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NASA reassessing SLS first launch date

Surprise, surprise! NASA is now reassessing the planned launch date of the first unmanned launch of its Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, suggesting the 2020 date, already three years behind schedule, will be further delayed.

The article at the link illustrates in several ways the nature and politics of this boondoggle. First, SLS work was allowed to continue during the government shutdown, while NASA froze work on the commercial manned capsules of SpaceX and Boeing. This despite the fact that the commercial manned capsules are probably far more essential. Without them we either have to continue to depend on the the increasingly unreliable Russian Soyuz rocket and capsule, or lose all access to our own space station in orbit. Delays in SLS however will have little impact on the future of the nation, since it is unlikely it will do anything for years to come.

The contrast here illustrates the preferences of NASA’s political management. They see the commercial companies and their spacecraft as a threat to NASA and its international buddies, and wish to slow it down if they can. At the same time, they are doing whatever they can to help SLS.

Second, this quote shows one of the reasons NASA favors SLS:

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, represents MSFC, in Huntsville. He introduced [Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) Director Jody Singer] by noting that as committee chairman he has “more than a passing interest” in what NASA does and a “parochial” interest as well. He told Singer to “keep doing what you’re doing” and “we’ll keep funding you.”

Singer described SLS as “America’s rocket” because more than 1,100 companies in 44 states are involved in building it, supporting more 32,000 jobs and producing $6 billion in economic benefit.

Shelby’s “parochial interest” is to keep this jobs program going. A vast majority of those companies and jobs are in his state, so he wants to fund it, even if it never launches. And he has been using his political clout for years to keep those funds flowing. with that first launch date continuing to slip forever into the future..

In a common sense world, with the cheap new rockets being developed by the private sector that can do what SLS is supposed to do but for much less, and far sooner, NASA and the federal government would shut this boondoggle down in a minute. Unfortunately, we do not appear to be in a common sense world any longer.

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  • Col Beausabre

    Note, too, that 44 states are involved. You want your program to be funded ? Make sure you ladle out the subcontracting money to as many other districts as possible – whether it makes economic and/or technical sense of not. It may well be cheaper to have less subcontractors (less coordinators needed), but that isn’t a concern here. How many people remember the Superconducting Supercollider ? Sailed through Congress, until a decision had to be made on where to put it. Once the decision was made, the funding dried up (“We have better uses for our tax money than to dig a hole in the ground in Texas”) and the SSC died. And that revealed the truth – it was never a program to build a scientific research establishment, it was a giant slush fund for pork. As long as everyone got a piece of the pie for “studies”, preliminary design, prototyping, etc, things were great, but when that went away and it was time to build, welllll….as Bob Z would say back in Brooklyn days, Fuhgeddaboutit !

    They’re not called “The Beltway Bandits” for nothing. And they can’t understand why their assumption they are – by right of birth – entitled to rule the rest of us causes so much anger

  • Foxbat

    I can’t help thinking about the glorious planetary missions the could be completed with a fraction of the money wasted on this boondoggle.

  • Richard M

    Sadly, this story has been told so many times in federal procurement projects…

    Think about Bliss-Leavitt. In the early 20th century, they manufactured torpedoes. Until the “politicians” (American congress, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Georgia and New York delegations and “certain officers” inside the United States Navy) got busy to block the sale of American torpedoes to foreign buyers, these torpedoes were actually excellent, by the standards of the day, models of a new technology called a wet-heater which Bliss Leavitt had independently developed contemporary with the Whitehead models. The important thing is that these torpedoes worked and were deadly. Then the politicians took over and demanded that the government make the torpedoes instead of private industries, or tell the private industries how the torpedoes should be made down to the last rudder steer stop.

    Once the government designed and made their own torpedoes and became their own sole customer, well …. the history of the American torpedo in World War II is a well documented disaster. Private industry was brought in to fix the mess the Goat Island idiots made of things, but not before a lot of American submarine crews were needlessly lost.

    The stakes aren’t so high with heavy lift launchers. But the opportunity cost of letting the politicians have their way is not a small one, either.

  • “Surprise, surprise!”

    Picturing Gomer Pyle here, which is in keeping with the Agency’s cartoonish efforts.

  • Edward

    What also worries me is that the SLS seems to be slipping one year for each year that passes. At such a rate, we may never see SLS fly.

    From the article: “SLS advocates insist that the government must ensure it has the capabilities it needs and not rely on businesses that could abruptly change or cancel their plans.

    This is a valid argument. Government should be assured of having what it needs.

    SLS is needed in order to support the ((F)LOP) Gateway (To Nowhere), and Gateway is needed in order to support the need for SLS — which reduces the validity of the argument.

    This makes it clear that Congress, and therefore NASA, have little or no intention of giving up SLS to either SpaceX’s Starship-Super Heavy or Blue Origin’s New Glenn. Congress wants its own toy, even if they can only play with it every couple of years or so. Why should they care about the cost when U.S. taxpayers, not them, are forced by law to pay for it? They get a free toy, and we now live in a country that desires free stuff more than it values balanced budgets and more than it worries about the poor sot who has to pay for it (the taxpayer who has yet to be born — taxing the unborn without him being represented in Congress).

  • Col Beausabre

    “What also worries me is that the SLS seems to be slipping one year for each year that passes. At such a rate, we may never see SLS fly”

    Which is the PERFECT Federal program, the money goes on forever and you never have to deliver anything. And if you complete your part, you can say, “Bit wait, that’s old fashioned, I can design a new, “better” widget for the XYZ. And the cycle begins again. We, as a society, once had managers who had the rare skill of knowing when to “freeze” a design. Case in point, the F106 was a much better aircraft than the F102 (originally the 106 was the 102B), but was going to push the in service date out for years, The USAF staff was skilled and brave enough to say, “We need an aircraft today, not a mountain of paper” froze the design, built 1000 102’s and, when it was ready, 500 F106’s (which went to the active force while the F102’s they replaced went to the Guard replacing F86D’s and F89’s)

  • Edward

    Col Beausabre,
    Your description of the better widget is a good example of one way that military and NASA programs go over budget and slip schedules. A project can take so long to complete that the technology improves after the design should be frozen, but the government customer insists that the new, better technology be used. This sounds like it make sense, because why would anyone want to launch an already obsolete satellite, but it ends up with an expensive, delayed satellite that is still obsolete, because the technology improved again in the meantime.

    Commercial customers tend to need it today in order to make money now. I once worked on a commercial communication satellite that had 100 watt amplifiers (for the technologically minded: travelling wave tube amplifiers, TWRAs). The customer heard that 120 watt amplifiers became available and asked how much it would cost and how long it would take to update to the more powerful amplifiers. Since the already-built power system, cooling system, waveguides and mounting panels would have to be redone from scratch, the customer decided to go with the existing satellite and to buy a more powerful one next time. They needed their revenue stream sooner, not later. There is a sense of urgency in business and so, too, in commercial space.

    Since NASA is not much of a revenue generator for the government, there is not much incentive to do things quickly. Since NASA is seen by Congress today as a jobs program, there is incentive to spend money there, whether or not it produces results.

    I can blame space enthusiasts for this, myself included, because we enthusiastically pointed out that money spent on space projects is not thrown away but employs many people here on Earth. We failed to be even more enthusiastic about all the good that comes from spending money on space. Easy and reliable worldwide communications that helps business thrive and can help prevent wars, better weather and storm forecasting that saves lives and crops, many medical advances, energy efficiency advances, technological advances and improvements, even the integrated circuit — wich brought us personal computers, cell phones, even more energy efficiencies, as well as more worker productivity and easier lifestyles.

    But, no. Congress uses NASA for jobs, not as a technology incubator. Imagine where we could be if, long ago, Congress set NASA’s focus to helping industry innovate as it, NASA, explored the universe rather than to provide high paying jobs while it pondered the exploration of the universe.

    One of the advantages of small satellites and small NASA projects is that they can launch relatively quickly, perform their function, and be replaced quickly and inexpensively with the latest technology. One of the disadvantages of large NASA projects is that they take too long, do too little, are obsolete at launch, are not worth the expense or the time, and push out many smaller, more effective and more efficient projects. (Somehow that sounds like five disadvantages.)

    So, yeah. As with the F102/F106 story, NASA should freeze designs, launch the projects, then work on the improved-technology followup projects. The same number of jobs are required, but we get more exploration done, with more technology improvements, and we get it in a more timely manner. Added bonus: more rocket launches in order to get all those additional probes into space.

    That is an even MORE perfect programmatic strategy, because that way government achieves good things now, not just saying that they will sometime in the far distant future, while still employing a lot of well-paid people, who now have a better sense of accomplishment.

    Is that too much to ask?

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