Tag Archives: SLS

NASA awards SpaceX deal to provide cargo to Gateway

Capitalism in space: Should NASA ever decide to build its proposed Gateway space station in orbit around the Moon (the odds of which have gone down recently), it announced today that it has signed a deal with SpaceX to use its Falcon Heavy rocket and an upgraded larger version of its Dragon capsule to ship cargo to that station.

The deal calls for at least two missions, and is SpaceX’s first deal in NASA’s Artemis program.

This deal is a major blow to SLS and Boeing, which up to now had a monopoly on all launches to supply and launch Gateway. In fact, Gateway was invented by Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and NASA (not Congress) in order to justify SLS’s existence. That NASA has now decided it is better off using the much cheaper and already operational Falcon Heavy for some Gateway missions suggests that SLS is increasingly vulnerable to cancellation. NASA is making it obvious that other commercial options exist. No need to wait years and spend billions for SLS, when they can go now, for much less.

Share

NASA shuts down all in-house work, suspending SLS/Orion testing

In its panicky response to COVID-19, NASA is now requiring all workers to work from home, forcing the agency to suspend all in-house testing of SLS and Orion hardware.

NASA will temporarily suspend production and testing of Space Launch System and Orion hardware. The NASA and contractors teams will complete an orderly shutdown that puts all hardware in a safe condition until work can resume. Once this is complete, personnel allowed onsite will be limited to those needed to protect life and critical infrastructure.

We realize there will be impacts to NASA missions, but as our teams work to analyze the full picture and reduce risks we understand that our top priority is the health and safety of the NASA workforce.

This guarantees further delays to the first Artemis unmanned launch sometime in 2021. It also is par for the course for NASA’s entire effort to build this rocket. In just the past two weeks three different blistering inspector general reports have blasted different components of this project at NASA (overall management, construction of the launch systems, and development of software), proving that out-of-control cost overruns and endless delays in building SLS and Orion have been systemic throughout the agency.

Now they have shut down testing, even though the Wuhan virus is probably going to end up no more dangerous than the flu (now that treatment options exist).

Share

NASA’s inspector general finds more budget overruns at Artemis

A new report [pdf] released today from NASA’s inspector general has found more budget overruns and managerial issues relating to developing the ground software required by both Orion and SLS.

There are two software components involved, called SCCS and GFAS for brevity. This report focuses on the latter. A previous report found that “SCCS had significantly exceeded its initial cost and schedule estimates with development costs increasing approximately 77 percent and release of a fully operational version of the software slipping 14 months.” According to that previous report [pdf], that increase went from $117 million to $207 million.

As for GFAS:

Overall, as of October 2019 GFAS development has cost $51 million, about $14 million more than originally planned.

This report, as well as yesterday’s, are quite damning to the previous management of NASA’s manned program under Bill Gerstenmaier. It appears they could not get anything done on time and even close to their budget.

It also appears to me that the Trump administration has removed the reins from its inspector general offices. During the Obama administration I noticed a strong reticence in IG reports to criticize government operations. Problems as outlined in both yesterday’s and today’s reports would have been couched gently, to obscure how bad they were. Now the reports are more blunt, and are more clearly written.

Also, this sudden stream of releases outlining the problems in Artemis might be part of the Trump administration’s effort to shift from this government program to using private commercial companies. To do this however the administration needs Congressional support, which up to now has strongly favored funding SLS and Orion. Having these reports will strengthen the administration’s hand should it propose eliminating these programs, as it is now beginning to do with Gateway.

Share

More overruns in NASA’s SLS program, this time with the mobile launchers

A new inspector general report [pdf] has found massive cost overruns in NASA over the building of the two mobile launch platforms the agency will use to launch its SLS rocket.

The original budget for the first mobile launch was supposed to be $234 million. NASA has now spent $927 million.

Worse, this platform will see limited use, as it was designed for the first smaller iteration of SLS, which NASA hopes to quickly replace with a more powerful version. Afterward it will become obsolete, replaced by the second mobile launch platform, now estimated to cost $486 million.

That’s about $1.5 billion just to build the launch platforms for SLS. That’s only a little less than SpaceX will spend to design, test, build, and launch its new Starship/Super Heavy rocket. And not only will Starship/Super Heavy be completely reusable, it will launch as much if not more payload into orbit as SLS.

But don’t worry. Our geniuses in Congress will continue to support SLS no matter the cost, even if it bankrupts NASA and prevents any real space exploration. They see its cost overruns, long delays, and inability to accomplish anything as a benefit, pumping money into their states and districts in order to buy votes.

Share

New inspector general report slams NASA’s SLS management

A new report [pdf] by NASA’s inspector general released today harshly slams the management of NASA for the never-ending cost overruns and scheduling delays that have plagued the agency’s effort to build and launch the Space Launch System (SLS).

From the report’s introduction:

Based on our review of SLS Program cost reporting, we found that the Program exceeded its Agency Baseline Commitment (ABC)—that is, the cost and schedule baselines committed to Congress against which a program is measured—by at least 33 percent at the end of fiscal year 2019, a figure that could reach 43 percent or higher if additional delays push the launch date for Artemis I beyond November 2020.

… [T]he SLS Program now projects the Artemis I launch will be delayed to at least spring 2021 or later. Further, we found NASA’s ABC cost reporting only tracks Artemis I-related activities and not total SLS Program costs. Overall, by the end of fiscal year 2020, NASA will have spent more than $17 billion on the SLS Program—including almost $6 billion not tracked or reported as part of the ABC.

The graph below, taken from page 45 of the report, illustrates the management failures here quite starkly.
» Read more

Share

SLS likely launch mid- to late-2021

According to comments by one NASA official last week, the first flight of SLS will likely not occur until the middle or late 2021, a further delay than the most recent prediction of April 2021.

NASA Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk said on Friday that the first launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) with an uncrewed Orion spacecraft, Artemis I, will take place in mid-late 2021. He also said NASA will award contracts “within weeks” for the Human Landing System (HLS) as NASA strives to meet the Trump Administration’s goal of landing astronauts on the Moon by 2024 — the Artemis program. Embracing Artemis is the first step towards a trillion dollar cislunar space economy according to space industry executive Tory Bruno who spoke at the same conference in Laurel, MD. He urged everyone to stop “squabbling” and support the program.

There is a lot more in the article, including a lot of advocacy by Jurczyk and others for Lunar Gateway. I also found certain aspects of the Trump administration’s effort to make their 2024 target date for manned lunar landing, specifically related to the quick development of that Human Landing System (HLS), somewhat concerning:

We can’t thrash on the requirements. So on HLS, we said 90 days, we’re going to nail down the requirements. And if we can’t agree, NASA’s just going to tell you, use ours. We’re going to negotiate technical standards. Either use ours or show equivalency to yours, but after 90 days if we can’t get agreement, you’re going to use ours. … 90 days and we’re done with Human Landing System requirements.

I am all for doing it fast but one needs to also do it smart. I wonder about this approach.

Jurczyk noted that the administration and NASA are doing a lot of work outlining their plans for the whole Artemis exploration program following that lunar landing, and hope to reveal it by the end of March. Since this program still remains unfunded by Congress, that announcement will be part of the political campaign to obtain those funds.

Share

More SLS launches planned/proposed?

According to this article from Ars Technica, NASA is considering shifting gears in its Artemis lunar program to become more dependent on SLS rather than a mix of SLS and commercial rockets.

The new plan, if implemented, would substantially cut commercially developed rockets—such as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and Blue Origin’s New Glenn—back from the Artemis program. Previously, NASA had said it would launch elements of its Human Landing System on commercial rockets, because such vehicles cost much less than the estimated $2 billion rate per launch of the SLS vehicle. Now, perhaps, private rockets may be called upon to launch smaller pieces such as a lunar rover to the Moon’s surface.

The source document, which appears to be very preliminary and which NASA calls “inaccurate”, also calls for four SLS launches leading up to the 2024 lunar landing, something that seems very very unlikely. Not only would it require Boeing to move faster in building additional SLS rockets, something the company has routinely been unable to do, this schedule assumes funding from Congress for SLS, something that remains unclear.

It also appears from the proposed launch schedule that Lunar Gateway is fading from view. This makes great sense, as the Gateway only causes delays and higher costs for any lunar landing program, something the Trump administration clearly wishes to avoid.

Share

First SLS launch pushed back again to April 2021

NASA on February 20, 2020 finally admitted that the first SLS launch cannot happen in 2020, and set a new target date no earlier than April 18, 2021.

The previous target launch date in November 2020 was always a pure fantasy. NASA just held off admitting it in order to defuse any political consequences for having a program, building SLS, that will end up taking them almost two decades to complete.

This new launch date is likely the most realistic so far, since the hardware for SLS is actually finally coming together. Nonetheless, if anything at all should go wrong along the way, especially with the full static test firing of the core booster of the first stage scheduled for no earlier than August, then expect more delays, possibly lasting years.

Share

Europa Clipper faces budget overruns

NASA’s $4.25 billion dollar mission to orbit the Jupiter moon Europa now faces cost overruns that threaten its launch in 2023.

The management of NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, facing dwindling cost reserves while still years away from launch, is looking at cost saving options that would preserve the mission’s science.

In a Feb. 3 presentation at a meeting of the Outer Planets Assessment Group in Houston, Jan Chodas, project manager for Europa Clipper at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said she was looking for ways to restore cost reserves that had declined precipitously in the last year.

Chodas said that Europa Clipper had met a JPL recommendation of 25% cost reserves, known at the lab as unallocated future expenses (UFE), when it completed a final “delta” preliminary design review in June 2019. By November, though, those reserves had fallen to just 12%, a level deemed “unacceptably low” for a mission not scheduled for launch until at least 2023.

To save money, they are “streamlining hardware testing and scaling back work on flight spare hardware. The project has also reduced the frequency of meetings of the mission’s science team.”

When the reserves in a government budget get this low, it almost always guarantees that the budget will go over. When the reserves get this low this early in the project, it almost always guarantees that the budget will go over, by a lot.

There have been other indications that Europa Clipper’s budget is in trouble. In March NASA canceled one science instrument to save money.

Making matter worse has been our lovely Congress, which has required this mission fly on its bloated, over-budget, and behind schedule SLS rocket, a mandate that is also costing the project an additional $1.5 billion (for the launch) while threatening its launch date (because of SLS delays). NASA would rather have the option to launch Clipper on the more reliable commercial and already operational Falcon Heavy, for about $100 million, thereby saving more than a billion dollars while guaranteeing its launch date. Congress so far has refused to budge, and has in fact insisted that the mission be delayed several years if necessary for getting it on SLS.

Meanwhile, Clipper itself is doing what too many big NASA projects routinely do, go overbudget.

Our federal government. Doesn’t its management skills just warm your heart?

Share

House authorization bill focuses on pork

A new House authorization bill for NASA would shift the agency’s focus from commercial space and getting to the Moon to building Artemis and Gateway and going to Mars.

A NASA authorization bill released by the House Science Committee Friday proposes major changes to the direction of the agency’s human spaceflight programs, with a goal to land crews on the moon by 2028, not the 2024 schedule set by the Trump administration.

The House version for NASA Authorization Act of 2020, which would set NASA policy if enacted into law, calls for the space agency to develop plans for sending a crewed mission to orbit Mars by 2033.

The bipartisan legislation would appear to stand in the way of any plans to build a permanently-occupied moon base or develop methods to mine water ice inside craters at the moon’s poles, which could be converted into breathing oxygen, drinking water and rocket fuel.

The bill, not yet approved by the House committee despite support from the committee heads from both parties, differs significantly from the Senate bill, which places more emphasize on having NASA use private enterprise. For example while the Senate bill calls for NASA to hire privately-built lunar landers, the House bill wants NASA to build the landers entirely.

Read the whole article. The House bill could I think also be labeled the “Orange Man Bad for Space” bill, as it clearly seems designed to block almost all of the Trump initiatives to encourage private space and get a manned mission to the Moon sooner rather than later.

Share

First SLS core stage completed and ready for final testing

After sixteen years of development, slowed by politics and a confused management at NASA, the first core stage of NASA’s SLS rocket is finally completed and ready for shipping to the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi for its final full test.

The heart of NASA’s first flight-ready Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket emerged from its factory in New Orleans Wednesday morning for a barge trip to the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi for an eight-minute test-firing of its space shuttle-era hydrogen-fueled engines.

The 212-foot-long (64.6-meter), 27.6-foot-wide (8.4-meter) core stage of the Space Launch System rolled out of its factory at the Michoud Assembly Facility, signaling a significant, but long-delayed milestone in the SLS program’s eight-year history. Teams loaded the core stage into NASA’s Pegasus barge to be ferried on a half-day journey to the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

The link has a lot of cool images of the stage. You can also find more cool images and videos of the core stage’s unveiling yesterday here.

Whether this stage will pass that eight-minute test remains unknown. And if it does, it also remains unknown whether it will be ready to fly in November 2020, sending an unmanned Orion capsule around the Moon. Either way, the cost to build that SLS rocket is approaching $25 billion, a cost that only includes two flights, one unmanned.

We could have bought a lot of Falcon Heavies for that price, and be heading for the Moon right now had we done so.

Share

Bridenstine: SLS costs less than $2 billion per launch

During an agency meeting where the new manager of NASA’s manned program officially took charge, administrator Jim Bridenstine expressed disagreement with a Trump administration estimate of $2 billion for each SLS launch.

The OMB letter used “over $2 billion” as the estimated cost of an SLS launch, arguing that is $1.5 billion more than a commercial launch. The $2 billion figure has been widely cited since then as an official cost estimate.

Bridenstine was asked about it today, and disagreed. “I do not agree with the $2 billion number. It is far less than that. I would also say the number comes way down when you buy more than one or two. I think in the end we’re going to be in the $800-900 million range.” NASA has bought only two SLS launches so far and negotiations are just starting on the third and fourth, he added. [emphasis mine]

Well that solves everything! SLS will only cost a little less than a billion per launch, not two billion. Any fool can see this is clearly competitive with the $100 million that SpaceX charges for each Falcon Heavy launch. And you’d have to do two Falcon Heavy launches to match what SLS can do in one launch. Obviously we want to buy SLS! It’s what any Washington lawmaker or bureaucrat would clearly conclude.

The article notes that NASA has only “bought two SLS launches” but fails to explain why. This is all that Congress has appropriated. NASA is negotiating with Boeing to build as many as ten more, but as far as I know, the authorization from lawmakers has not yet been given to do so.

But then, why not? We are no longer ruled by our elected officials, but by the unelected bureaucrats who live high on the hog in their plush Washington digs.

Share

NASA expands list of companies certified to bid on lunar launch/payload contracts

Capitalism in space: NASA today announced that it is expanding the list of companies eligible to bid on lunar launch/payload contracts from 9 to 14.

From the NASA press release:

NASA has added five American companies to the pool of vendors that will be eligible to bid on proposals to provide deliveries to the surface of the Moon through the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative.

The additions, which increase the list of CLPS participants on contract to 14, expand NASA’s work with U.S. industry to build a strong marketplace to deliver payloads between Earth and the Moon and broaden the network of partnerships that will enable the first woman and next man to set foot on the Moon by 2024 as part of the agency’s Artemis program.

…These five companies, together with nine companies selected in November 2018, now are eligible to bid on launch and delivery services to the lunar surface. [emphasis mine]

The added companies are SpaceX, Blue Origin, Ceres Robotics, Sierra Nevada, Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems.

I have highlighted the most important word in this press release, which is most interestingly buried to make it as little noticed as possible. The addition of SpaceX to this list and the mention that the program has now added the ability to for the companies to bid on launch contracts means that NASA’s goal here is to create a situation where it can replace SLS with a bidded contract to private industry that will costs far less and can launch frequently and on time, features that SLS is completely incapable of, and SpaceX can provide easily and reliably. This analysis by me is further reinforced in that Boeing, the builder of SLS, was not included in this list, even though only last week that company offered SLS to NASA in a wider array of launch configurations, for exactly this purpose.

If NASA had made this fact too obvious it might upset certain people in Congress (I’m talking to you Richard Shelby R-Alabama) who are wedded to SLS and its wasteful pork spending in their home states and districts.

The fact remains however that eventually SLS is going to go away. The Trump administration appears very wedded to its Artemis program to get back to the Moon by 2024, and it is apparently discovering that to make that landing happen the administration needs better alternatives.

Share

White House: Cost for each SLS launch is $2 billion

According to the Office of Management and Budget (OPM), the cost for each SLS launch is now estimated to equal $2 billion.

This is the first time anyone in the executive branch has put a number to the SLS per launch cost. NASA has always refused to give a number, for good reason, since this price compares so horribly with even the most expensive private rocket (generally more than $200 million for the biggest members of the Delta rocket family). The Falcon Heavy costs about $100 million, so that to get the same mass into orbit would require two launches, but that would still be only $200 million, one tenth the cost.

The article then notes how this cost is affecting the Europa Clipper mission, which has three launch options, with SLS mandated by Congress.

The powerful SLS booster offers the quickest ride for the six-ton spacecraft to Jupiter, less than three years. But for mission planners, there are multiple concerns about this rocket beyond just its extraordinary cost. There is the looming threat that the program may eventually be canceled (due to its cost and the emergence of significantly lower cost, privately built rockets). NASA’s human exploration program also has priority on using the SLS rocket, so if there are manufacturing issues, a science mission might be pushed aside. Finally, there is the possibility of further developmental delays—significant ground testing of SLS has yet to begin.

Another option is United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy rocket, which has an excellent safety record and has launched several high-profile missions for NASA. However, this rocket requires multiple gravity assists to push the Clipper into a Jupiter orbit, including a Venus flyby. This heating would add additional thermal constraints to the mission, and scientists would prefer to avoid this if at all possible.

A final possibility is SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, with a kick stage. This booster would take a little more than twice as long as the SLS rocket to get the Clipper payload to Jupiter, but it does not require a Venus flyby and therefore avoids those thermal issues. With a track record of three successful flights, the Falcon Heavy also avoids some of the development and manufacturing concerns raised by SLS vehicle. Finally, it offers the lowest cost of the three options.

The fact that Congress is requiring the use of SLS for a cost of $2 billion, a rocket that might not even be ready in time, when Europa Clipper could be launched on two other already operational rockets at about a tenth of the cost illustrates well the overall corruption and incompetence that permeates Congress. They really aren’t interested in the interests of the nation. They’d rather distribute money to big contractors and local interests, even if it costs the taxpayer billions and risks the mission’s success.

Share

NASA rejects Blue Origin’s proposed SLS upper stage

After considering an alternative bid by Blue Origin to build a less expensive upper stage for NASA’s SLS rocket, replacing the stage that Boeing is building, NASA has decided to reject that bid and stick with Boeing.

NASA sets out three reasons for not opening the competition to Blue Origin. In the document, signed by various agency officials including the acting director for human spaceflight, Ken Bowersox, NASA says Blue Origin’s “alternate” stage cannot fly 10 tons of cargo along with the Orion spacecraft.

Moreover, NASA says, the total height of the SLS rocket’s core stage with Blue Origin’s upper stage exceeds the height of the Vertical Assembly Building’s door, resulting in “modifications to the VAB building height and substantial cost and schedule delays.” Finally, the agency says the BE-3U engine’s higher stage thrust would result in an increase to the end-of-life acceleration of the Orion spacecraft and a significant impact to the Orion solar array design.

The article notes that there were also significant political reasons as well that pushed NASA to favor Boeing.

The article also states that SLS’s cost per launch will be about $2 billion. Though I think that number is probably low because it does not include any of the $25 billion spent for development, it does compare badly with SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which costs about $100 million per launch.

Share

Boeing proposes manned lunar lander that bypasses Gateway

Capitalism in space: Boeing today announced its bid to build a manned lunar lander for NASA’s Artemis program, with its lander launched to go directly to the Moon rather than stopping at the proposed Lunar Gateway lunar space station.

The company said its “Fewest Steps to the Moon” proposal, submitted for NASA’s Human Landing Services program, minimized the number of launches and other “mission critical events” needed to get astronauts to the surface of the moon. “Using the lift capability of NASA’s Space Launch System Block 1B, we have developed a ‘Fewest Steps to the Moon’ approach that minimizes mission complexity, while offering the safest and most direct path to the lunar surface,” Jim Chilton, senior vice president for space and launch at Boeing Defense, Space and Security, said in a company statement.

The two-stage launched would launch on the enhanced Block 1B version of the rocket, which uses the more powerful Exploration Upper Stage (EUS), and go into lunar orbit. It would either rendezvous with the lunar Gateway or directly with an Orion spacecraft, where astronauts would board it for a trip to the lunar surface. The lander is designed to be launched as a single unit, rather than in separate modules that would be aggregated at the Gateway. The lander also doesn’t require a separate transfer stage to maneuver from a near-rectilinear halo orbit to low lunar orbit, as some other designs have proposed.

This approach, the company said in a statement, reduces the number of mission critical events, such as launches and dockings, to as few as five. Alternative approaches, Boeing claims, require 11 or more such events. [emphasis mine]

Boeing is essentially proposing a plan that makes Gateway unnecessary, a bidding ploy that very well might work with the Trump administration, which has already reduced Gateway’s initial construction to speed up its attempt to get to the Moon by 2024.

More important, Boeing’s proposal makes it very clear how unnecessary Gateway is, and how that boondoggle actually slows down our effort to return to the Moon. This is great news, for several reasons. First it shows that Boeing, one of the old big contractors that historically has depended on government dollars, is now publicly stating that it is not in favor of Gateway. This in turn makes it more politically acceptable for politicians to take this position. Expect more public advocacy against building Gateway.

Second, it shows that Boeing is trying to sell SLS. It wants Congress to appropriate more launches, and by showing Congress a cheaper way to use it the company is hoping legislators will buy into their proposal. SLS might be an exceedingly expensive rocket, but Gateway only makes it worse. Boeing is showing the world that there is a better and cheaper way to do things.

This also suggests that Boeing is recognizing the competition coming from SpaceX and others that might kill SLS, and is now trying to make SLS more competitive. While I am not a fan of SLS, if this proposal indicates an effort by Boeing is finally to make SLS more efficient and affordable I can only celebrate. The rocket has capabilities that are unique, and if its cost can be reduced in any way that can only benefit the U.S. effort to compete in the exploration and settlement of the solar system.

Share

Shelby delivers big bucks to SLS, Gateway

The boondoggle that never ends! The Senate has passed a 2020 budget that includes an increase of $1.2 billion for NASA’s Artemis program and Trump’s 2024 manned lunar landing proposal, almost all of which will go to Alabama, the home state of Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama).

In the Exploration section of the budget that does include the Moon mission, the big new rocket called the Space Launch System (SLS) would get nearly $2.6 billion in 2020, a $1.2 billion jump from this year. SLS is managed by the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.

The Orion crew capsule program would get $1.4 billion for continued development, the planned Lunar Gateway would get $500 million and lunar landers would get $744 million.

If the Democratically-controlled House ever decides to do anything but pursue sham impeachment charges against President Trump (such as approve a budget or deal with the Senate’s proposed commercial space legislation), it remains doubtful it will approve similar increases. During recent hearings on the budget, when the House was actually doing its real job, the Democrats were very hostile to funding Trump’s 2024 Moon proposal.

And even if the House should eventually go along, unlikely as that is, the money will not really get us closer to the Moon. The bulk of this cash is targeted to pay the salaries of NASA bureaucrats at Marshall, not actually build anything.

Meanwhile the second link above, “Cruz criticizes House for lack of action on commercial space legislation,” highlights the irresponsibility of the House under Democratic control.

Cruz and several other senators from both parties reintroduced the Space Frontier Act in March. The bill, favorably reported by the Senate Commerce Committee in April, calls for reforms of commercial launch and remote sensing regulations, which are already in progress, extends the authorization of the International Space Station through 2030 and elevates the Office of Space Commerce within the Commerce Department to the Bureau of Space Commerce, led by an assistant secretary.

The House, though, has not introduced a companion bill or related legislation, a lack of action that Cruz criticized. “It’s now been nearly a year since the Space Frontier Act has been on the House floor, and airlines, airline pilots and commercial space companies are no closer to getting greater certainty or having more of a voice on how our national airspace is managed than they were a year ago,” he said.

The Democrats might not agree with the language in this Senate bill, but they have an obligation to offer some alternative. Instead, they spend their time trying to overturn a legal election that they lost.

Share

Orion capsule has no room for Moon rocks

Good enough for government work! It appears that the Orion capsule that NASA and Lockheed Martin have been building since 2004 — for a total cost of a mere $18 billion — with the express purpose of sending American astronauts on missions to the Moon and beyond, has been designed without any capability for bringing lunar samples back to Earth.

The article at the link is mostly a dive into NASA’s make-believe plans about what will happen on the proposed 2024 lunar landing being pushed by Trump, a mission as yet unfunded by Congress and dependent on a NASA rocket, SLS, that has yet to launch and is years behind schedule. Buried however at the very end of article however was this bombshell:

One of the limitations on returning samples is the Orion spacecraft, which will carry astronauts back from lunar orbit to Earth. Chavers said the Orion spacecraft does not have any designated space for a box of sample rocks taken from the lunar surface. “We just don’t know what the capability will be,” Chavers said of bringing rocks back to Earth inside Orion.

I hadn’t read this article in detail because of its nature, essentially a NASA puff piece pushing the agency’s fantasies. Hat tip to reader Scott M. for pointing it out.

If this absurd design failure doesn’t illustrate the incompetence of our modern NASA and its big contractors, I don’t know what does. I cannot imagine how it is possible for anyone involved in this project to leave out this tiny detail. What point is there to built a spaceship for returning astronauts from planetary missions if you don’t include the capacity to return samples? None.

In fact, this omission is further proof that the goal of Artemis (SLS, Orion, Gateway) is merely to suck money from the taxpayer, without really accomplishing anything. It is also further evidence of my previous conclusion, that NASA’S entire Orion concept is a lie.

Share

House committee rejects extra funding for 2024 moon landing

Not surprisingly, the Democratically-controlled House committee overseeing NASA’s budget requests has rejected the Trump administration’s request for an additional $1.6 billion to fund a manned Moon landing by 2024.

“I remain extremely concerned by the proposed advancement by four years of this mission,” said Jose Serrano, a Democrat from New York who chairs the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee. “The eyes of the world are upon us. We cannot afford to fail. Therefore, I believe that it is better to use the original NASA schedule of 2028 in order to have a successful, safe, and cost-effective mission for the benefit of the American people and the world.”

…Serrano and other committee members also raised questions about cost. NASA has asked for an additional $1.6 billion for fiscal year 2020 but has not specified the total cost of the Artemis Program between now and 2024. “Unless we know what this is going to cost at the end, it would be irresponsible for us to take the first step,” Serrano said. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words are a lie. NASA’s original mandate for returning to the Moon, first set by President Bush Jr. in 2004, was to land eleven years later by 2015. The agency has repeatedly rewritten that schedule in the fifteen years since, always pushing it into the future so that it never gets closer than nine to eleven years.

The concerns about cost by the Democratic House members is also a lie. They have no interest in saving money, in the slightest. Their interest is solely to oppose anything Trump. When a Democratic president is in charge they will jump over themselves to fund this program, even though they know it will likely go over-budget and be delayed again endlessly.

Everything related to SLS and Artemis reeks of Washington corruption. In the past fifteen years the project has done nothing but funnel money to big contractors (mostly Boeing and Lockheed Martin) or favored congressional districts, with an actual Moon program forever receding into the future even as the costs rise.

If these Democrats were really concerned about cost and budget and getting to the Moon, they would demand that Artemis be killed, immediately, to be replaced with a more effective program that buys cheap rockets and capsules from the private sector. If they did that we could land on the Moon easily by 2024 (probably earlier), and do it for a tenth the cost.

Share

Unexplained issues with assembling SLS’s core stage?

It appears that in its effort to finally assembly SLS’s core stage so that it can be tested prior to its first launch, probably in 2021, NASA and Boeing recently experienced an issue that required “corrective action.”

Neither NASA nor Boeing have provided any detailed explanation for what the issue was, but according to the story at the link,

…one source suggested to Ars that Boeing technicians are having difficulty attaching the large rocket engines in a horizontal configuration rather than a vertical position. NASA and Boeing made a late change to the final assembly process, deciding to mate pieces of the core stage horizontally rather than vertically to save time. However, this source said horizontal mating of the engines has created problems.

Despite this, NASA officials said progress is being made. “NASA and Boeing are expected to have the first engine soft mated to the core stage next week,” Tracy McMahan, a spokesperson for Marshall Space Flight Center, said on Saturday. “However, there are many steps in engine installation that have to occur before the installation is complete.”

I applaud them for finally trying to “save time,” a concept that up until now the entire SLS project has never had much interest in. That this effort ended up causing a delay however is symptomatic of the design of the project, which remains cumbersome and inefficient, a fault not of the engineering but of some fundamental decisions at the top by Congress and NASA’s management.

Share

First SLS launch will likely be delayed again

Surprise! Surprise! NASA officials hinted at a conference October 10th that the first SLS launch will likely be delayed again, from late in 2020 to the first half of 2021.

This actually isn’t news. When NASA committed in July to doing a full static fire test of SLS’s first stage it almost guaranteed that the first launch could not happen before 2021.

What this means is that Trump’s desire to have a lunar landing, with SLS, by 2024, is practically impossible, even if Congress should agree to provide full funding, which it has not. SLS as designed simply cannot meet the launch pace required to get a lunar landing by 2024. It is too cumbersome, designed badly in terms of management and efficiency.

Share

NASA solicits proposals for manned lunar landers

NASA yesterday issued its final solicitation for proposals for private companies to build its manned lunar landers, with one major change resulting from comments to their earlier preliminary announcements.

Those comments resulted in some modifications intended to streamline the process and give companies more flexibility. One of the biggest is that NASA will no longer require lunar landers to dock with the lunar Gateway to serve as a staging point, at least for initial missions to the lunar surface.

“The agency’s preferred approach to a lunar landing is for the crew in the Orion spacecraft and the uncrewed human landing system to launch separately and meet in lunar orbit at the Gateway, which is critical to long-term exploration of the moon,” the agency said in a Sept. 30 statement about the solicitation. “NASA wants to explore all options to achieve the 2024 mission and remains open to alternative, innovative approaches.” [emphasis mine]

If these landers, using Orion, bypass Gateway in getting to the lunar surface, then there will literally be no reason to build that lunar station. NASA knows this, which is why they spent a lot of time hiding this fact by touting the requirement that any proposal must be designed to eventually dock with Gateway. The agency has been using Gateway to garner support on Capital Hill for its manned program, since the project will take decades to build and thus create a lot of jobs while generally taking few risks in space. (Politicians love this kind of space jobs program.) NASA now probably fears a pushback from both Congress and the big contractors building SLS and Gateway, and want to defuse that.

Nonetheless, this decision signals the Trump administration’s desire to get itself an off ramp from SLS and Gateway. Since NASA plans on issuing two lander contracts, I think they hope to issue one using Gateway, and one that does not. This way, when (not if) Gateway is delayed, they will still be able to fly manned lunar missions.

Yesterday’s solicitation also set a fast deadline for submissions, one month.

Share

NASA awards Lockheed Martin long term Orion contract

The never-ending boondoggle: NASA today awarded Lockheed Martin a long term contract to build as many as twelve future Orion capsules.

OPOC is an indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract that includes a commitment to order a minimum of six and a maximum of 12 Orion spacecraft, with an ordering period through Sept. 30, 2030. Production and operations of the spacecraft for six to 12 missions will establish a core set of capabilities, stabilize the production process, and demonstrate reusability of spacecraft components.

“This contract secures Orion production through the next decade, demonstrating NASA’s commitment to establishing a sustainable presence at the Moon to bring back new knowledge and prepare for sending astronauts to Mars,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “Orion is a highly-capable, state-of-the-art spacecraft, designed specifically for deep space missions with astronauts, and an integral part of NASA’s infrastructure for Artemis missions and future exploration of the solar system.” [emphasis mine]

I honestly don’t know how NASA can commit to building these Orion capsules, when Congress has yet to fund them. I guess NASA has decided that Congress and elections are irrelevant, that they — as our anointed rulers in Washington — can make these decisions unilaterally, at their own whim.

One quote in the press release really stood out to me:

“As the only vehicle capable of deep space exploration, the Orion spacecraft is critical to America’s continued leadership,” said Rep. Brian Babin [R-Texas].

What a crock. Orion is pork, period. It is simple too small for any deep space mission, no matter what lies NASA tries to tell us. It will get us nowhere.

All this contract does is justify the existence of the Johnson Space Center, which really has no purpose since the retirement of the shuttle and the decision to fly future astronauts on privately built spacecraft. Having Orion to “manage” will convince people that the workers at Johnson are doing something, when really almost everything of importance will be done by Lockheed Martin.

This contract is also another component in NASA’s political strategy to get as many players in the space business committed to both Artemis and Gateway. Pretty soon they will have everyone on board, with big tax dollar bribes.

Meanwhile, what they are building won’t accomplish anything, and will strand us in lunar orbit for decades, while other countries land and learn how to build bases on other worlds.

Share

Boeing pushing to kill Gateway for more SLS funds?

Turf war! According to Eric Berger at Ars Technica today, the House hearings yesterday about Gateway and the Trump effort to complete a manned mission to the Moon by 2024 suggest that Boeing is lobbying to kill both Gateway as well as NASA’s effort to use multiple commercial rockets, in order to get its SLS rocket more funding.

Essentially, Boeing is getting almost no contracts in connection to Gateway. Furthermore, the much cheaper commercial rockets are a serious competitive threat to its SLS rocket. However, if Gateway was dropped and the money instead committed to building a more powerful upper stage for SLS, which is Boeing’s baby, the money would go to them. Moreover, doing this would make it unnecessary for NASA to use other commercial rockets, since SLS could do it all.

Berger’s analysis seems right on target. While Gateway is a bad idea, what Boeing proposes instead would be no better. As Berger notes,

What was surprising is that [lawmakers] at the hearing also appeared to be swayed by [Boeing’s] view that bypassing commercial rockets and the Gateway would lead to a simpler and faster lunar mission. “I believe there is value in developing commercial capabilities,” [one lawmaker] said toward the end of the hearing. However, she added, “I am concerned that the decisions are not being driven by what is most efficient or effective and what is most cost efficient.”

This is an interesting viewpoint given that commercial rockets cost $100 to $200 million, at most, versus the $1 billion to $2 billion cost of a single SLS rocket—not including the hundreds of millions of dollars, at a minimum, the agency would have to invest in Exploration Upper Stage development contracts with Boeing. Moreover, one of the commercial rockets—the Falcon Heavy—already exists and has flown three successful missions. Other boosters, including Blue Origin’s powerful New Glenn rocket, should be ready to fly in two or three years. An SLS rocket with the better upper stage almost certainly wouldn’t be ready by 2024, and NASA knows this.

“At this point, there is no path by which the Exploration Upper Stage will be ready for Artemis 3 in 2024,” the NASA administration source told Ars. “Hence, it is not in the critical path (for the Moon landing).”

This lobbying effort provides us a perfect illustration of the overall incompetence and corruption that permeates our government in Washington. No one there appears the slightest bit interested in serving the national interest. Instead, the focus is on how they can get politicians to give them money.

Share

House hearing, and budget, raises doubts about 2024 Moon landing

Two events yesterday increased the likelihood that the Trump administration’s effort to complete a manned Moon landing by 2024 will not happen.

First, at hearings yesterday before the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee, not only did a top NASA official express skepticism about the 2024 date, several key Democratic lawmakers added their own skepticism about the entire project.

Then, the Democratically-controlled House released a draft continuing resolution which included none of the extra $1.6 billion requested by the Trump administration for the 2024 Moon mission.

At the first link there is much discussion about the issues of Gateway, of using commercial launchers instead of SLS, of funding, and of the endless delays for SLS, of the management problems at SLS/Orion/Gateway. All these issues illustrate the hodgepodge and very disorganized project design that has represented SLS/Orion/Gateway from the beginning. SLS/Orion was mandated by Congress, with no clear mission. Gateway was tacked on later by NASA and the big space contractors building SLS (Boeing) and Orion (Lockheed Martin), with lobbying help from other international space agencies who want a piece of the Gateway action. None of it ever had a clear over-arching goal or concept related to the actual exploration of space. All of it was really only designed to justify pork spending in congressional districts.

As much as the Trump administration wants it, I do not see a path for its 2024 Moon landing. Congress, as presently structured, will not fund it, and SLS and Gateway are simply not the projects designed to make it happen.

The confusion at the hearings over Gateway also suggests that if this project gets going, it will only serve to drive a nail into the coffin of all American manned exploration, as run by our federal government. Too many vested interests are fighting over this boondoggle. In the end I think they will rip it apart and then reshape it into a Frankenstein monster.

The only hope for a real American vibrant manned space effort in the near future still appears to me to reside in the private sector’s own manned projects, which right now means SpaceX and its Starship.

Share

Scientists propose mission to interstellar comet Borisov

In a paper published on the Cornell arXIiv site for preprint science papers, scientists have posted a paper proposing sending an unmanned probe to the newly discovered interstellar Comet Borisov, arriving in 2045.

You can download the paper here. [pdf]

Their analysis found that we just missed the ideal and most efficient launch date using the Falcon Heavy. If it had launched in July 2018 a two-ton spacecraft could have reached Comet Borisov by next month.

The best alternative option is a launch in January 2030, flying past Jupiter, then the Sun, and arriving in 2045. Because of the mission’s close approach to the Sun to gain speed, the mission would require the type of shielding developed for the Parker Solar Probe. If the Space Launch System was used for launch, a six-ton spacecraft could be sent. With other available rockets the largest possible payload would be 3 kilograms (about 6 pounds), making the probe a cubesat. As they note,

Despite this very low mass, a CubeSat-scale spacecraft could be sent to the interstellar object. Existing interplanetary CubeSats (Mars Cube One) show that there is no principle obstacle against using such a small spacecraft to deep space.

In fact, having a decade and a half before launch guarantees that a cubesat will be able to do this job, because by 2030 the technology for using smallsats for this kind of planetary mission should be fully developed.

Share

ISS partners okay Trump changes to Gateway

The various international nations that partner on ISS and wish to partner on NASA’s Gateway project issued a statement this week saying that they approve the changes imposed on that lunar space station by the Trump administration, all of which significantly delay their participation.

In an Aug. 28 statement, members of the station’s Multilateral Coordination Board (MCB), which includes the five space agencies involved in the ISS, said the Gateway is “a critical next step” in human space exploration and that they plan to contribute modules or other elements for the facility in lunar orbit.

“Looking to exploration activities beyond LEO, the MCB members reaffirmed their continued intention to cooperate on a human outpost in the lunar vicinity – Gateway,” the document, a summary of the board’s Aug. 6 meeting, stated. “Within a broader open architecture for human exploration, the MCB acknowledged the Gateway as a critical next step.”

The board offered a similar endorsement of the Gateway at a March 5 meeting. The statement from that meeting included a diagram of one Gateway configuration, with contributions from Canada, Europe, Japan and Russia, as well as the United States, identified.

Three weeks after that meeting, though, Vice President Mike Pence announced at a meeting of the National Space Council that the U.S. would speed up its lunar exploration timeline, seeking to land astronauts on the moon by 2024, rather than prior plans for a 2028 landing. NASA subsequently said that it would initially pursue a minimal Gateway needed for that 2024 landing, deferring full-fledged development of the Gateway for a second phase intended to enable “sustainable” lunar exploration in the second half of the 2020s. [emphasis mine]

The “minimal Gateway” that the Trump administration is presently pursuing is structured to shift focus from a space station in lunar orbit to landing on the Moon. This means that many of the later components of Gateway, to be built or used by these international partners, will be significantly delayed, or even made unnecessary.

So, why did these space agencies all endorse the new plan that circumscribed their participation? They have no choice. Without NASA’s SLS, they have no way to get to the Moon. And without Gateway, SLS has no reason to exist. These government space agencies need SLS (as ephemeral as SLS might be) because it is the only free government launch option available to them. They hope, by endorsing what the Trump administration has done, to convince it to go along with the complete Gateway project, including the continued funding of SLS, thus creating a gigantic international boondoggle (paid for mostly by the U.S.) that will justify all their manned space programs.

This is another reason to dump SLS. Wouldn’t it be better for the U.S. to have its private commercial space launch industry sell its goods to these leeches, rather than have them living off our taxpayers’ dime? We will gain nothing from them with Gateway, as it is presently structured, while they feed off of us. If instead they needed to buy launch services from private rockets, the profits would accrue to U.S. companies and citizens, and help encourage competition and more innovation.

If we instead buy into this international boondoggle, we will spend a lot of money for very little space exploration, even as we make the bureaucrats at six government space agencies (including NASA) very happy.

Share

Kennedy Space Center prepares for hurricane

In preparation for the possibility of Hurricane Dorian’s arrival next week, the Kennedy Space Center is shutting down, including moving the giant mobile launcher vehicle, with the SLS launch tower on it, indoors to protect both.

The agency on Wednesday moved its hulking Apollo-era crawler-transporter out to Launch Complex 39B in order to bring the massive Mobile Launcher inside for the storm. That deployment must be made promptly because the crawler-transporter travels at just 1 mph (1.6 km/h).

The launch tower itself is 400 feet (122 meters) tall, which makes it a clear hazard in the high winds of a hurricane. NASA decided today (Aug. 29) that Dorian is threatening enough to merit moving the launch tower into Kennedy’s cavernous 52-story Vehicle Assembly Building for safety.

Their caution makes sense. Expect NASA to also announce that this two week delay in work will cause them several months more in delays to the SLS program. That has been their pattern over the years.

Share

NASA Inspector General to Congress: Free Europa Clipper from SLS

In a letter to Congress on August 27, 2019, NASA’s inspector general has called for Congress to immediately abandon the legal requirement it imposed on Europa Clipper to fly on NASA’s SLS rocket, thereby allowing NASA to choose any commercial rocket to launch the spacecraft.

The letter [pdf] is amazingly blunt.

[W]e write to highlight an issue at NASA that we believe requires immediate action by Congress. Language in NASA’s appropriation legislation requires the Agency to launch a satellite to Europa, a moon of Jupiter, in 2023 on the yet-to-be-completed Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. However, because of developmental delays and, more significantly, NASA’s plans to use the first three SLS rockets produced for its Artemis lunar program, an SLS will not be available until 2025 at the earliest. Consequently, if completed on its projected schedule, the approximately $3 billion dollar Europa spacecraft (known as “Europa Clipper”) will need to be stored for at least 2 years at a cost of $3 to $5 million per month until an SLS becomes available. NASA recently added $250 million in Headquarters-held reserves to the project to address these storage and related personnel costs.

Congress could reduce risks to both the Europa mission and Artemis program while potentially saving taxpayers up to $1 billion by providing NASA the flexibility in forthcoming fiscal year (FY) 2020 appropriations legislation to determine the most cost effective and timely vehicle to launch the Europa Clipper mission in 2023 or whenever the satellite is completed.

As blunt as the letter is, the wording above is also very careful to hide the fact that the $1 billion savings will come, not from avoiding the launch delay, but from buying a private commercial launch vehicle (estimated launch cost about $100 million) versus using SLS (estimated launch cost of $1 billion to $4 billion).

Will Congress take this advice? It should, though I am pessimistic. Our Congress has not shown much interest in doing the smart thing when it comes to SLS for about a decade. Why should things change now?

Share

NASA to do full engine test of SLS first stage

NASA confirmed yesterday that it will do a full engine test of its SLS first stage, what it calls the Green Run test.

This decision makes sense. SpaceX for example routinely does a static fire test of its first stages before every flight. NASA however had hesitated doing this test because it will likely force a delay in the first launch of SLS. Unlike a commercial company like SpaceX, NASA is incapable of doing this test and then proceeding to flight quickly, mostly because the size of SLS (it is very large) and its design (very cumbersome) makes such quick action difficult.

This decision however means that it is almost certain that SLS’s first unmanned test launch cannot happen in 2020. For NASA to make Trump’s commitment to fly a lunar landing by 2024 means that NASA must compress SLS’s schedule to one flight per year. First the unmanned test flight would occur, probably in 2021. Then the first manned test flight around the Moon would follow, in 2022 or 2023. Finally the landing mission would take place in 2024.

Can NASA do this? I have many doubts. The agency’s biggest obstacle would be getting their lunar lander built in time, which by the way is not yet even designed. This isn’t the only problem. NASA for years has said that they will need from one to three years between SLS flights. This schedule demands more from them.

Meanwhile, there is a good possibility that SpaceX will beat them to the Moon. If that happens, then expect SLS to die, either before or after its first or second flight.

Share
1 2 3 9