Tag Archives: Orion

A review of the Trump administrations’s SLS/Orion reprogramming options

Link here. This is a nice summary of the technical and political options being considered for the first unmanned Orion test flight, presently scheduled for June 2020, including replacing SLS with commercial launch rockets.

The article also noted that NASA is also looking at simplifying that test flight, because both SLS and Orion are behind schedule and this would make using a commercial rocket easier.

The currently baselined EM-1 [the test] mission would launch an uncrewed Orion spacecraft on a trans-lunar injection (TLI) trajectory; once released from the launch vehicle, it will fly solo for the first time. The Orion would then make two large engine burns to insert itself into a Distant Retrograde Orbit (DRO) around the Moon. Depending on the time of year, Orion would stay in the DRO for a half or one and a half orbits before making two more large engine burns to return to Earth. Preliminary analysis indicates a June, 2020, launch of the full-up mission would fall into the “long-class” category, with Orion staying in a DRO with a twelve-day long period for one and a half laps and flying a five-week long flight.

Prior to Administrator Bridenstine’s announcement of the alternate launch study for EM-1, notes passed to [this website] indicated that NASA Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier had sent out a memo in early March indicating that studies to look at ways to keep the EM-1 launch in 2020 could not compromise any of the mission objectives; besides that, everything else was on the table.

The highest priority objective of the EM-1 mission is a lunar-velocity reentry test of the redesigned Orion heatshield, along with a full end-to-end test of the re-entry sequence and an in-space demonstration of Orion systems, many of which are flying for the first time.

Although Bridenstine’s public comments stressed flying EM-1 as a lunar orbit mission, there has been speculation that launching Orion out to near lunar distance without attempting either a lunar orbit or a lunar flyby could meet the highest priority objectives. Dropping the lunar orbit requirement or lunar flyby options would also relax launch opportunity constraints created by flying to the Moon and could perhaps reduce launch vehicle performance requirements enough to drop the [Earth orbit rendezvous] proposal and [docking] development work. [emphasis mine]

To use commercial rockets and still go into lunar orbit would require at least two commercial launches to get the required material up to orbit. It would also require developing Orion’s docking software now, something NASA had not planned to do until prior to Orion’s third flight several years hence. Avoiding lunar orbit means they can use a single Falcon Heavy launch and avoid these issues.

The highlighted phrase above indicates the most important priority of the test flight. This does not require lunar orbit. In fact, the Apollo mission tested its heat shield without leaving Earth orbit, and Orion can do the same.

It is still bothersome to read how haphazard NASA’s SLS/Orion program remains. They aren’t doing enough testing, their future flights are always in flux for political, schedule, and budgetary reasons, and they always seem to be in too much of a hurry to fly humans on very unproven vehicles. If NASA’s corrupt safety panel applied the same standards to SLS/Orion as it does to SpaceX and Boeing, the whole program would be shut down. It does not, because safety isn’t really its purpose. That panel’s goal is to serve NASA’s bureaucracy, and to protect its biggest projects (SLS/Orion) from any competition.

As for replacing SLS for that first Orion test flight, we shall see. The political forces opposing such a move are vast, and wield a lot of power.

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The Washington Empire strikes back!

In response to the revelation earlier this week by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine that the agency is considering replacing SLS with commercial rockets for Orion’s first unmanned lunar test mission in June 2020, the swamp in Washington quickly rallied to SLS’s defense.

Not surprisingly, porkmeister Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) led the charge:

“While I agree that the delay in the SLS launch schedule is unacceptable, I firmly believe that SLS should launch the Orion,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said in a statement to SpaceNews.

This was followed by statements from industry groups and other lawmakers, all supporting SLS. Next came Bridenstine himself, who emphasized his strong support of SLS at a conference yesterday, then issued a memo to NASA employees reiterating that support.

As far as I can tell, the only way SLS will eventually die is when private companies begin doing things that SLS is designed for, for less money and faster, and for profit. And that won’t happen if this Washington swamp has its say. Rather than see an American success, these cronies have made it clear in the past decade that they will work to squelch any such success if poses any threat to their boondoggles. And it appears now that they are moving to block Bridenstine’s suggestion for that first Orion flight.

Whether this new big government campaign against private enterprise succeeds however is not clear.
» Read more

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

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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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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NASA schedules Orion/SLS launch abort test

My heart be still! NASA has now scheduled June 12 for its second Orion/SLS launch abort test.

Called Ascent Abort-2, the upcoming uncrewed test will launch from a pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and last less than 3 minutes. Once Orion reaches an altitude of 31,000 feet (9,448 meters) about 55 seconds after liftoff, the tower-mounted abort rocket motor will rip the Orion space capsule from its booster to simulate a launch emergency escape.

The article also notes that this second abort test follows the last, which took place in May 2010, nine years previously. I want that amount of time to sink in. NASA allowed nine years to pass between its first and second Orion abort tests. Nine years. We fought and won World War II in about a third of that amount of time. The Civil War took about half that time. In fact, it took SpaceX less time to conceive, design, and launch the Falcon Heavy.

Any project that takes this long to accomplish anything is a fraud. It indicates that the goal of SLS/Orion is not to build and fly a manned capsule, but to suck money from the taxpayer for as long as possible.

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NASA to avoid SLS delays should another shutdown occur

Faced with an impending second government shutdown mere days away, NASA has been moving to avoid any delays in an upcoming planned Orion/SLS launch abort test should another shutdown occur.

What I find most fascinating about this article is how different the attitude seems to be at NASA between this SLS/Orion test flight and SpaceX’s Dragon test flight. With SpaceX, NASA has apparently made no effort to figure out ways for the test to go forward during the shutdown, even though the launch would be run by SpaceX employees on a SpaceX launchpad, and would only require NASA employees who are all considered essential.

With this Orion abort test, however, they have been and are planning to do everything they can to bypass the shutdown. Like SpaceX, the Air Force was free to operate during the shutdown, because its budget had already been approved.

“Then the shutdown kept going so I said ‘boy, let me see what I can do with these Air Force pieces.’ And it was very interesting, I had to work with lawyers here at Kennedy and Johnson [Space Center],” explained [Mark Kirasich, NASA Orion Program Manager.]

“The Air Force was not shut down, it was only NASA. So you had to write the legal justification — ‘hey the Air Force is not shut down, this is important work to do in this building’ and we were eventually able to allow the Air Force to get access to the buildings, if that makes sense.”

“And then the very last piece which was the NASA piece,” he continued. “Now of course NASA was shut down, that was the hardest thing to get exempted and I was working on that piece right when the government on that Friday night signed that continuing resolution, but I was confident I would get that piece going again had the shutdown continued.”

The contrast is most striking. It almost makes you think that NASA is purposely using any excuse to slow-walk SpaceX’s effort.

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First SLS launch faces more delays

No surprise here: The scheduled June 2020 first unmanned launch of NASA’s Space System Launch (SLS), already delayed by three years, appears threatened by more delays.

[NASA needs to perform]a similar structural test of the liquid oxygen fuel tank before what is known as a “green run” test. For this exercise, NASA will assemble the two large tanks and then integrate them with the rocket’s four main RS-25 engines. Then, at a test stand in southern Mississippi, the rocket will fire its engines through a standard launch of the rocket.

NASA has yet to formally set a date for this “green run” test, but whenever it does occur will be a key indicator for when we will see the first actual launch of the SLS rocket. If the green run test is conducted late in 2019, there would still be a chance for a 2020 launch. However, the agency and its prime contractor for the core stage, Boeing, are on a tight timeline that has little margin for technical problems that might occur during the structural tests of the tank or the green run tests. Historically, during this integration and test process with other large rocket programs, major problems have often occurred.

It is not clear how deeply the shutdown affected the SLS timeline, even though core stage work did proceed. “The shutdown impacted at least day for day,” one source said of the schedule. “But I am sure it was more than that.”

NASA originally planned to launch the SLS rocket on its maiden flight in November 2017, so the rocket will now be at least three years later than originally anticipated. The program’s budget is more than $2 billion a year, so these delays have cost the agency considerably.

The article also outlines the problems NASA is having developing the rocket’s upper stage.

I predict that the June 2020 launch will slip, maybe as much as six months, into 2021. This means the first manned flight will also be delayed into 2024, at the earliest.

That means it will have taken NASA more than twenty years and more than $60 billion to build and fly a single manned mission. Moreover, the cost and difficulty of operating SLS will make it impossible to get the second manned flight off the ground any earlier than three to four years later, at the earliest.

There is no chance the U.S. will put new footprints on the Moon if it continues to rely on this boondoggle. Worse, a continued reliance on SLS will force the government, for political reasons, to use its power to squelch competing private efforts, something we are seeing with the endless delays NASA has imposed on the commercial crew program.

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NASA’s warped measure of safety

In posting an invitation to social media users to attend the launch of the first unmanned test flight of SpaceX’s man-rated Dragon capsule on January 17, 2019, NASA’s public relations department added the following warning:

NASA has a series of reviews before the uncrewed test flight, and the outcome of these reviews, including the Flight Readiness Review, will ultimately determine the Demo-1 launch date.

For months I have reported numerous examples of NASA’s safety panel acting to create fake problems that will force a delay in this launch. First it was the fueling method. Then it was the insulation on the helium tanks. Then there was the need for SpaceX to fill out all the paperwork. Now it is the parachute system and worries about the safety culture at SpaceX.

I might take these concerns seriously, except that NASA’s safety panel seems to be so sanguine about far more serious safety issues with NASA’s SLS rocket and Orion capsule. This double standard is starkly illustrated once again in this NASASpaceflight.com article about NASA’s plans for the very first manned Orion/SLS mission.

On that manned mission, NASA will fly a host of new equipment for the first time. For example, the capsule’s “Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS), crew displays, and other crew systems will be making their debut in Orion.” Anything else that has flown previously will essentially have done so only once, during the first unmanned test flight of SLS/Orion.

It gets worse. While NASA has demanded SpaceX fly the final manned version of its Falcon 9 rocket seven times before it will allow its astronauts on board, the agency plans to launch humans on SLS on only its second launch. More astonishing, that second launch will include a mission taking those astronauts on a loop around the Moon.

During the Apollo missions in the 1960s, NASA had a policy that no mission would head to the Moon without carrying a lunar module (LM). The logic was that the LM would act as a lifeboat should something go wrong with the Apollo capsule, a logic that was actually proven during Apollo 13.

NASA did send Apollo 8 to the Moon without the LM, but it did so in the context of a Cold War space race and an end-of-the-decade commitment by an assassinated president. The agency then knew the risks were high, but it decided the situation justified those risks.

NASA is not faced with a Cold War space race today. Instead, it has a grossly over-budget and long delayed boondoggle called SLS/Orion, increasingly embarrassed by the quick and efficient achievements of private space companies. In a desperate effort to keep that boondoggle alive, the agency is apparently pushing it to fly it too soon and with inadequate development. In fact, it appears to me that the safety culture at NASA that caused both shuttle accidents (a desire to favor frequent launches while ignoring safety analysis) has returned at NASA, and it has done so with a vengeance.

Meanwhile, the contrast with how the agency’s safety panel treats SpaceX versus SLS/Orion demonstrates how corrupt and unreliable that safety panel has become. They no longer really work to reduce risk. Their goal appears to promote government-built rocket systems over those manufactured by the private sector.

Hat tip to Kirk Hilliard for pointing out the language in the NASA pr invite to the SpaceX launch.

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Advisory panel to Space Council pans Gateway

The advisory panel to the Space Council gave NASA’s Gateway lunar orbiting platform low marks in a meeting in Washington yesterday.

NASA’s plan for returning to the Moon met with opposition today at a meeting of the National Space Council’s Users’ Advisory Group (UAG). Not only members of the UAG, but former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, who was there as a guest speaker on other topics, offered his personal view that NASA is moving too slowly and the lunar orbiting Gateway is unnecessary.

Makes sense to me, especially based on the description of Gateway put forth by NASA at the meeting:

In the first part of the 2020s, NASA plans to launch series of very small and later mid-sized robotic landers and rovers, while at the same time building a small space station, currently called the Gateway, in lunar orbit. The Gateway is much smaller than the International Space Station (ISS) and would not be permanently occupied. Crews would be aboard only three months a year and eventually the Gateway would be a transit point for humans travelling between Earth and the lunar surface or Mars.

The presentation also said under this plan that Americans would not land on the Moon until 2028.

It is all fantasy. I guarantee if the government goes with Gateway it will not land on the Moon before 2035, and that is optimistic. Tied as it is to very expensive SLS and the government way of building anything, Gateway will likely see at least five years of delays, at a minimum. Remember also that the first manned launch of SLS is not expected now before 2024, and will likely have a launch cadence of less than one launch per year. How NASA expects to complete Gateway and then land on the Moon only four years later, using this rocket, seems very unrealistic to me.

This does not mean Americans won’t get to the Moon sooner however. I fully expect private enterprise to do it in less than a decade, and for far cheaper. Eventually the dunderheads in government will realize this, but we must give them time to realize it. Their brains work slowly.

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Democratic control of House threatens Space Force and SLS

Two articles today suggest that the switch to Democratic control of the House will threaten funding for both Trump’s Space Force as well as NASA’s SLS/Orion program.

I say, “Hallelujah!” Both are boondoggles of the worst kind, and illustrated how really uncommitted the Republicans in the House were to cutting spending. SLS/Orion has cost more than $40 billion so far, and will likely cost $60 billion before its first manned launch, and will take twenty years to fly a single manned mission. Space Force meanwhile is really nothing more than a consolidated space office in the Pentagon, and yet the Pentagon is proposing it will cost $13 billion for its first five years.

Both are pure pork, and if the Democrats want to garner real voter support they will stop with the “Resist Trump!” stupidity and shut both down, shifting support instead for private space.

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Airbus to deliver the first Orion service module to NASA this week

My heart be still! Airbus will deliver this week the first Orion service module to NASA.

Airbus will deliver the first European Service Module (ESM) for NASA’s Orion spacecraft from its aerospace site in Bremen, Germany on 5 November 2018. An Antonov cargo aircraft will fly the ESM to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, USA. This is the result of four years of development and construction, and represents the achievement of a key milestone in the project. ESA selected Airbus as the prime contractor for the development and manufacturing of the first ESM in November 2014.

Four years to simply build a single manned capsule’s service module. At this pace we might be able to colonize Mars and the Moon in about 200 years, maybe!

Note however that NASA only has funding to build 1.5 of these European service modules. It is possible that Congress has allocated additional funds, but if so, I missed it.

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Orion test vehicle completes last parachute test

NASA today successfully completed the last parachute test using an Orion test vehicle.

Two quotes tell us all we need to know:

“Orion is our new human exploration spacecraft, and this is a spacecraft that will take people farther in space than we’ve ever gone before,” said [Orion project manager Mark Kirasich].

…This parachute test is the last one for Orion after a decade of development, Kirasich said.

NASA is once again lying about Orion’s capabilities. It will not “take people farther in space than we’ve ever gone before.” It will be able to take humans to the Moon, which is somewhere Americans have been (just in case Kirasich has forgotten.) Beyond that it is totally insufficient for interplanetary flight. It will, on its own, never take anyone anywhere beyond that, and even if it does go beyond lunar orbit, it will do so merely as the return capsule that is part of a much larger vessel.

Secondly, that it took ten years to complete the parachute system for this capsule is truly a joke. The Dragon cargo capsule was built by SpaceX in less than four years. Its manned version could have launched after only two years of work had NASA bureaucrats and Congressional cheapness not gotten in the way. Boeing’s Starliner parachute system was also built in about half that time, and would have been finished sooner had not NASA bureaucrats demanded extra tests, for reasons that have never been made clear.

NASA says it will be launching the first Orion mission to the Moon in 2022, followed by the first Gateway mission in 2024. I am predicting that while the first date might be met (only seven years behind schedule), the second will not. Do not expect the first module to head for the Moon for at least a decade.

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Trump administration goes all in for LOP-G

The swamp wins! In a speech today Vice President Mike Pence made it clear that the Trump administration is giving its full endorsement to the construction of the Lunar Orbiting Platform-Gateway (LOP-G), as well as SLS and Orion. These big boondoggles, which will trap us in lunar orbit while the Chinese set up lunar bases and take possession of the surface and its resources, are going forward, with both the president’s support as well as Congress’s.

Providing further evidence that the Trump administration has bought into these projects, in his introduction of Pence NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine gave a big public endorsement to the executive secretary of the National Space Council, Scott Pace, a man who has been a big supporter of these projects of the bureaucracy. Pace believes we need these projects, despite the fact that they have been under construction for two decades, have cost an ungodly amount, and have literally flown nowhere.

Pence also said that they intend to have the space force a reality by 2020, and also hinted that the Trump administration is making a careful review on the future of ISS.

Overall, the speech was a big endorsement for government space, in every way, with the private sector designed not to lead as free Americans following their personal dreams but to follow, servants of the desires of the government and its wishes.

If you want to listen to about 30 minutes of pro-government promotion, I expect it will be posted here at some point.

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A petition to kill SLS/Orion and LOP-G

Link here. To quote their announcement at the link:

What’s killing America’s human access to space? Three projects: a rocket called the Space Launch System, a capsule called the Orion, and a new project called the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway.

These three programs are political boondoggles, pork, pie in the sky, jobs programs disguised as space programs. The Space Launch System, for example, is touted as the biggest rocket ever built. But its $30 billion development cost is eating up almost all of NASA’s human budget for deep space. Compare that $30 billion with the cost of developing Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy—less than a billion dollars. In other words, for the cost of developing the Space Launch System, we could develop thirty brand new rockets if we took the Elon Musk route. Or we could develop an entire Moon and Mars program.

After thirteen years of promises, the Space Launch System has never flown. And when it does, it will cripple NASA. The cost of one launch will be between one and two billion dollars. For that price, you could buy between eleven and 22 launches of the Falcon Heavy. You could buy the launches for an entire Moon and Mars program.

What’s worse, after the launch of each Space Launch System rocket, we will throw the exorbitantly-priced rocket away, then we will be forced to buy another one. Meanwhile, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are making rockets reusable. And reusable rockets, like reusable busses, trucks, trains, cars, and airplanes, will lower our cost of access to space dramatically.

Then there’s the Orion capsule that the SLS will fling into space. It cannot land. It can’t land on the Moon. It can’t land on Mars. And it’s too small to carry crews to Mars. It is a boondoggle.

Topping it all off is the Lunar Orbital Platform – Gateway, another nipple in the mouth of the Space Military Industrial Complex, another make-work program. It is a mini space station orbiting the moon. It’s useless and can’t even be manned or womanned year-round. But it will cost so much to build that we’ll never be able to build lunar landers. We won’t touch down on the moon. We’ll simply circle the moon from a distance and watch with frustration as the Chinese land human beings. [emphasis in original]

The last point about LOP-G is especially important. It is designed not to promote the exploration and settlement of the solar system, but as a kind of purgatory where the U.S. will remain trapped in lunar orbit, accomplishing nothing, while other nations land and settle the Moon.

I have signed. Anyone who has been reading Behind the Black or listening to me for the past decade will know that this has been my position, from the get-go. I am very glad that others in the space industry are now standing up to echo that position.

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NASA reconfiguring future SLS planning

Link here. This is a long (4 parts) and detailed overview of the changing state of the SLS system and its future missions. As it notes right at the start,

NASA has started updating plans and schedules for additional SLS Block 1 launches in the early 2020s after Washington added federal budget money for a second Mobile Launcher (ML) platform and umbilical tower in late March.

Construction of a new Mobile Launcher frees the first ML from a three-year long downtime for teardown and reassembly after the first SLS launch of Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), currently projected for mid-2020. Instead of being retired after one launch, the Block 1 configuration could fly multiple times.

With two mobile launches (costing almost a billion to build), NASA has more flexibility (assuming it gets full funding). It can now fly both the smaller Block 1 configuration of SLS multiple times without delaying the first launch of the planned more powerful Block 2 version expected to come later.

The article discusses in great detail the possible variations in design and scheduling for the first unmanned mission, the Europa mission, the first manned mission, and possible missions beyond, all of which are based on Congress’s continued blank check support for this very expensive and very questionable program.

Sadly, it increasingly appears that Congress is going to throw a lot of money at this program. SLS looks like it is going to fly several times, and maybe more. It will likely send Europa Clipper to Jupiter, and later astronauts on a stunt mission around the Moon. Later, the Washington cartel of big aerospace companies, NASA, Congress, and our international partners in Europe and Russia are gearing up to get LOP-G funded as well, with SLS the vehicle to launch and supply it.

All of this will cost a lot, take forever, and not make the future exploration of the solar system possible in the slightest. None of that matters however. Congress wants it, and Congress being corrupt and irresponsible is going to get it.

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House committee boosts NASA budget while micromanaging its projects

A NASA budget proposal released earlier this week by the House Appropriations Committee boosts NASA’s budget to $21.5 billion, while also micro-managing some of NASA’s planetary projects.

The bill, though, does specify funding for some programs. It calls for spending $545 million on the Europa Clipper mission and $195 million for a follow-on lander. NASA requested only $264.7 million for Europa Clipper and nothing for the lander.

NASA said in the budget proposal it was seeking to launch Europa Clipper in 2025 on a commercial vehicle, while the bill calls for the use of the Space Launch System and a launch by 2022. In its budget proposal, NASA estimated needing $565 million in 2019 to keep Europa Clipper on track for a 2022 launch but warned of “potential impacts to the rest of the Science portfolio” if funded at that level.

The bill also included $3.5 billion for SLS/Orion, continuing that boondoggle as it continues to fall behind schedule and go over budget. Also in the bill was a half billion dollars for LOP-G, confirming Congress’s desire to get this new boondoggle running, even though the rocket and capsule necessary to fly it, SLS/Orion, hasn’t even come close to completion after almost two decades of work and almost $40 billion so far in spending.

Overall, this NASA budget proposal illustrates once again why we have Trump. Congress is corrupt, is only interested in distributing money to its corporate buddies, and doesn’t care if that cash ever produces anything. In fact, it appears they prefer that nothing ever get built, as a real space effort would carry risk, and we can’t have that!

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Russian to fly on Orion?

In negotiations between NASA and Roscosmos on their hoped-for partnership to build the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G), it has been proposed that when SLS carries Orion and the platform’s Russian airlock to lunar orbit a Russian will go as well.

“Within the framework of talks, draft plans of future manned missions to the lunar stations have been made. Among other issues, the possibility to send one Russian cosmonaut as part of the crew of the Orion spacecraft that will drag the Russian airlock module to the moon is on the agenda. The Russian cosmonaut will have to ensure the integration of the module with the station,” the source said.

A source in Russia’s Rocket and Space Corporation Energia (RSC Energia) that would produce the module confirmed this information to Sputnik, saying that four manned missions were expected to be sent to the station and the Russian cosmonaut should accompany the Russian-made module during its transportation to the Earth satellite.

This all sounds so wonderful. Too bad it is so unconnected with reality. Congress has yet to provide any funds for LOP-G. At the moment, SLS/Orion is only funded through its first manned mission.

At the same time, I am getting the feeling that both NASA and Congress expect SLS/Orion’s $4 billion-plus annual budget that it has gotten since the program started in the late 2000s will simply continue, giving them the money to build this Potemkin Village in orbit around the Moon while funding the Russian contributions.

That’s what happened with ISS. The U.S. footed most of the bills for the Russian portion of ISS, and the Russians are now hoping we will do the same for LOP-G. Sadly, I also expect our corrupt Congress will go along, focused as they are in only distributing pork to local districts while encouraging a global international village having nothing to do with American interests. They see LOP-G not as exploring space, but as a jobs program, both here in the U.S. and in Russia.

And a jobs program is exactly what it is. Just like it will take SLS/Orion almost two decades to complete its first manned launch, LOP-G will likely not get anything built in orbit around the Moon for more than a decade. Don’t expect anything substantial assembled in lunar orbit before the mid-2030s, at the earliest.

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NASA’s horrible management of SLS

In this article from NASASpaceflight.com describing a recent status update from NASA of its SLS/Orion program (which remains years behind schedule and might see further delays) was the following quote, revealing much about NASA’s incompetence and corruption in building this boondoggle:

In contrast to the more centralized organization structure for the cancelled Constellation program, [SLS’s] three major programs [ground systems, Orion, and SLS] are managed independently: Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) based at KSC, Orion based at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, and SLS based at the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama.

Each of the programs has resources to integrate with its other two partners, but ESD [Exploration Systems Development at NASA headquarters in DC] provides the overall coordination between all three. During Constellation, the equivalent organizations were projects directly managed by that now-cancelled program. [emphasis mine]

In other words, when Obama unilaterally cancelled Constellation (something he really didn’t have the power to do) and Congress micromanaged its reinstatement (creating SLS/Orion), the Obama administration and NASA abandoned a sensible management structure and allowed SLS/Orion to be a three-headed monster, difficult to coordinate and certain to go over-budget and fall behind schedule.

With this operational structure, even if SLS eventually flies successfully, it will be impossible for it to operate efficiently. Expect every one of its future efforts to always go over budget and to fall behind schedule.

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Further launch delays for Russia’s next ISS module & space telescope

The race to be last! Russia today announced that the launch of both its next ISS module as well as a new space telescope will be delayed until 2019.

The ISS module, Nauka, is years behind schedule, and is presently being cleaned of contamination in its fuel system that was found several years ago.

“Repairs of the MLM Nauka are taking longer than expected, and the deadlines are yet unclear. This means it will not be brought to Baikonur any time soon, and the launch will be postponed until 2019,” the source said.

It was reported earlier that the mission would be delayed for six months. “The delivery of the MLM Nauka to the Baikonur cosmodrome has been moved from September to late 2018. Hence, the module’s launch to the ISS has been provisionally delayed for another six months,” the source said. The launch was scheduled for September 2018 with the possible alternative date in March 2019.

The article also notes delays for Spekr-RG high-energy space telescope until 2019. The article might also describe delays for another satellite, though the writing is unclear.

Nauka was first built in the 1990s as a backup for ISS’s first module. In the early 2000s Russia decided to reconfigure it and fly it to ISS, with its launch scheduled for 2007. This means its launch is now going to be twelve years behind schedule.

It sure does appear that Russia’s Roscosmos is competing with NASA to see which government agency can delay its missions the longest. In fact, for fun, let’s put together the standings!

  • Nauka: 12 years behind schedule (originally scheduled for 2007, now 2019)
  • James Webb Space Telescope: 9 years behind schedule (originally scheduled for 2011, now 2020)
  • SLS/Orion: 8 years behind schedule (originally scheduled for 2015, now 2023)

Stay tuned. This race to the bottom is far from over. NASA could still win, especially because it has more than one project in the running.

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NASA chief argues against purchasing Falcon Heavy over SLS

When asked at a meeting of a NASA advisory council meeting why NASA doesn’t buy a lot of Falcon Heavies instead of building a few SLS rockets, NASA chief of human spaceflight Bill Gerstenmaier argued that only the SLS could launch the large payloads NASA requires to establish its Lunar Orbiting Platform-Gateway (LOP-G).

Gerstenmaier then said NASA’s exploration program will require the unique capabilities of the SLS rocket. “I think it’s still going to be large-volume, monolithic pieces that are going to require an SLS kind of capability to get them out into space,” he said. “Then for routine servicing and bringing cargo, maybe bringing smaller crew vehicles other than Orion, then Falcon Heavy can play a role. What’s been talked about by [Jeff] Bezos can play a role. What United Launch Alliance has talked about can play a role.”

The problem with this argument is that the “large-volume, monolithic pieces” Gerstenmaier proposes don’t exist yet, either in design or in budget. NASA could very easily design LOP-G’s pieces to fit on Falcon Heavy, and then use it. Instead, they are purposely creating a situation where SLS is required, rather than going with the most cost effective solution.

Unless someone in power, such as a president, puts his foot down and demands NASA do this intelligently, I expect NASA to accomplish nothing significant in manned space in the next decade. That does not mean Americans will be trapped on Earth, only that NASA will not be the way they will get off the planet. And unfortunately, based on the most recent budget passed by Congress and signed by Trump, I do not expect this president to do anything to change things. Right now, NASA is being run by the big contractors (Boeing and Lockheed Martin) that need SLS and Orion, and thus NASA is going to give them a lot of money to build things that we can’t afford and can do nothing to put Americans in space.

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The ever-receding Space Launch System

Today a story at Space News reveals that NASA has decided to forgo construction of a second mobile launcher for its Space Launch System (SLS). Instead, they will modify the one they have.

The mobile launch platform, originally built for the Constellation Program and currently being modified to support the SLS, will be used for one launch of the initial Block 1 version of the SLS, designated Exploration Mission (EM) 1. That platform will then have to be modified to accommodate the taller Block 1B version that will be used on second and subsequent SLS missions.

Agency officials said late last year they were considering starting work on a second mobile launch platform designed from the beginning to accommodate the Block 1B version of the SLS. They argued that doing so could shorten the gap of at least 33 months between the first and second SLS missions caused in part by the modification work to the existing platform.

The first mobile launcher was built and modified for an estimated $300 to $500 million. NASA obviously has decided that the politics of building a second won’t fly. The cost is too great, as would be the political embarrassment of admitting they spent about a half a billion for a launcher they will only use once. (That this mobile launcher is leaning we will leave aside for the moment.)

What this does however is push back the first manned SLS/Orion launch. At present, the first unmanned mission is likely to go in June 2020 (though don’t be surprised if that date sees further delays). If it takes 33 months after that launch to reconfigure the launcher for the first manned mission, that manned mission cannot occur any sooner than April 2023. That second launch however is planned to be the first to use SLS’s new upper stage. To put humans on it untested seems foolish, doesn’t it? NASA is going to have to fly an extra mission to test that upper stage, which is going to add further delays to the schedule.

In November I predicted that the first manned SLS/Orion mission would not happen before 2025. At the time it was assumed that the second flight of SLS would have to launch the unmanned Europa Clipper mission, in order to test that upper stage. Now however it appears that the Trump administration wants to shift Europa Clipper to a commercial launch vehicle, probably Falcon Heavy.

This means that either astronauts will be flying on an untested SLS upper stage, or NASA will have to add a test launch in April 2023, followed some time thereafter by that manned mission. Since NASA does not at present have a budget for a third mission, I am not sure what is going to happen here.

What I do know is that SLS is certain to get delayed again. By 2025 we will have paid close to $50 billion for SLS and Orion, and the best we can hope for is a single manned mission. And that one mission will have taken 21 years to go from concept to launch.

This is not how you explore the solar system. With a schedule like this, all SLS and Orion are doing is distributing pork to congressional districts and to the big space companies (Boeing and Lockheed Martin) that are building both. Establishing the United States as a viable space-faring nation is the last thing these players have in mind.

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Lockheed Martin starts assembling first manned Orion capsule

My heart be still! Thirteen years after winning its contract to built the manned Orion capsule, Lockheed Martin proudly announced this week that it has finally begun building the first capsule that will carry humans.

I should add that this first manned flight is not scheduled to happen for another five years. Moreover, they have so far spent at least $14 billion on this capsule, and will likely spend another five billion by the time it finally launches. That’s 18 years and $19 billion, for a single manned mission. Seems somewhat shameful to me.

The article is filled with much of the dishonest hyperbole that has surrounded the Orion capsule from the start:

  • “NASA’s first of a new generation of manned deep space exploration craft”
  • “Orion will be a major step in the American program to establish a Deep Space Gateway station, return to the Moon, and eventually make a manned landing on Mars”
  • “Orion has tremendous momentum.”
  • “This is not only the most advanced spacecraft ever built, its production will be more efficient than any previous capsule.”

What Orion really is is a lie. It is nothing more than the ascent/descent capsule for the as-yet still undesigned, unfunded, and unbuilt interplanetary spaceship that will be needed for any real deep missions. It is also a boondoggle of the worst sort, providing pork for congressional districts while accomplishing nothing.

Lockheed Martin is lying in its press release here, and it is shameful that any journalist who knows anything about space should buy into those lies.

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Washington swamp creature hints that SLS could be in trouble

Congressman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) today expressed strong disappointment with the repeated delays in the the launch of SLS and Orion, noting that the problems could lead to Congress considering “other options.”

“After all these years, after billions of dollars spent, we are facing more delays and cost overruns,” Smith said. While he noted that some delays were caused by factors out of NASA’s control, like a tornado that damaged the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans in February, “many of the problems are self-inflicted.”

“It is very disappointing to hear about delays caused by poor execution, when the U.S. taxpayer has invested so much in these programs,” he added.

Smith, who announced Nov. 2 he would not run for reelection next year after more than three decades in the House, including serving as chairman of the science committee since 2013, warned about eroding support for the programs should there be additional delays. “NASA and the contractors should not assume future delays and cost overruns will have no consequences,” he said. “If delays continue, if costs rise, and if foreseeable technical challenges arise, no one should assume the U.S. taxpayers or their representatives will tolerate this forever.”

“The more setbacks SLS and Orion face, the more support builds for other options,” he said, not elaborating on what those options would be.

Smith is part of the establishment in Congress that has been supporting SLS and Orion blindly for years. Unfortunately, he is retiring this year, and the other members of his committee did not seem as bothered by SLS’s endless delays.

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More SLS delays

Here we go again! At a three-day meeting this week aimed at resolving some of NASA’s scheduling issues for its Space Launch System (SLS), it appears that managers are faced with further launch delays because of the need to insert an extra SLS launch prior to the first manned flight.

The problem is that the first unmanned flight, presently set for December 2019 (but which I am positive will be delayed) will be not be using the second stage planned for later missions. In order to fly humans on that stage NASA needs to fly at least one more more unmanned mission beforehand. Since Congress has mandated that NASA use the SLS rocket to fly a mission to Europa, managers are now planning to insert that mission into the manifest prior to the manned mission.

At a major three day Technical Interchange Meeting (TIM) at the Kennedy Space Center recently, NASA noted that the Europa Clipper mission has a formal, target launch date of 4 June 2022, the opening of a 21 day launch window that closes on 25 June.

A backup launch option exists in 2023.

The problem with the June 2022 launch window is that the mobile launcher that moves the rocket from the assembly building to the launchpad will likely not be ready by then. If it is not, then the next time Europa Clipper can fly, in 2023, will certainly force more delays on the first manned SLS/Orion flight. And even if it is ready, I am willing to bet that NASA will not be able to fly that manned mission in 2023 regardless. For years the agency has made it clear that they will need at least two years turn-around time between SLS launches.

So, my prediction that the first manned mission of SLS/Orion will occur in 2023 was wrong. I now predict it will not occur prior to 2024, more than 20 years after George Bush first proposed it.

Overall, the entire NASA project to replace the space shuttle with a manned rocket and capsule is the perfect poster boy for government incompetence, waste, and corruption. Twenty years, and all we will get, at most, is a single manned mission and one flight capsule. Worse, by 2024 the cost for this entire effort will likely have exceeded $50 billion. What a squandering of taxpayer money.

What makes this more infuriating is that this is not an exception, it is now the standard operating procedure for the entire federal government. From incompetence in the Navy to the failure of the Air Force to do something as simple as properly registering a person in the FBI’s gun national background check system, our federal government is a disaster. And I see only a token effort by Congress and even Trump to fix it.

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More hints that the first SLS launch will be delayed again

Government in action! The head of the Marshall Space Flight Center yesterday once again hinted that the first unmanned launch of SLS/Orion, presently scheduled for late in 2019, could be delayed again.

In September, the agency said in a statement that it would announce a new target date for EM-1 in October, citing the need to account for a range of issues, including progress on the European-built Orion service module and shutdowns at NASA centers from hurricanes in August and September.

However, an update in October is increasingly unlikely. “Within a few weeks, I think [NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot] intends to codify whatever that date is going to be,” Todd May, director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, said in remarks at the American Astronautical Society’s Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium here Oct. 25.

Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development at NASA, offered a similar assessment. “Probably in the next month, maybe sooner,” he said in an interview.

These hints have been standard operating procedure for announcing SLS’s endless delays for the past decade. First they make hints that a delay might happen, but reassure everyone that it is very unlikely. Then they follow this up later with announcements about how they need more time to accomplish all their goals. By the third announcement they outline a possible new schedule, including some delay but insist that it isn’t likely. Finally, they release the new dates, often as an aside during some other announcement in order to minimize the news.

It should be noted that the new dates have almost never been realistic. NASA has usually known that the new dates are interim, and that further delays will likely require more of this same dance to make them public.

So, here is my prediction: They are preparing us for the fact that the first unmanned flight will likely slip into 2020, which means the first manned flight slips for certain into 2023, as I have been predicting for the past three years.

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Lockheed Martin unveils concepts for Mars ship and lander

The boondoggle lobbying continues! Lockheed Martin today unveiled its concepts for a Mars interplanetary ship, built around its Orion capsule, as well as a fully reusable Mars lander.

The timing of this announcement fits perfectly with last week’s NASA announcement of its concepts for building a lunar space station, along with this week’s announcement to study doing it with the Russians. It also times perfectly with the announcement that the first public meeting of the National Space Council will take place on October 5. And tonight Elon Musk will give an update on his own proposals for getting to Mars.

All these public relations announcements suggest to me that the Trump administration is getting close to unveiling its own future space policy, and they all suggest that this policy will be to build a space station around the Moon. My guess is that Lockheed Martin and SpaceX are vying for a piece of that pie in their announcements today.

Let me also note that Lockheed Martin’s concept above illustrates nicely what a lie Orion is and has always been. They have been touting it for years as the vehicle that will get Americans to Mars, but now admit that it can only really be a small part of a much larger interplanetary ship, and will be there mostly to be the descent capsule when astronauts want to come home. They also admit in the video at the first link that their proposal for getting to Mars is only a concept. To build it would require many billions of dollars. I wonder will it cost as much as Orion and SLS ($43 billion plus) and take as long (18 years plus) to build? If so, it is a bad purchase. We can do this faster, and for less.

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NASA and Roscomos sign agreement to work together to build lunar orbiting station

Extending the pork: NASA and Roscosmos have signed an agreement agreeing to work together in the construction of what NASA calls a deep space gateway, a space station orbiting the Moon.

The goal here is to garner political support for getting funding to fly a third SLS/Orion mission, which would be its second manned flight. It is also to establish some long term justification for SLS/Orion, which presently has no mission and will disappear after its first manned test flight, presently scheduled for 2022. That single test flight will have taken 18 years and more than 40 billion dollars to build, an absurd timeframe and cost for a single mission that does not bode well for future SLS/Orion missions.

The Russian perspective can be found here. They claim that the station would be finished by 2024-2026, an absurd prediction based on the expected SLS launch rate of one launch every one to two years. For Russia, the hope is that they can use this project to get U.S. money, just like the big American space companies like Lockheed Martin (Orion) and Boeing (SLS).

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First manned SLS/Orion flight officially delayed to 2022

Government in action! The first manned flight of SLS/Orion has now been officially delayed one year until 2022, and that date remains questionable.

In addition, the first unmanned test flight of SLS/Orion has now also been delayed until December 2019, something that had been under consideration but is now official. Even with this delay, there are doubts whether that flight can take place then, which is why the 2022 launch of the first manned flight is questionable.

The article outlines in detail the Byzantine scheduling issues that NASA must fulfill to meet these launch dates, including a long timeline of deliveries that seems absurd when compared to how private companies operate.

Assuming that these new dates occur as announced (something I sincerely doubt), the first unmanned launch of SLS/Orion will occur almost 16 years after President Bush first proposed it, with the first manned flight occurring more than 18 years after his proposal. In that time NASA will have spent about $43 billion for this one manned mission. Let me repeat: $43 billion and almost two decades to fly one manned mission. Quite absurd.

The article also details NASA’s proposal for a third SLS/Orion mission, the second manned, to occur in 2023, which would begin assembly of a space station in lunar orbit. I suspect that this mission is going to be announced in what will be President Trump’s version of the typical Kennedy-like speech that Reagan, Bush 1, Clinton, Bush 2, and Obama have all given, announcing big plans in space by such-and-such deadline.

Whether Congress funds it remains to me an open question. Right now I would predict they would, since they love the pork that SLS/Orion provides. In two years, when Falcon Heavy has flown several times and is likely becoming operational, and New Glenn is getting close to its first test launch, I am not so sure. Both will be flying before SLS’s first flight and both will have been developed for a tenth the cost with equal if not greater capabilities. And both will be able to fly more frequently for practically nothing, when compared to SLS.

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SLS first mission delayed again

Government in action! It appears that SLS’s first flight, an unmanned test flight around the Moon, is being delayed again, from early in 2019 to as late as the fourth quarter of that year.

Section 103 of the 2005 NASA Authorization Act (Public Law 109-155) requires written notification from within the agency to the NASA administrator and then separately after that from the administrator to Congress for significant cost or schedule overruns of major programs. In the case of a delay, the law specifies notification is required if “a milestone of the program is likely to be delayed by 6 months or more from the date provided for it in the Baseline Report of the program.”

By this measure, the readiness period would seemingly be pushed out to at earliest the second quarter of 2019, but L2 notes have indicated EM-1 launch date estimates in the third or fourth quarter. [emphasis mine]

In other words, when in April they first announced the delay from November 2018 to 2019, they were really announcing what will likely be a full year delay. This will mean that it is going to take NASA 15 years to fly this single unmanned mission, spending about $38 billion, based on the appropriate numbers that I worked up in my Capitalism in Space policy paper.

Let me repeat that: One unmanned test flight. Fifteen years. $38 billion. Compare that with NASA’s the entire cargo and crew program, involving multiple spaceships and flights, which will cost about $12 billion total, and will include all the cargo and manned flights NASA intends to buy through the end of ISS’s present lifespan in 2024, estimated by contract to be about 42.

I should also add that I expect SpaceX to almost certainly fly its Falcon Heavy at least twice by the end of 2019. Falcon Heavy will have the capability of putting up about 50 tons, only slightly less than the 75 tons expected by this first SLS flight. With a purchase price per launch of $90 million, NASA could have purchased 422 Falcon Heavy launches for the $38 billion it wasted on this one SLS unmanned test mission.

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NASA nixes plan to fly humans on first SLS flight

Common sense prevails! In a joint decision with the White House, NASA announced today that they will not fly humans on the first test flight of SLS, now scheduled for sometime in 2019.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said that the study turned up fewer technical issues with putting a crew on EM-1 than he originally expected. “What I was surprised by was that I thought there would be a whole lot of really negative work that would actually maybe make this not very attractive to us,” he said. “But when [acting NASA administration Robert Lightfoot] and I look at this overall, it does add some more risk to us, because it’s the first crew on the vehicle,” he said. The work to add crew to EM-1 would have cost NASA an additional $600–900 million, and delay the launch likely to the first or second quarter of 2020.

“The culmination of changes in all three of those areas said that overall, probably the best plan we have is actually the plan we’re on right now,” Gerstenmaier said. “When we looked at the overall integrated activity, even though it was feasible, it just didn’t seem warranted in this environment.”

The announcement also included an admission by Gerstenmaier that the first manned SLS flight, now set for 2021, will likely be delayed.

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