Tag Archives: SLS

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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Boeing puts foam insulation on one SLS tank

My heart be still: Asked by NASA management to pick up the pace, Boeing managed to put foam insulation on one of the SLS oxygen tanks in less than two weeks.

The reason NASA wanted to pick up the pace? In May contamination had been found in the system’s supply lines.

“The prime contractor determined the vendor was not fully cleaning the tubes and it was leaving residue in the tubes,” McErlean said. “This was retained as a requirement in the prime contractor’s spec, but it was not properly carried out.” Boeing is the prime contractor for the SLS core stage, but he did not disclose the vendor who provided the contaminated tubing.

The contamination was initially found in a single tube, he said, but later checks found similar residue in other tubes. All the tubing in the core stage is now being inspected and cleaned, a process he said is not straightforward because of the “mass of tubing” in the engine section and also because cleaning is a “non-trivial process.”

In reading the first link above, however, I do not get the sense that things with SLS are really moving quickly. Instead, I get, as I have for this entire project, the sense that the pace is designed to proceed at a glacial pace. Thus, when they need to get things done more more quickly, they can easily do so. Whether that increased speed is really fast, however, remains to me quite questionable.

Note: My appearance tomorrow night on the John Batchelor Show will be focused entirely on NASA’s effort to slow commercial space down, so as to reduce the embarrassment to SLS. I am going to make believe I am giving a briefing to Mike Pence and the National Space Council, explaining in detail why NASA actually seems hostile to getting anything done.

It is our hope that maybe someone in the administration might hear it, and rethink the Trump space policy.

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SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy wins Air Force launch contract

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has won a $130 million Air Force contract to use its Falcon Heavy rocket to launch a military satellite.

The Falcon Heavy beat out a bid from United Launch Alliance for the mission labeled Air Force Space Command-52, or AFSPC-52, which is targeting liftoff from KSC’s pad 39A in 2020.

United Launch Alliance’s most powerful launcher, the Delta IV Heavy, has a price tag approaching $400 million.

The price comparison bears repeating: ULA: $400 million, SpaceX: $130. It is not surprising that SpaceX got the contract, though it does illustrate the difference between the Air Force’s space effort and NASA’s. The Air Force is making a concrete and real effort to lower its launch costs, using competition as a tool to do so. NASA, which faces the same kind of price comparison when comparing SLS to SpaceX, continues however to ignore that price difference and insist its future interplanetary manned programs must go with SLS, and SLS only.

In this context, I think this graph from Capitalism in Space is worth another look:

SLS vs commercial space

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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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Contamination found in shuttle engines to be used by SLS

Now we know why the first launch is likely delayed: It appears that contamination has been found in the used and refurbished shuttle engines that the Space Launch System is using.

A “routine quality assurance inspection” of the core stage, he said, discovered contamination in tubing in the engine section of the core stage, which hosts the vehicle’s four RS-25 main engines and associated systems. That contamination turned out to be paraffin wax, which is used to keep the tubes from crimping while being manufactured but is supposed to be cleaned out before shipment.

“The prime contractor determined the vendor was not fully cleaning the tubes and it was leaving residue in the tubes,” McErlean said. “This was retained as a requirement in the prime contractor’s spec, but it was not properly carried out.” Boeing is the prime contractor for the SLS core stage, but he did not disclose the vendor who provided the contaminated tubing.

The contamination was initially found in a single tube, he said, but later checks found similar residue in other tubes. All the tubing in the core stage is now being inspected and cleaned, a process he said is not straightforward because of the “mass of tubing” in the engine section and also because cleaning is a “non-trivial process.”

Some obvious questions immediately arise:

1. These engines were previously flown on the space shuttles, numerous times. How did the paraffin wax, used “to keep the tubes from crimping while being manufactured,” remain in the tubes during all those shuttle flights?

2. Assuming the tubes were a new addition or replacement during the refurbishing process, it still seems astonishing that a subcontractor could be so lax. Did they really believe the wax did not need to be thoroughly cleaned?

3. While they have admitted that they will likely have to delay the launch because of issues with the core stage, why do they deny this contamination problem is the cause? More important, how much is it costing to fix? And how much time are they actually losing to fix it?

4. Finally, this is only one of many similar problems that we have seen with this entire project. Boeing and NASA have gotten so far about $40 billion to build this rocket, and have been working on it since 2006, more than a dozen years ago. Furthermore, they supposedly are building it using shuttle equipment in a Saturn rocket-type design in order to save money and time. Instead, they have wasted billions and taken more than three times longer than it took us to win World War II to get to a point where the program still has not flown.

Does anyone really believe this project is anything but a huge boondoggle? And if so, can they please tell me how it will be possible for the United States to really explore the heavens with a project run this incompetently?

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Another delay for SLS

This really isn’t news: Work on the core stage for the first SLS rocket launch appears to face another three month delay, threatening the scheduled June 2020 launch date.

The article outlines in great detail the work being done on the SLS core stage, and where the delays might be coming from, while also being vague about what exactly is causing the delay.

It is unknown if the additional time for completion of final assembly of the whole rocket stage is based on the engine section, the other four elements, or continuing refinement of forward work. Most of the hardware and systems that will fly on EM-1 are being built for the first time and the procedures to connect the five pieces of the Core Stage together will also be attempted for the first time.

Of the five elements, the most recent news had the Forward Skirt near completion of its individual work by the end of the month. Work to cover the liquid oxygen tank with its Thermal Protection System (TPS) foam was in final phases, with the liquid hydrogen tank to follow behind it. The engine section and intertank elements continue to be outfitted with propellant lines, pressure tanks, avionics boxes, wiring, and other equipment.

Once complete, the elements will be assembled vertically in two stacks before a horizontal join of the halves of the rocket kicks off final assembly.

In fact, reading the article’s detailed description of the testing and assembly of SLS’s core stage struck me as incredibly slow-paced, so slow paced that it actually filled me with a sense of ennui. In the time they seem to need to only do an equipment review, SpaceX appears to have upgraded and flown a new version of its Falcon 9 first stage, while also redesigning a new core stage for its Falcon Heavy.

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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 might scale down the first manned SLS flight

In order to meet its present schedule and budget, NASA is considering scaling down its first manned SLS flight in 2023 by using the same smaller version of SLS that will fly the first unmanned test flight in 2020.

The SLS has been in development for the last decade, and when complete, it will be NASA’s main rocket for taking astronauts to the Moon and Mars. NASA has long planned to debut the SLS with two crucial test missions. The first flight, called EM-1, will be uncrewed, and it will send the smallest planned version of the rocket on a three-week long trip around the Moon. Three years later, NASA plans to launch a bigger, more powerful version of the rocket around the Moon with a two-person crew — a mission called EM-2.

But now, NASA may delay that rocket upgrade and fly the same small version of the SLS for the crewed flight instead. If that happens, NASA would need to come up with a different type of mission for the crew to do since they won’t be riding on the more powerful version of the vehicle. “If EM-2 flies that way, we would have to change the mission profile because we can’t do what we could do if we had the [larger SLS],” Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s acting administrator, said during a Congressional hearing yesterday.

NASA clarified that astronauts would still fly around the Moon on the second flight. However, the rocket would not be able to carry extra science payloads as NASA had originally planned. “The primary objective for EM-2 is to demonstrate critical functions with crew aboard, including mission planning, system performance, crew interfaces, and navigation and guidance in deep space, which can be accomplished on a Block 1 SLS,” a NASA spokesperson said in a statement to The Verge.

The problem here really is that Congress keeps throwing money at this boondoggle. It will fly, but it will never be able to make the exploration and colonization of the solar system possible. It is simply too expensive and has a far too slow launch rate. Instead, it will allow for NASA to do stunts in space, while elected officials can preen and prance about, bragging about the jobs they brought to their districts.

And the nation’s debt will grow, and grow, and grow.

I hold to my prediction that private companies will bypass SLS in the 2020s, doing far more for far less. The differences between them will become downright embarrassing to SLS and Congress.

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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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The first SLS mobile launcher is leaning

Though NASA says it is not a problem, they have now revealed that the very expensive mobile launcher to be used for the first unmanned SLS launch in 2019, is leaning slightly.

The notes spoke of engineers being concerned about a lean towards the North – which would be towards the rocket when mated – with the angle of the leaning claimed to be seen as increasing when the Vertical Stabilizer porch was installed. It was also claimed the ML Tower is twisting and this issue increased when the porch was installed. This was cited as the reason additional arm installations onto the Tower were placed on hold, until the leaning-twisting issue is understood. Next in line for installation are the ICPS (Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage) Umbilical Arm, the Crew Access Arm and the two Vehicle Stabilizer Arms.

NASASpaceFlight.com’s Philip Sloss took the concerns to NASA to ask for clarifications. NASA responded, saying “the ML leaning/bending was not the cause of the delay in the install of the Crew access arm. These are unrelated.” However, they did expand on the specific issue, mainly to note it is understood and does not currently require any additional mitigation or modification to the ML.

“NASA’s mobile launcher is structurally sound, built to specifications, and does not require a design change or modifications. As expected, the mobile launcher is not perfectly still,” a NASA spokesperson added.

Note that this mobile launcher is not compatible with the second SLS launch, which would be the first manned flight in 2023. NASA will either have to modify it significantly at great costs, or build another, discarding this launcher after only one use.

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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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Surprise! First unmanned launch of SLS might be delayed until 2020

Yawn. NASA admitted today that the first unmanned launch of SLS, set for December 2019, might be delayed until June 2020.

NASA’s review considered challenges related to building the SLS rocket’s core stage, issues with constructing Orion’s first European service module and tornado damage at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, NASA officials said in a statement.

“While the review of the possible manufacturing and production schedule risks indicate a launch date of June 2020, the agency is managing to December 2019,” Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot said in a statement. “Since several of the key risks identified have not been actually realized, we are able to put in place mitigation strategies for those risks to protect the December 2019 date,” Lightfoot added.

Gee, only yesterday I thought I was going out on a limb to say that the first manned flight of SLS wouldn’t happen until 2024. It looks like I wasn’t going very far out on that limb. If the first unmanned mission doesn’t happen until June 2020, the next SLS launch (using its own second stage for the first time) cannot happen until around April 2023. That mission will likely be unmanned, launching Europa Clipper. The third SLS flight, as yet unbudgeted by Congress, would then fly humans, and will likely be scheduled for 2024, though I am certain that will be an unrealistic launch date.

More likely the first manned flight of SLS will not occur before 2025, twenty-one years after George Bush first proposed it and fourteen years after the last shuttle flight. By that time the cost for this boondoggle will have risen to more than $50 billion.

2025 is about seven years in the future. I will also bet in that time both SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and Blue Origin’s New Glenn rockets will have become operational, with both flying manned capsules. In fact, I expect them both to send human capsules to the Moon several times before SLS even gets its first manned flight off the ground. And they will do it for about a tenth the cost.

So obviously, our Congress and President know what to do! They are going to double down on SLS, pouring more money into this black hole, while making another decade of false promises about it that will never be fulfilled. Based on everything I have read coming from NASA and the National Space Council, I would be fooling myself to think otherwise.

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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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NASA still hasn’t established a baseline cost for SLS’s future missions

Despite being told to do so in an 2014 GAO report, NASA has still not developed a budget to determine what it would cost to use SLS for any future beyond-Earth-orbit missions.

Worse, NASA says it doesn’t have to do this.

The government report notes that it previously recommended to NASA and Congress that costs of the first (and subsequent) human missions be calculated and disclosed three years ago in 2014. Since then, the report says, a senior official at NASA’s Exploration Systems Development program, which manages the rocket and spacecraft programs, replied that NASA does not intend to establish a baseline cost for Exploration Mission 2 because it does not have to.

This response must have struck investigators with the General Accountability Office—Congress’ auditing service—as a bit in-your-face. Later in the report, the director of acquisition and sourcing management for the accountability office, Cristina Chaplain, notes that, “While later stages of the Mars mission are well in the future, getting to that point in time will require a funding commitment from the Congress and other stakeholders. Much of their willingness to make that commitment is likely to be based on the ability to assess the extent to which NASA has met prior goals within predicted cost and schedule targets.” [emphasis mine]

In other words, NASA expects Congress to give NASA and SLS a blank check, forever. Sadly, based on the behavior of Congress now and in the past two decades, NASA might very well have reasonable expectations here.

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NASA official hints at further SLS delays

In confirming that the first unmanned flight of SLS will not occur until 2019, Todd May, head of the Marshall Space Flight Center, also indicated today that the first manned flight cannot occur any sooner than 33 months after that.

May was speaking at an industry meeting in Washington, DC today. According to the article, May tried to sell the idea that the launch date for the first unmanned mission, while still officially December 2018, is going to be delayed into 2019 and a new date will be announced “soon.” This is false. NASA revealed weeks ago that the the first unmanned flight has been delayed until the fourth quarter of 2019, likely in December.

The important detail from May’s remarks, however, is this:

The first launch with a crew, EM-2, currently cannot take place for at least 33 months after the first because it will take that long to reconfigure the Mobile Transporter at Kennedy Space Center to accommodate an upgraded version of SLS with a new, taller, upper stage. [emphasis mine]

Thirty-three months after December 2019 places the first manned launch as taking place no earlier than September 2022. I have emphasized the words “at least” because we can all be certain that this work will take longer than 33 months. I predict once again that the first manned flight will not occur in 2022. It will take place in 2023, nineteen years after President George Bush proposed it.

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NASA wants to use its SLS mobile launch once, then replace it

Government in action! After spending almost a half billion to reconfigure the Apollo mobile launcher first for Ares and then for SLS, NASA now says it needs to build a completely new mobile launcher to replace it.

Apparently, all the work did not make the mobile launcher usable for the larger SLS that will launch astronauts.

According to Hambleton, NASA has made no decision on a second mobile launcher. She declined to address the question of costs. A 2012 report from NASA’s inspector general estimated the costs of building a new mobile launcher then at $122 million, but a new structure expressly for the larger Block 1B rocket to be used for the second flight of the SLS rocket would almost certainly cost more.

Additionally, If NASA builds a new mobile launcher, the modified one now being configured for the first SLS flight would likely be used just once—a waste of infrastructure that cost perhaps half a billion dollars and more than a decade of development.

The absurdity of this is appalling. They spent a decade and half a billion reconfiguring the mobile launcher, under the guise that reusing the old one saved NASA money. Now they want to build a new one?

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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 Inspector General blasts agency construction of SLS test stands

The hits keep coming! A report [pdf] issued today by NASA’s Inspector General strongly criticizes the construction by NASA of two SLS test stands at the Marshall Space Flight Center.

This is going to sound familiar, but the report found that the construction of both test stands took much longer than scheduled and went significantly over budget, almost doubling. Worse, this was caused by some basic managerial decisions that should not have happened. From the report’s conclusion:

To meet its ambitious schedule of an initial SLS launch in December 2017, NASA designed and initiated construction on Test Stands 4693 and 4697 based on preliminary testing specifications and before test stand requirements and capabilities were fully understood. As a result, the cost of the stands increased by $35.5 million from an original estimated cost of $40.5 million. …Finally, NASA failed to establish adequate funding reserves to cover anticipated contract and requirement changes or adequately document consideration of alternative sites for the testing. In short, rushing the decision regarding the test stands to support a December 2017 first flight raised the cost of constructing the stands by tens of millions of dollars.[emphasis mine]

Marshall vs Stennis

The report strongly criticized the agency for deciding to build the stands at the Marshall Space Flight Center. NASA could have chosen to build them at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, but did not consider that location in its decision.

Similarly, of three possible construction sites – one at Stennis and two at Marshall – NASA officially considered only the two Marshall locations for testing the structural integrity of the SLS’s liquid hydrogen tank. Although teams from both Marshall and Stennis proposed designs for possible test stands, only the Marshall designs were reviewed and listed as possible alternatives at the final decision review. [emphasis mine]

The map on the right is figure 6 on page 16 of the IG report, and shows the absurdity of choosing Marshall over Stennis. As the report continued,

As a result, we question whether such costs as transporting the tanks to Marshall from Michoud were adequately considered as part of the Agency’s analysis. This approximately 1,240-mile trip will entail shipment by barge along the Mississippi River, the Ohio River, and finally the Tennessee River; take about 2 weeks; and cost approximately $500,000 per tank (see Figure 6 below). Because each tank will need to be transported separately and the barge will need to return to Michoud between loads, the total transportation time for both tanks is 6 weeks. In contrast, transporting a tank from Michoud to Stennis would take less than one week and cost approximately $200,000.

You can wonder whether the influence of porkmaster Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) had anything to do with NASA’s decision to favor Marshall but I personally have no doubt.

Overall, this IG report, as well as yesterday’s GAO audit, show us a government agency that has no idea how do to things in an efficient and expedient manner.

The timing of the release of these reports is interesting. They describe bad managerial decisions made during the Obama administration. Yet, during that administration it had been my impression that audits by GAO and NASA’s IG tended to pussy-foot around NASA’s problems. Their reports noted delays and cost issues, but always couched their criticisms with care. Now that Obama has left office, however, it appears they feel free to state their conclusions more bluntly, which is that none of the upper management in the Obama administration, either at NASA or at the White House, was ever willing to take a hard look at how NASA was doing things.

However, this isn’t just the Obama administration. These kinds of bad managerial decisions in the federal government have been going on now for decades. This has been a clearly bi-partisan failure, by presidents from both parties in Washington. Based on these reports, a lot of heads should roll, throughout the executive branch. The question remains whether there is anyone in Washington, including the present president, willing to do this.

Moreover, the problems are not just in the executive branch. Elected officials, such as Shelby, have been micromanaging NASA’s effort foolishly now for decades. Worse, their micromanagement has done little to serve the needs of the nation, and in fact, has done us great harm. For example, for the past decade Congress has squeezed commercial space in order to throw more money to SLS, and as a result the country’s inability to launch its own astronauts into space has stretched out far longer than necessary, the longest ever since the dawn of the space age.

The last few elections have suggested that the public recognizes this, and wants Congress to change. Unfortunately, I see little indication so far that Congress recognizes this.

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The press begins to turn against SLS

This report by Eric Berger of Ars Technica, describing the press teleconference today where NASA announced that they would not fly humans on the first SLS flight in 2019, reveals a significant political change.

In the past, most mainstream reporters would routinely accept NASA’s announcements about SLS. If the agency said it was great, their stories would wax poetic about how great it was. If NASA said its greatness was causing a delay, their stories would laud NASA had how well it was doing dealing with SLS’s greatness, even though that greatness was forcing another delay. Never, and I mean never, would NASA or these reporters ever talk about the project’s overall and ungodly cost.

This press conference was apparently quite different. The press had lots of questions about SLS and its endless delays. They had lots of questions about its costs. And most significant, they had lots of questions for NASA about why the agency is having so much trouble building this rocket, when two private companies, SpaceX and Blue Origin, are building something comparable for a tenth the money in about half the time.

During the teleconference, Ars asked Gerstenmaier to step back and take a big-picture look at the SLS rocket. Even with all of the funding—about $10 billion through next year—how was the agency likely to miss the original deadline by as much as three years, if not more?

“I don’t know,” Gerstenmaier replied. “I don’t know—I would just say it’s really kind of the complexity of what we’re trying to go do, and to build these systems. We weren’t pushing state-of-the-art technology, like main engines sitting underneath the rocket or new solid rocket boosters. But we were pushing a lot of new manufacturing, and I think that new manufacturing has caused some of the delays we’ve seen. No one welds the way that we’re welding material at the thicknesses we’re welding.”

…Later, the NASA officials were asked about private companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, which are also building heavy-lift rockets but at a very limited cost to taxpayers. What would they have to say about just buying those vehicles off the shelf, at significantly lower cost than an SLS launch, and preserving NASA’s funds to execute in-space missions?

Gerstnmaier’s explanations for SLS’s delays and costs, that it is a very complex and advanced piece of rocket engineering, is total bunk. This was supposed to be an upgraded Saturn 5, but it will only be able to lift about 70% of the payload. It is using the actual shuttle engines, and upgraded shuttle solid rocket boosters. While new engineering was required to refit these for SLS, none of that should have been so hard or expensive.

The key here is that members of the press are finally aware of this, and are asking the right questions. With Falcon Heavy about to launched multiple times before SLS even launches once, the continuation of this boondoggle is becoming increasingly difficult to justify.

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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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