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NASA head says that Falcon Heavy remains a future option for Orion

At an agency meeting for employees NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine reiterated that NASA is still seriously considering the use of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy for future Orion lunar missions instead of SLS.

Bridenstine then laid out one scenario that has huge implications, not for a 2020 launch, but one later on. Until now, it was thought that only NASA’s Space Launch System could directly inject the Orion spacecraft into a lunar orbit, which made it the preferred option for getting astronauts to the Moon for any potential landing by 2024. However, Bridenstine said there was another option: a Falcon Heavy rocket with an Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage built by United Launch Alliance. “Talk about strange bedfellows,” he mused about the two rocket rivals.

This plan has the ability to put humans on the Moon by 2024, Bridenstine said. He then emphasized—twice—that NASA’s chief of human spaceflight, William Gerstenmaier, has yet to bless this approach due to a number of technical details. His reservations include the challenge of integrating the Falcon Heavy rocket in a horizontal position and then loading Orion with fuel in a vertical configuration on the launchpad. The Falcon Heavy would also require a larger payload fairing than it normally flies with. This would place uncertain stress on the rocket’s side-mounted boosters.

All the problems outlined in the second paragraph are the result of bad past management at NASA. Just as you design your rocket based the rocket engines you have — in order to save time and money — you design your capsule and manned vehicles based on the rockets that are available. NASA did not do this. It built Orion in a fantasy la-la land, without addressing the real world rocket options available. Now it has to either reconfigure, or get SpaceX to rethink the Falcon Heavy. Neither option will be cheap.

Regardless, Bridenstine’s statement is another shot across the bow to the porkmeisters in Congress. SLS is on shaky financial ground. It cannot compete in price with the commercial options. More significantly, it cannot come close to matching the launch rates of the private rockets. In the time NASA could put together one SLS launch, SpaceX could likely fly five to ten Falcon Heavies, and still do it for less money overall.

SLS is now tasked with a December 2020 deadline for launching that first unmanned test flight. Should it fail to meet that date, the political battle lines are now being laid for replacing it.


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  • Brad

    I just watched the video of that NASA ‘town hall’. Very very interesting stuff.

    Aside from the Falcon Heavy + ICPS bombshell, I was astonished to hear Bridenstine say he favored a smaller lunar lander with two crew! So much for Altair style gigantism…

  • mkent

    I think you already know this, but Mike Griffin intentionally dictated the size of Orion to be too big for a Delta IV Heavy, then the largest launch vehicle available. He wanted Orion to *require* Ares I.

    I’d love to see what a Falcon Heavy / ICPS (or even better, a Centaur V) could do. If, as I suspect, that ULA and SpaceX split the NSSL LSA contract, maybe we’ll find out.

  • Orion314

    Lest we forget a minor detail , NASA has no lunar man-rated Spacesuit available, nor will they by 2024. They’ve been really busy helping hollyweird make cool looking spacesuits for the movies, [keep in mind movie spacesuits don’t actually work] This, along with plenty of affirmative action “workers’ doing NASA tours of all the historic space suits from the old days. Since they never had any intention of returning to the moon, why bother with making a moonsuit?? That would be a really hard job.
    Why work if you get paid not too? That is the new american dream.

  • Edward

    Thanks for the word that the town hall is available. (1 hour)

    mkent wrote: “I think you already know this, but Mike Griffin intentionally dictated the size of Orion to be too big for a Delta IV Heavy, then the largest launch vehicle available. He wanted Orion to *require* Ares I.

    When the Constellation program was cancelled (Orion-Ares), Congress insisted upon a new rocket to do the same job for the Orion spacecraft. The design for SLS was specified by Congress’s resident rocket scientists [Sarcasm alert].

    However, new rockets have since been proposed and developed, but NASA did not bother to adapt Orion to any of them. This is probably because 1) NASA is thinking in terms of single-launch missions (so much for thinking out-of-the-box), and 2) only Super Heavy (SpaceX’s name for BFR’s first stage) is comparable to SLS block 1, both of which can take 95 Tonnes to low Earth orbit. Super Heavy may even be available about the time that SLS becomes available. As with SLS, Super Heavy is also integrated in the vertical position.

    Although other rockets could perform with two launches a similar task as SLS — one launch would take an upper stage to LEO in order to take Orion beyond LEO — NASA did not consider any of them as an alternative to the expensive, impractical SLS. On the other hand, the Constellation program was designed as a two-launch system. Ares I would put Orion and its Service Module in orbit; Ares V would put a fueled upper stage (Earth Departure Stage) in orbit; and Orion would dock with that stage and rocket out of orbit to the Moon. NASA did not have to leave the box to think of doing a similar mission with our new rockets.

    When satellites are designed, they tend to be designed to launch on any of several rockets, just in case the primary rocket becomes unavailable. NASA, however, treated Orion as though it were another Apollo program, requiring a single family of rockets for launch, but a family with an even lower launch cadence than Apollo. This inflexibility for the Orion spacecraft has always been a serious drawback to the program. Depending upon SLS has resulted in slowing Orion’s development and rollout while SLS suffered delay after delay.

    NASA failed to adapt to the situation that SLS was running late, is expensive, and cannot launch often enough to be much use. This is why they are now talking about how they do not have capabilities and how costly, time consuming, and risky (risk in terms of time and budget, not human life risk) it is to change from SLS. SLS is likely to be completely obsolete by the time it launches, and is already seen as replaceable by other means of getting to space and to the Moon.

    I am encouraged that NASA’s major leaders, Bridenstine and Pence, are on board with finally adapting NASA to the realities of what is possible. They seem eager to make good things happen in space, not just talk about how they will eventually happen sometime in the far distant future, and this emphasis on real progress should elate NASA’s overall workforce. As Bridenstine said in the video (not in the article), “It’s going to be something all of us can share with our children, and our grandchildren, and our great grandchildren.” Few of NASA’s workforce were around in the days that NASA was making great things happen, so this is their chance. From the article:

    And he encouraged the NASA workforce to embrace the possibility of change that would accelerate what has, until now, been a rather slow pace in human spaceflight. “This is a big charge, and it comes straight from the top,” Bridenstine said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

  • Dick Eagleson

    Good pep rally.

    But Mr. B. shouldn’t be joshing with Gerstenmaier, he should be firing him. Gerst has run HEOMD since the early Constellation days so Constellation (now deceased), SLS and Orion are all his doing and he’s done a terrible job.

    It sounds as though the new Moon-Mars Mission Directorate will be taking over SLS and Orion leaving just ISS in HEOMD. Gerst should be kept away, by armed force if necessary, from anything having to do with MMMD. Who Mr. B. picks to run this new outfit will say a lot about how serious this new effort really is.

  • Edward

    Dick Eagleson,
    I was amazed at how many times Bridenstine said that Gerstenmaier hadn’t blessed his ideas for manned space. If Gerstenmaier is out of the loop (by his own choice?), could these announcements of ideas without his blessing be a sign that Gerstenmaier is not as important to Bridenstine as he was to the previous administrator, Bolden? (Lightfoot was an interim/acting administrator, who spent a year not making any changes but keeping NASA on the previous path.)

    It seems to me that after a year as administrator, Bridenstine is familiar enough with the workings of NASA and confident enough in its people that he is willing to make bold moves that push NASA toward the great organization that it once was. Making NASA Great Again (MaNGA)?

  • Orion314

    Fixing NASA is as likely as fixing the FBI , the DOJ, the IRS, and on-and-on. They all have the same life essence:
    with a name like Gerstenmaier, I bet he remembers this quote

    “You only have to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.”
    der fuhrer

  • Orion314: “with a name like Gerstenmaier”…

    As Ronald Reagan once said, “There you go again.”

    I think I am often filled with more despair at the uncivilized behavior on the right then by the left. It seems many of you want to help confirm the left’s claim that the right is filled with racists and bigots.

    You know nothing about Gerstenmaier. Implying that Gerstenmaier has Nazi ties, merely because he has a German name, is disgraceful. It is the act of a bigot and you should be ashamed.

    Gestenmaier has done a lot of good work, back in the 1990s and early 2000s. It was this work that got him this job. Since 2011 however he has become a servant of the NASA bureaucracy, aimed at keeping SLS and Orion alive. For these facts he deserves strong criticism. But only that.

  • Orion314

    Operation Paperclip comes to mind.

  • Tom D Perkins

    ” Orion314
    April 4, 2019 at 10:04 pm

    Operation Paperclip comes to mind. ”

    He’s not that old, and having soiled yourself here once, you do it again?

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