orion+service module stack into orbit. Then, a second launch that puts some yet-to-be-designed-and-built upper stage into orbit. Now, dock the Orion with this upper stage, and off you go to the Moon.

    But this mythical upper stage doesn’t exist. Orion can dock, but there’s no upper stage for it to dock with. I think that’s what Bridenstine is trying to say.

  • The “mythical upper stage” does exist. It’s called the Delta IV Upper Stage (DIVUS). The one that’s already supposed to support EM-1 atop SLS is procured and can just as easily ride on a Delta IV Heavy as its upper stage. The problem Bridenstine is trying to articulate is, there’s no software in existence to fly an automated rendezvous and docking for Orion (which was always going to be manually piloted, like Apollo). Right now, the only tested and verified R&D software is for SpaceX Dragon 2. The R&D software for Boeing Starliner is probably more easily adaptable for Orion, but won’t be tested until OFT gets off the ground. That adaptation is probably what he’s talking about.

    Frankly, I don’t see Orion on a Falcon Heavy or a SpaceX transtage being an option. There’s just too much anti-SpaceX sentiment in OldSpace and elements of Deep State for that to happen (as well as the fact there’s too much design work down that path). The only way this is going to happen is if NASA is allowed to capture two Delta IV Heavies from USAF/NRO, and then get the necessary work done on payload adapters, IDA modification, and software changes. A tall order for under a year. It would probably be less work to beef up a Dragon 2, but that’s not going to happen either. My suspicion is, political (Senate, Deep State and OldSpace) opposition is at least partly behind the cancellation of the commercial lunar flyby tourist flight, Red Dragon, and Dragon propulsive landing, all of which show up NASA. By pushing Dear Moon, as well as lunar and Mars landings, off to Starship, it gives NASA more time to get SLS/Orion/LOPG off the ground. Time will tell.

  • pzatchok

    The fact that NASA NEVER envisioned a situation were they would need to autonomously dick the Orion with anything tells you they they never thought anything through.

    What if they needed it as an emergency cargo capsule for the ISS?
    What if it was to be used as an emergency rescue capsule for the ISS? You can not guarantee a pilot would be available. He could be dead.
    Requiring a pilot to be on board is a waste of a seat. Any kid who can play video games and with a month of intensive practice should be able to dock and undock this thing. Seriously, modern passenger jumbo jets are fully automated and can dang near fly themselves from take off to landing.
    Why does it not at least have the same system as SpaceX for using the arm as a docking option?

    And exactly how did they expect Orion to be used for long distance missions? It has to dock with larger craft otherwise its going to be a madhouse inside that capsule in a few weeks.

    So the Orion can fly on what we have now but to make it useful it needs to have its life support module attached and that makes it to heavy for anything we have now?
    Make a smaller lighter support module just for LEO flights. This should have been planned for and built long before now.

    Idiots. NASA is just a jobs program.

  • pzatchok

    Opps sorry.

    Dock not d*ck.

  • Richard M

    “Because Orion and its service module are so heavy they cannot be launched by a single Falcon Heavy rocket. However, that rocket could easily put everything in orbit in two launches, where the two parts could dock together.”

    I think at one point Bridenstine misspoke, and this passage reflects it. The problem is not that Falcon Heavy (or Delta IV Heavy) cannot lift the Orion command and service modules; the problem is that neither can get them all the way to the Moon. They can, however, deliver the whole CSM (gross mass 25,848 kg) to low earth orbit. A second launch would be needed to send up an earth departure stage, presumably the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (based closely on the Delta IV Upper stage William Barton discusses above) which, after docking with the Orion in LEO, would be used for the Trans-Lunar Injection burn. It might be possible to do this with a Centaur upper stage, or perhaps even a Falcon 9 upper stage. I assume that NASA is studying all possibilities.

    “NASA built Orion without the capability to maneuver and dock with other spacecraft?”

    Actually, Orion *does* have an organic docking capability – it will need it, after all, to dock with the Gateway when the time comes! The problem is that NASA did not intend to actually use it on EM-1 or EM-2. So it was not felt necessary to have the software written and installed for EM-1. Well: if they do this new profile, they will have to get it done now.

    I think SpaceX could easily put together the software in 19 months – software is in their wheelhouse, no launcher or agency in the world is nearly as good as they are at that. But NASA has had nothing but problems in its software development for SLS and Orion: heavy personnel turnover, the works. GAO and the NASA IG have been extremely critical of this aspect of the program. To do this, they would have to get their act together, and fast.

  • Richard M

    Hello William,

    “The problem Bridenstine is trying to articulate is, there’s no software in existence to fly an automated rendezvous and docking for Orion (which was always going to be manually piloted, like Apollo). Right now, the only tested and verified R&D software is for SpaceX Dragon 2.”

    You’re right, the software for this specific rendezvous and docking does not exist yet. But even though Orion is to be crewed, there *is* supposed to be automated docking software for the Orion. My understanding is that, as with Dragon and Starliner, manual docking is a backup option.

    The problem is, Orion was not supposed to dock with anything until EM-3, which is at least five years away (probably more!). So no one was in any rush to get the docking capability completed before then. It was not supposed to be used or tested on EM-1.

    “There’s just too much anti-SpaceX sentiment in OldSpace and elements of Deep State for that to happen.”

    Maybe, maybe not. According to Eric Berger, SpaceX has already send a proposal for using its launchers on this. Personally, I think SpaceX could be part of the profile, but not as the exclusive launcher. If you split the payloads up between ULA (Delta IV Heavy) and SpaceX (Falcon Heavy), that might just fly politically. But giving it all to SpaceX would certainly be a tough sell politically.

    Either way, as you observe, you still gotta claw away at least one D4H from the National Reconnaissance Office, which has two of its birds going up on D4H’s between now and next summer. And the NRO has serious clout. How happy will they be to delay one or two of their big birds for at least two years? How time sensitive are they?

  • jburn

    SLS is an interesting (and expensive) example of technological advancements overtaking and making obsolete an already existing project. This occurs with some frequency in the private sector. SLS was so slow and costly in coming to market, a competitor simply outpaced it with better technology and superior results.

  • Richard M

    jburn,

    Not hard to outpace it, alas, when it’s mostly based on forty year old technology to begin with!

  • Col Beausabre

    Richard M – Wasn’t “forty year old technology” supposed to speed the process ? That everything was already developed and all you had to do was blow the dust off the blueprints (I’m dating myself – for you young’uns, that was a primitive technology that preceded CAD. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blueprint) and start cranking the stuff out ? Weren’t parts of it supposed to be from the Shuttle ?

  • Edward

    From the article: “NASA is just beginning to study the possibility of using commercial rockets for EM-1. … NASA is just beginning to study the possibility of using commercial rockets for EM-1.

    I agree with several comments here that due to the nature of the current Exploration Mission-1 plan, there is either hardware, software, methods, training for docking in space, or (most likely) a combination thereof that has not yet been implemented.

    Bridenstine’s comment, “We do not have, right now, an ability to dock the Orion crew capsule with anything in orbit,” makes it clear that right now they don’t have the ability, but this does not mean that they did not plan for or cannot get this ability ready sooner than planned. This is part of what they must study in order to do more than just consider the possibility of using commercial rockets. There are plenty of other considerations, too, such as the payload adapters that William Barton mentioned, above. Whatever upper stage is used, they can choose one that already has software and experience sending things out of Earth orbit, so software changes to that rocket should be achievable in the time frame.

    I do not yet see this as an impossible challenge for NASA, but instead I am hopeful that NASA is redeveloping a can-do attitude, as it had in the 1960s. NASA’s manned space program used to be able to do the seemingly impossible in a short amount of time, but now they are being shown up by two (or four) companies that are showing that it need not take a long time to develop space hardware, software, and methods and that it can be done for relatively small amounts of money.

    Maybe one of these years we will be able to give NASA a challenge and they will be able to meet it, but right now their space astronomy and manned space programs are letting us down. “Every moment counts because … NASA has a history of not meeting launch dates, and I’m trying to change that,” [Bridenstine] said.

    Col Beausabre asked: “Wasn’t ‘forty year old technology’ supposed to speed the process ?

    Yes. Existing technology was supposed to make it fast and inexpensive. Instead, we ended up with something that is even more expensive and flies even less often than the disappointing Space Shuttle.

    From the article Bridenstine said, “We have amazing capability that exists right now that we can use off-the-shelf in order to accomplish this objective,” It didn’t work so well for SLS. Maybe NASA is more motivated to make it work better for Orion.

    NASA certainly has had a problem at least since 2010, when Congress mandated (and designed) SLS, but that problem probably goes all the way back to when Nixon forsook the Space Shuttle and the manned space program. With luck, NASA can cure that problem and become the impressive technology leader that it once was. Using ancient technology is hardly a technology leadership indicator but shows that NASA has neglected technological innovation. Right now, Bigelow, Blue Origin, Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX are vying for technology leadership, with Axiom, Ixion, and ULA planning future technology innovations that can put them in the running, too.

  • Richard M

    Col B:

    “Richard M – Wasn’t “forty year old technology” supposed to speed the process ?”

    I think this is where we start to come up with sarcastic answers. :)

  • Col Beausabre

    Allow me to point out that, right now, the world gets to the ISS on forty or fifty year old technology with some of the engines actually dating to the Seventies (and they’re also used on ULA’s Atlas). There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel, if established ways of doing things can do the job. The question appears to be whether you apply that technology intelligently. I worked for IBM after I retired from the Army and got to talk with some old heads who were young sprouts at Federal Systems Division way back when. I amazed to learn how long magnetic core memory was specified in on-board computers by NASA. Their point was that we had gotten to the Moon with MCM so it was proven technology and – critically – every time you changed something, you increased the chance of failure because you didn’t know if it was as reliable as the old item.

    Space Shuttle Computers

    The IBM AP-101 computers originally had about 424 kilobytes of magnetic core memory each. The CPU could process about 400,000 instructions per second. They have no hard disk drive, and load software from magnetic tape cartridges.

    In 1990, the original computers were replaced with an upgraded model AP-101S, which has about 2.5 times the memory capacity (about 1 megabyte) and three times the processor speed (about 1.2 million instructions per second). The memory was changed from magnetic core to semiconductor with battery backup.

    https://www.bing.com/images/search?view=detailV2&id=01F07344A07FC330D286523AB60A905E3CE24573&thid=OIP.eO_RVVaWXQoYaq2wjp2tXAHaFj&mediaurl=http%3A%2F%2Fslideplayer.com%2F10013829%2F32%2Fimages%2F6%2FCore%2BMemory%2BCore%2Bmemory%2Bwas%2Bfirst%2Blarge%2Bscale%2Breliable%2Bmain%2Bmemory.jpg&exph=720&expw=960&q=space+shuttle+magnetic+core+memory&selectedindex=8&ajaxhist=0&vt=0&eim=1,2,6

  • Edward

    Col Beausabre wrote: “There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel, if established ways of doing things can do the job. … I amazed to learn how long magnetic core memory was specified in on-board computers by NASA. Their point was that we had gotten to the Moon with MCM so it was proven technology and – critically – every time you changed something, you increased the chance of failure because you didn’t know if it was as reliable as the old item.

    Generally, engineers do not like change for just that reason. You have to understand the old system in order to make changes to it, otherwise you have a high risk of introducing problems or failure. To change out the old system with a new system also can introduce problems; the latest Boeing 737 seems to be suffering from this kind of problem. Airplanes using internal combustion engines still use magnetos, because they are known to be reliable. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

    On the other hand, something that is obsolete or is less economical than a new innovation can be considered as broken. Our expendable booster rockets (fifty-year-old technology) make getting to space too expensive for a lot of people, companies, universities, and countries. This is why Blue Origin and SpaceX developed reusable booster rockets. Getting to space is becoming more economical, and we are starting to see satellites being launched that would not have been built in the good old days of the old reliable but expensive expendable rockets. Bulgariasat 1 is a good example.

    SpaceX’s latest Commercial Resupply contract, using reusable booster rockets and reusable cargo spacecraft, is priced less than the latest Orbital Sciences (now Northrop-Grumman) contract using expendable booster rockets and cargo expendable spacecraft. The lower price tag using the modern technology is an improvement over the older technology.

    NASA moved away from magnetic core memory in order to save weight — they made their computers more economical for space use. The tradeoff was in reduced reliability of any given memory location, due to radiation, so they developed methods of radiation hardening the memory and of working around bad memory locations. Similarly, NASA used to record satellite data on magnetic tape and play the tape back when transmitting the data to the Earth. They have replaced tapes with radiation hardened memory.

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