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SLS core stage arrives in Florida

The core stage of NASA’s SLS rocket has arrived in Florida and has now begun the processing to get it ready for launch anywhere from six to ten months from now.

Approximately six months of work is anticipated to finish assembly and complete a long series of tests and checkouts of SLS and the Orion spacecraft it will send to the Moon, but current forecasts of this first-time integration work estimate closer to ten months to complete the necessary operations. After the vehicle is put together, weeks and weeks of testing to make sure SLS and Orion are properly talking to each other, as well as the EGS ground infrastructure, will follow.

…Recent schedules showed the remainder of work to reach launch readiness extending for ten months once the core stage arrived. That time includes six months of operations to the “work to” launch readiness and four months of “risk factor”. The “work to” launch readiness date, which would still have to synchronize to a lunar launch window, is currently early-November 2021. With risk factored in, a date of early-March 2022 is derived.

NASA has not yet changed that November ’21 target for launch, though all reports strongly suggest it cannot be met.

Regardless, even if they can get this thing launched by November, the long prep time shows once again how cumbersome and inefficient this rocket would be if anyone tried to use it to explore space. NASA says that after this first launch the prep time will be shorter, but even if it is trimmed to three months (the best estimate I’ve seen) it simply isn’t good enough. SpaceX has already demonstrated that is can fly two different Starship prototypes in less than thirty days (with #10 flying March 3rd and #11 flying March 30th). The company’s goal is many flights frequently, and it so far is proving that this goal will be achievable. And it will do it placing more payload in orbit for pennies (compared to the cost of SLS).

I still predict that there is a better than 50% chance that the first orbital launch of Starship/Superheavy will occur before SLS, even though the former began actual hardware development only two years ago.

I also think that we are now in the final stages of the entire SLS program. As with all similar big NASA-led rocket projects started since the mid-1980s, it will die stillborn. The previous projects never even got built after spending billions on blueprints and powerpoint presentations. SLS will likely get at least two flights (assuming nothing goes wrong with the first). After that NASA and the federal government will shut it down because by that time there will be far better and cheaper options available.

Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

 
Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.

He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit. And if you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner.

2 comments

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “SLS will likely get at least two flights (assuming nothing goes wrong with the first). After that NASA and the federal government will shut it down because by that time there will be far better and cheaper options available.

    The U.S. government likes to have two launch sources, just in case one of them is out of action for a period of time. However, they have yet to have this come true in the manned space program (the exception was the Russian Soyuz as a backup to the Shuttle from 2001 to 2011), but they are close with Starliner.

    So far, the only other super heavy-lift launch vehicle in development is Starship. It is possible that the government will choose to not shut down SLS so that they have it as the second launcher.

    On the other hand, since SLS will not have a high launch cadence (anywhere from twice a year to every other year), it may not provide the backup capability that the government desires.

    Either way, I expect that Starship will be such a low cost launcher that it will not only make SLS obsolete but will quickly make even most Falcon 9 launches obsolete. The rest of the world is going to be hard pressed to make their own low cost launchers, which hadn’t been the focus over the past 60 years. .

  • Edward

    From the article:

    Approximately six months of work is anticipated to finish assembly and complete a long series of tests and checkouts of SLS and the Orion spacecraft it will send to the Moon, but current forecasts of this first-time integration work estimate closer to ten months to complete the necessary operations.

    This need for SLS to spend ten months in assembly, integration, and test (AI&T) reminds me of when I interviewed for my first job in AI&T for commercial communication satellites. My interviewer, the director of that division, said that a goal, at that time, was to find ways to reduce the total time to less than thirty months from contract signature to on-orbit operations. I had thought that satellite manufacturers would be competing on technical advantages, but he said that these geostationary communications satellites were treated as commodities by the customers, so the competition was to be the low-cost, quick manufacturing (availability), and high quality provider. Pretty much the same technology was available to every satellite manufacturer, and none has any real technological advantage over any other.

    I was involved in cutting a couple of days, or so, off the time it took to set up and take down each satellite over its testing schedule, so I got to do my part in doing what that director wanted, but by the time it got to verification testing, there was not much we could do to reduce the time needed.

    Some of that “traveled” work will be performed while the stage is horizontal in the Transfer Aisle of the VAB before it is ready to be lifted for mating to the Boosters.

    It isn’t that SLS management does not make efforts to increase the efficiency of the process. The “traveled” work shows that they are making the best out of the tight schedule remaining. Just like me, these managers are limited in what they can do to improve their processes. The design determines too much of the process.

    The legend is that Red Adair said to his customers that he could do it cheap, do it fast, or do it well; choose two. Of course, over time Adair was able to improve on all three options. That director who interviewed me wanted to make similar improvements, but the focus was on improving the “fast” part of the equation.

    Robert has compared SLS to Starship (“contrast” is a more appropriate word), showing that commercial space works toward efficiencies similar to what I heard during that interview: low cost, rapid cadence, high reliability. As we saw with Commercial Resupply Services, Commercial Crew, and Human Landing Systems, low price is an important factor to the government, when they are purchasing commercial services.

    As we have seen from Falcon 9 operations, a rapid cadence (high availability) is also important, especially since the low price tag draws so many customers. ULA showed that high reliability is also important, and Falcon 9 is reaching similar reliability. SpaceX showed also that rapid development results in early revenue streams as well as lower development costs.

    SLS, on the other hand, was conceived solely for functionality, to launch 100 tons to orbit. There was no mission associated with this goal, just the function. The mission would come later. Development cost and schedule were supposed to be reduced by reusing as much of the Space Shuttle’s forty-year-old technology as possible rather than spending time and money developing or using newer, more efficient technologies. Imagine what it would cost and how long it would take if this government project had started from scratch. I would have preferred that NASA went with a reusable design that achieved the original goal of the Space Shuttle of low cost, frequent, routine access to space, but.we instead got an expensive, expendable, Apollo-like rocket, but with less launch frequency than Apollo.

    Without a mission, SLS was adrift, a manned launch system under development with an abundance of strategic confusion, to paraphrase the late Paul Spudis. Low cost, high cadence, and rapid development were not in sight.

    At the time that SLS began development, Starship was just a dream at SpaceX. In 2016, SpaceX announced the Starship idea, with what Robert possibly would call a power point design, but it was a design started from scratch, including using a new fuel, with a 100 ton capacity and a goal of settling Mars through a variety of missions. A year later, the design was more solid, with a plan for development, including the expected timeframe for the start of Starship operations. In 2018, there was visible action in implementing the plan, as a test unit, test facilities, and manufacturing facilities were under construction. This year, it looks like Starship has a reasonable chance to beat SLS in its first test flight to orbit.

    SpaceX has announced astonishingly low manufacturing costs for each production unit, amazingly low operation costs for each flight to orbit, a shockingly high launch cadence, and a wide variety of missions. There has been enough progress with the development that it is still possible for revenue services to start at the originally announced schedule. Rather than reusing existing technologies, hardware, and methods, SpaceX is developing from scratch new technologies, new hardware for all the major systems, and new methods of construction, ground support, and operations. Interestingly, Starship will achieved the original goal of the Space Shuttle of low cost, frequent, routine access to space using a reusable spacecraft, but with the added benefits of much greater payload capacity and interplanetary travel.

    In my early on-the-job-training, my mentor said that despite having quality control inspectors, quality cannot be inspected into the system, it has to be designed in. The same goes for cost savings and schedule, and SpaceX is designing all three into Starship. Their plan includes rapid development, which not only saves money and starts revenue sooner, it allows the rest of us to benefit from Starship sooner, too.

    In the past ten months, SpaceX has amazed the entire aerospace world, and is likely to continue to amaze in the next ten months. During the same next ten months, NASA will perform a routine assembly, integration, and test of its new rocket.

    Do I have a point other than my usual ‘commercial space is superior to government space’ comment?

    No.

    Except maybe the lesson I learned from that director: launch services are a commodity, and what attracts customers is low cost, availability (cadence), and reliability. SLS fails on two of these.

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