NASA pushes upgrades to interim and final SLS upper stages


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Because of increased funding to SLS from Congress, NASA is now pushing Boeing to do upgrades to the interim SLS upper stage as well as its final full power upper stage, dubbed the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) and originally planned for most SLS missions.

Those changes were prompted by the decision NASA made earlier this year to delay the introduction of the EUS. That stage was originally planned to enter use with the second SLS mission, Exploration Mission (EM) 2. Instead, the first flight of what’s known as the Block 1B configuration of SLS has been delayed to the fourth SLS launch, likely no earlier than 2024.

“That has put a slow down on the Exploration Upper Stage work,” said (John Shannon, vice president and program manager for the Space Launch System at Boeing). “We were rapidly approaching the critical design review.”

NASA has asked Boeing to spend some time to try and “optimize” the EUS with the goal of increasing the amount of additional payload it can carry. Such co-manifested payloads, such as modules for NASA’s proposed lunar Gateway, would be carried on the SLS underneath the Orion spacecraft. (emphasis mine)

Shannon also made what might be the biggest understatement I have ever heard when asked about SLS’s endless delays, noting that “We underestimated that somewhat,” referring to the time it has taken to build the rocket.

NASA got Congress to give them extra money to allow more flights of the interim stage, since putting humans on EUS on its first flight was absurdly risky. This way they could also avoid further delays on that first SLS/Orion manned mission, now set for 2023, almost twenty years since it was first proposed. By pushing for more upgrades, they can also justify again stretching the program out longer, thus stretching out the pork without actually flying anything.

The contrast with SpaceX’s development of Falcon Heavy with NASA’s development of SLS continues to be striking. The former was conceived, built, and launched in less than ten years, for a cost of half a billion. The latter remains unflown and unready to fly after fourteen years of development, and likely will not fly for another six years plus. And its development cost will likely top $50 billion by that time.

If I was a customer looking to buy a product, I would laugh NASA out of the room if it tried to sell me its SLS rocket. Unfortunately, the critters in Congress aren’t that smart, and continue to pour money into this dead end project, money that could be much more effectively spent buying rockets from the private sector.

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5 comments

  • brightdark

    I’ve always thought that congress would be quite happy if SLS was built, taken to KSC, moved to the launch pad, fueled, defueled, returned to the VAB, disassembled, and have the crawler run over the pieces. Then repeat 1-2 times a year. Who cares if it actually launches, just that the money is given to the correct people.

  • Wodun

    NASA isn’t a business and doesn’t operate like one. It is impossible for it to operate like one. The mission if NASA isn’t to make money or a profit.

    This distorts the affect of costs on decision making.

    But what if NASA was free of government interference and free to do whatever they want with taxpayer money? Even though many space cadets advocate this, it is intrinsicly un-American.

    At the heart if this desire is the misguided notion that NASA employees are somehow more moral or ethical than the rest of humanity and that through their devine benevolance would wisely spend taxpayer money unaccountably.

    Putting unaccountable technocrats in charge would be a disasterous mistake and like other marxist schemes would invite more corruption from government and industry who understand just how ideal this set up is for increasing their wealth and power.

    NASA is being tasked to do “things”. Many of these things dont have alternative ways of doing them. They/we cant make judgements on alternatives until they exist. To NASA’s credit, they are working on alternatives. They have been directed to work on alternatives. These alternatives are quickly becomming real enough to impact decision making.

    It is only as the private sector becomes more capable that NASA does as well. The answer to bad decision making at NASA isn’t dictatorial control by career civil servants, its a vibrant private sector that utilizes signal input to optimize their operations that NASA can never have.

    This isn’t something that could have been done in the past. Industry wasn’t capable enough. It is only through innovation and discovery across all industries over the last half century that has allowed cross pollination into the space industry that brings us to the cusp of a major transition in who controls what is done in space.

    Rather than a small group of government technocrats dictating what happens, we will soon see whomever that has the desire and the means to pursue ideas control what happens. It the democratization of space.

    When people want NASA to do whatever they want, what they really want is the democratization of space. They just dont frame it that way because they are stuck in the old way of thinking.

    Don’t fear SLS/Orion. They are the last efforts of the old way of doing space. They will eventually fall under their own weight. Putting up with them a little longer is worth it because what replaces this mode of activity will empower all if humanity. Several billion a year is a small price to pay to make SLS/Orion to go away.

  • pzatchok

    I have always thought of NASA as the public face of the military research arm.
    At least until DARPA got started.

    Since we do not have a military reason for the SLS/Orion then there is no reason to push it through in any reasonable period of time.

    If the military wanted a space station or Moon base this thing would have been pushed through 10 years ago. At a MUCH smaller cost per flight.

  • Richard Malcolm

    Scott Manley relays a report which may suggest there’s a more ominous story behind this development: Contractors have been ordered by NASA to immediately stop all work on the EUS – for perhaps as long as a year.

    https://twitter.com/DJSnM/status/1048001681600831488

    Apparently Eric Berger has heard the same thing, and is working to nail down a story he may publish sometime this week.

  • Edward

    Wodun,

    Interesting essay. NASA performs what they call a Decadal Survey in order to determine and prioritize what the scientists (technocrats) would like to do in the coming several years. Congress generally goes along with these projects but limits the funding, which is why prioritization is so important. Without Congress holding the purse strings, I suspect that far too much money would be spent and that there would be far more troublesome projects, such as JWST.

    Scientists do, however, like to get their projects completed so that they can write papers and gain respect in the science community. Working a whole career and only having “one paper” to show for it is undesirable (Gravity Probe-B pretty much did that, but with many inventions, papers, and PhDs generated during development).

    It isn’t so much that industry was not capable enough to do what is happening today, it is that investors were not willing to go up against the government monopoly on space, and the companies that were doing the work for NASA — the ones that demonstrated that they were capable enough — were not willing to compete with their customer.

    Even during the early Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contracts, investors had thought that it was just another government pork program and would not live up to its promise. It was not until late 2008, when NASA actually contracted for real services, that investors realized that government might be willing to give up some of its monopolies in space.

    Finding investment money, back then, was nearly impossible. That is why it is hundred-millionaires and billionaires who are funding so much of the celebrated (famous) NewSpace efforts. These days, now that government is giving up its monopoly on manned launches, unmanned launches, low Earth orbiting space stations, and (recently) some science gathering — and now that many satellites are getting smaller and far more affordable — investors are willing to risk millions in order to try to reap the expected rewards of the expanded commercial space.

    It isn’t that Orion-SLS is feared, it is that it is a waste of money and resources. If it had a mission to perform (e.g. Constellation’s — its predecessor — mission to go to the Moon), that would be a different story (including the small possibility that it wouldn’t be a waste), but the reality is that it exists just to exist. So far, (F)LOP-Gateway seems to have the same reason for existence.

    When we let government be in charge, all we got was what government wanted. Now that We the People are beginning to take charge, I expect that We the People will finally get what we want.

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