Tag Archives: SLS

GAO finds continuing budget and scheduling problems for NASA’s big projects

A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released yesterday revealed that the ongoing budget overruns and scheduling delays for NASA’s big projects have continued, and in some cases worsened in the past year.

The cost and schedule performance of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) portfolio of major projects continues to deteriorate. For this review, cost growth was 27.6 percent over the baselines and the average launch delay was approximately 13 months, the largest schedule delay since GAO began annual reporting on NASA’s major projects in 2009.

This deterioration in cost and schedule performance is largely due to integration and test challenges on the James Webb Space Telescope (see GAO-19-189 for more information). The Space Launch System program also experienced significant cost growth due to continued production challenges. Further, additional delays are likely for the Space Launch System and its associated ground systems. Senior NASA officials stated that it is unlikely these programs will meet the launch date of June 2020, which already reflects 19 months of delays. These officials told GAO that there are 6 to 12 months of risk associated with that launch date. [emphasis mine]

The Trump administration has made it clear to NASA’s bureaucracy that it expects SLS to meet the June 2020 deadline, or it will begin the process of ending the program and replacing it with private rockets. This GAO report suggests that this threat is almost certain to be carried out.

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NASA IG finds both Europa missions a mess

Our incompetent federal government: A report released today [pdf] by NASA’s inspector general has found that the management of the Europa Clipper orbiter and the later Europa lander missions, both mandated by Congress, are facing serious budget and schedule risks, despite being given more than three-quarters of a billion dollars more than requested.

Congress has taken a strong interest in the project and since fiscal year (FY) 2013 has appropriated about $2.04 billion to NASA for a Europa mission—$1.26 billion more than the Agency requested.

…Despite [this] robust early-stage funding, a series of significant developmental and personnel resource challenges place the Clipper’s current mission cost estimates and planned 2023 target launch at risk. In addition, although Congress directed NASA to use the SLS to launch the Clipper, it is unlikely to be available by the congressionally mandated 2023 date and therefore the Agency continues to maintain spacecraft capabilities to accommodate both the SLS and two commercial launch vehicles, the Delta IV Heavy and Falcon Heavy. [emphasis mine]

The lander meanwhile is in even worse shape, especially because its congressionally-mandated launch date on SLS in 2025 seems impossible.

It seems to me that this entire project could be the poster boy for the overall incompetence of our so-called “betters” in Washington, who in the past three decades have failed spectacularly in practically every major project they have undertaken. The project was mandated on NASA by Congress, led by former congressman John Culberson (R-Texas), who was then the chairman of the House subcommittee that was in charge of funding the agency. It was his pet project. Though the planetary science community were glad to have this mission, it was listed as their second priority in their 2011 decadal survey. Culberson made it first, and also made sure it got a lot of money, far more than NASA ever requested.

Despite this strong support, the inspector general has now found that the project is being badly mismanaged and faces budget overruns and scheduling problems. The scheduling problems partly result from the project’s bad management, but mostly because of Congress’s demand that the spacecraft fly on SLS. Our vaunted elected officials wanted to give that boondoggle (they own pet project) a mission, something it didn’t have, and Europa Clipper and Lander were therefore given that task.

The problem, as I have documented endlessly, is that SLS is woefully behind schedule. It appears it will likely not be ready for Europa Clipper’s launch window in 2023.

But hey, let’s give our federal government more responsibility and power! Let’s go socialist!

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House ignores request for more NASA money for moon mission

A House committee today approved a NASA budget that ignored the Trump administration’s request for $1.6 billion more money to support its attempt to land a manned mission on the Moon by 2024.

Instead, the committee shifted more money into earth science and Gateway.

Whether this budget is what ends up being enacted remains to be seen. It does appear however that Trump will have great trouble funding his Moon project. Sadly, that lack of funding does not mean the overall federal budget is coming under control. On the contrary, it appears the Democratic-controlled House simply wants to spend lots of money, but on different things.

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Trump seeks $1.6 billion more for NASA, cuts money to Gateway

The Trump administration, in order to support its desire to accomplish a lunar landing by 2024, is requesting a $1.6 billion increase in NASA’s budget for fiscal year 2020. The key detail however is this:

NASA shortly thereafter published a summary of its budget amendment, which calls for nearly $1.9 billion in new funding for developing lunar landers and accelerating work on the Space Launch System and Orion. It would also go towards exploration technology development and additional science missions to the moon. That increase would be offset by cutting funding for the lunar Gateway by $321 million, reflecting the agency’s plan for only a “minimal” Gateway needed to support a 2024 landing.

In other words, in total Trump wants $1.6 billion more. The good news: He is de-emphasizing Gateway in his future plans. This might even lead to its cancellation as a project.

The bad news? He is pumping more money into SLS/Orion. However, this might not be that bad, when one considers how our bankrupt Washington government functions. Trump doesn’t have the political backing to cut SLS/Orion outright. Instead this proposal is that project’s Hail Mary pass for a touchdown. While private efforts continue to mature to develop cheaper rockets and manned capsules, SLS/Orion will have this one last chance to finally prove itself. If it finds it can’t get it done, and those private options show that they can, then Trump might finally be able to harness the political will in our dumb Congress to dump SLS/Orion.

And if SLS/Orion does succeed? The victory will likely still be a Pyrrhic one. SLS/Orion will still be too expensive and too slow to do much else but a single lunar landing, a stunt much like Apollo, with far less long term possibilities. Meanwhile, those private efforts will continue to develop. By 2024 a switch by NASA to private enterprise and competition will still make sense anyway, even if SLS/Orion gives the nation a spectacular lunar landing.

This action indicates that the Trump administration is paying attention to these matters. They are creating a situation that will put them in a strong negotiating position to get what they want, for the nation. One way or the other, we will be heading back to the Moon.

One minor detail: NASA has chosen “Artemis” as the name for its project to land on the Moon by 2020.

Bridenstine also … announce[d] that this 2024 lunar landing mission will be named Artemis, after the sister of Apollo and the Greek goddess of the moon. “I think it is very beautiful that, 50 years after Apollo, the Artemis program will carry the next man and the first woman to the moon.”

No one should be fooled by this. Apollo was a full program, with a well-thought slate of missions designed to get us to the Moon quickly. This SLS/Orion project is still an off the cuff mishmash, with only two or three flights at most, and without much of a plan behind those flights. It has been and continues to be an improvised mess.

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NASA safety panel on SLS schedule, Dragon explosion

NASA’s safety panel held a long scheduled meeting to review NASA’s on-going manned projects, and had the following to say:

The first story describes very little new information about the explosion on April 20th that destroyed the Dragon crew capsule during engine tests, other than it occurred in connection with the firing of the Dragon’s eight SuperDraco engines. I am being vague because they were.

The second story describes the panel’s strong objection to any effort by NASA to trim the test program for SLS in order to meet the Trump administration’s 2024 deadline for returning to the Moon. It also confirms officially for the first time that NASA will not be able to fly the first unmanned mission of SLS in 2020. That flight is now expected in 2021, a decade after NASA began development of SLS, and seventeen years after George Bush Jr first proposed NASA build this heavy-lift rocket.

That’s practically one person’s entire career at NASA. Seems pretty shameful to me.

While I actually agree with the panel’s advice in both of these stories, both stories however do reflect the overall culture of this safety panel: Go slow, take no risks, be patient. This culture is in fact so cautious that it has served to practically make impossible any American exploration of space, on our own rockets.

Based on what I expect now during the investigation of the Dragon explosion, I would not be surprised if the panel successfully delays the first manned Dragon launch another year or two or three.

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Independent study finds NASA’s Mars plans infeasible

Surprise, surprise! An independent study, ordered by Congress, has determined that NASA’s Mars exploration plans are infeasible and cannot get the U.S. to the red planet in 2033 as NASA claims.

STPI, at NASA’s direction, used the strategy the agency had laid out in its “Exploration Campaign” report, which projects the continued use of the Space Launch System and Orion and development of the lunar Gateway in the 2020s. That would be followed by the Deep Space Transport (DST), a crewed spacecraft that would travel from cislunar space to Mars and back. NASA would also develop lunar landers are related system to support crewed missions to the lunar surface, while also working on systems for later missions to the surface of Mars.

That work, the STPI report concluded, will take too long to complete in time to support a 2033 mission. “We find that even without budget constraints, a Mars 2033 orbital mission cannot be realistically scheduled under NASA’s current and notional plans,” the report states. “Our analysis suggests that a Mars orbital mission could be carried out no earlier than the 2037 orbital window without accepting large technology development, schedule delay, cost overrun, and budget shortfall risks.”

I guarantee that even if NASA got a blank check from Congress it could not make the 2037 date above either, not if they intend to use SLS, Orion, and Gateway.

This report was ordered by Congress as part of the building political desire in Washington to shift gears away from SLS and to the private sector. SLS has too many vested interests, both in and out of Congress, for the cowards in Washington to just shut it down. In order to do so, they need ammunition they can use against those vested interests. This report, though stating the obvious, gives them that ammunition, as it carries an official think tank stamp, something the mediocre minds in DC require for them to take any forthright action.

At the same time, I can see the corrupt porkmeisters in Congress, such as Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama), drooling over this report. They see the gigantic budget and endless time it estimates NASA will need to go to Mars with SLS, Orion, and Gateway as a feature, not a bug.

“As such,” the report concludes, “a mission to Mars orbit in 2033 is infeasible from a technology development and schedule perspective.” The next launch window, in 2035, was also deemed infeasible because of technology development work, pushing the earliest possible date for flying the mission to the following launch window in 2037.

STPI also estimated the cost of carrying out this first Mars mission in 2037. The report estimated the total cost of just those elements needed for the Mars mission, including SLS, Orion, Gateway, DST and other logistics, at $120.6 billion through fiscal year 2037. Of that total, $33.7 billion has been spent to date on SLS and Orion development and associated ground systems.

Another $90 billion in pork, spread over twenty years! Wow, that’s exactly what many of the thieves in Washington like. This wasteful spending won’t serve the nation’s needs by making us a competitive space-faring nation, but it will distribute a lot of money to the people who donate campaign dollars to these politicians.

Which way will we go? I have no idea right now. The voters could make a difference, if the voters finally decided to clean out Congress. I see no evidence of them doing so, however, so expect bad things for the future.

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NASA head says that Falcon Heavy remains a future option for Orion

At an agency meeting for employees NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine reiterated that NASA is still seriously considering the use of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy for future Orion lunar missions instead of SLS.

Bridenstine then laid out one scenario that has huge implications, not for a 2020 launch, but one later on. Until now, it was thought that only NASA’s Space Launch System could directly inject the Orion spacecraft into a lunar orbit, which made it the preferred option for getting astronauts to the Moon for any potential landing by 2024. However, Bridenstine said there was another option: a Falcon Heavy rocket with an Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage built by United Launch Alliance. “Talk about strange bedfellows,” he mused about the two rocket rivals.

This plan has the ability to put humans on the Moon by 2024, Bridenstine said. He then emphasized—twice—that NASA’s chief of human spaceflight, William Gerstenmaier, has yet to bless this approach due to a number of technical details. His reservations include the challenge of integrating the Falcon Heavy rocket in a horizontal position and then loading Orion with fuel in a vertical configuration on the launchpad. The Falcon Heavy would also require a larger payload fairing than it normally flies with. This would place uncertain stress on the rocket’s side-mounted boosters.

All the problems outlined in the second paragraph are the result of bad past management at NASA. Just as you design your rocket based the rocket engines you have — in order to save time and money — you design your capsule and manned vehicles based on the rockets that are available. NASA did not do this. It built Orion in a fantasy la-la land, without addressing the real world rocket options available. Now it has to either reconfigure, or get SpaceX to rethink the Falcon Heavy. Neither option will be cheap.

Regardless, Bridenstine’s statement is another shot across the bow to the porkmeisters in Congress. SLS is on shaky financial ground. It cannot compete in price with the commercial options. More significantly, it cannot come close to matching the launch rates of the private rockets. In the time NASA could put together one SLS launch, SpaceX could likely fly five to ten Falcon Heavies, and still do it for less money overall.

SLS is now tasked with a December 2020 deadline for launching that first unmanned test flight. Should it fail to meet that date, the political battle lines are now being laid for replacing it.

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Pence reiterates Trump administration’s willingness to abandon SLS

Turf war! At today’s National Space Council meeting, vice-president Mike Pence reiterated the Trump administration’s willingness to replace SLS with commercial rockets, if that is what it will take to get Americans back to the Moon by 2024.

Pence said the schedule for completing SLS must be accelerated, but also opened the door to using rockets built by a commercial spaceflight company for the lunar mission. “We’re not committed to any one contractor. If our current contractors can’t meet this objective, then we’ll find ones that will,” he said. “And if commercial rockets are the only way to get American astronauts to the moon in the next five years, then commercial rockets it will be.”

It is very clear now that the Trump administration is beginning the political war necessary for shutting down the SLS boondoggle, something that cannot happen easily considering how its large workforce is scattered in so many states and congressional districts. To make it happen, they need to publicly illustrate its failure, repeatedly, but do so in a manner that does not overly antagonize SLS’s supporters. This is why both Pence and NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine have been careful to express support for SLS, even as they hint at its replacement.

The battle is joined, however, and that could be a very good thing for the American space industry, in the coming years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Washington Empire strikes back!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capitalism in space: Faced with endless delays that will likely prevent the first scheduled launch of SLS in June 2020, NASA is now considering using commercially purchased rockets to send the Orion capsule and European service module on that same mission.

NASA now believes the Space Launch System will not be ready for the EM-1 test flight by June 2020, the program’s most recent target launch date. Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator, said Wednesday the space agency is weighing alternatives to keep the Orion spacecraft on track for a lunar mission in 2020 to test the capsule’s European-built power and propulsion module, and assess the performance of the crew capsule’s heat shield during blistering re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere from the moon.

“Some of those options would include launching the Orion crew capsule and the European service module on a commercial rocket,” Bridenstine said in a hearing with the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Bridenstine said it is important for NASA to stick to its commitment to launch EM-1 by June 2020, and his announcement Wednesday marked the first time a NASA leader has publicly discussed launching the Orion spacecraft’s first lunar mission on a commercial rocket, and not the more expensive government-run Space Launch System. “Certainly, there are opportunities to utilize commercial capabilities to put the Orion crew capsule and the European service module in orbit around the moon by June of 2020, which was our originally-stated objective, and I’ve tasked the agency to look into how we might accomplish that objective,” Bridenstine said.

Because Orion and its service module are so heavy they cannot be launched by a single Falcon Heavy rocket. However, that rocket could easily put everything in orbit in two launches, where the two parts could dock together.

There is still a problem with this plan, according to Bridenstine:

“I want to be clear. We do not have, right now, an ability to dock the Orion crew capsule with anything in orbit. So between now and June of 2020, we would have to make that a reality.”

I find this fact incredible. NASA built Orion without the capability to maneuver and dock with other spacecraft? If this is true, it shows once again the outright incompetence of anything our federal government does, including NASA.

Regardless, Bridenstine’s announcement is very good news. If Orion is launched on that 2020 first test mission using commercial rockets, it will demonstrate clearly the uselessness of the expensive and very delayed SLS. It will also make it politically easier to consider shutting it down, before it eats up more funds.

More important, this statement by Bridenstine indicates that there are many people in the Trump administration that have come to this same conclusion. This statement also means that they are beginning to make the political moves necessary to make the cancellation of SLS possible.

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NASA cancels overbudget instrument for Europa clipper

Because its budget had ballooned to three times its original estimate, NASA has decided to cancel a science instrument for its Europa Clipper probe to Jupiter’s moon.

[Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science] said in the memo that, at the time of the February review, ICEMAG’s estimated cost has grown to $45.6 million, $16 million above its original cost trigger and $8.3 million above a revised cost trigger established just a month earlier. That cost was also three times above the original estimate in the ICEMAG proposal. “The level of cost growth on ICEMAG is not acceptable, and NASA considers the investigation to possess significant potential for additional cost growth,” Zurbuchen wrote in the memo. “As a result, I decided to terminate the ICEMAG investigation.”

The contrast between how NASA operates in its unmanned planetary science programs with how the agency operates in its manned programs is striking. The agency’s planetary program is probably its most successful achievement, and has been for decades. Spacecraft almost always get built close to budget, launch on time, and accomplish amazing things when their arrive at their planetary targets, either the Moon, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, or Pluto and beyond. Part of the reason for this success is a willingness by NASA to make hard decisions, such as the one above, even if it might ruffle some political feathers. The result is that everyone focuses on getting the job done, on budget and on time. They know that if they screw up, as the ICEMAG team did here, they might find themselves on the chopping block.

In contrast, as I noted in my previous post, NASA allows things to get out of control in its manned program. In fact, they might consider this a feature of the system, not a bug. The goal is not to accomplish anything, but to funnel cash to the states and districts of elected officials. The result is that nothing ever flies, or if it does, it does so very late, very over budget, and often with technical difficulties. Worse, the focus on pleasing corrupt lawmakers like Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) means that NASA is often hostile to the success in manned space by others, such as SpaceX.

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NASA reassessing SLS first launch date

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NASA schedules Orion/SLS launch abort test

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

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

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

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

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NASA to avoid SLS delays should another shutdown occur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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First SLS launch faces more delays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NASA’s warped measure of safety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NASA suggests retirement of SLS when BFR and New Glenn fly

Capitalism in space: During an interview at a November 1st conference, a NASA official mentioned that if SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) and Blue Origin’s New Glenn begin flying successfully the agency will seriously consider retiring SLS.

“I think our view is that if those commercial capabilities come online, we will eventually retire the government system, and just move to a buying launch capacity on those [rockets],” Stephen Jurczyk, NASA’s associate administrator, told Business Insider at The Economist Space Summit on November 1.

However, NASA may soon find itself in a strange position, since the two private launch systems may beat SLS back to the moon – and one might be the first to send people to Mars.

I have been saying that this should happen since almost the first day this website was started in 2011. To quote from a September 14, 2011 post:

To be really blunt, this new rocket, like all its predecessors, will never fly either. It costs too much, will take too long to build, and will certainly be canceled by a future administration before it is finished. It is therefore a complete waste of money, and any Congress that approves it will demonstrate how utterly insincere they are about controlling spending.

It appears that I was wrong with this prediction on one count. SLS might actually fly a few times, but only to allow its supporters in Congress and NASA to justify that support. When the private rockets come on line in the early 2020s, cheaper, faster, and better designed (with re-usability), NASA and Congress will then finally say that these rockets are better and that SLS will die, and they will also both make believe they were saying that from the very beginning.

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Advisory panel to Space Council pans Gateway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Democratic control of House threatens Space Force and SLS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Audit of SLS predicts more cost overruns and delays

Ever get a feeling of deja vu? A report by NASA’s inspector general yesterday slammed NASA and Boeing for their management of the SLS program, noting that the first unmanned launch will likely be delayed further and the cost for the program will go up another $4 billion.

The much-anticipated premiere of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket will likely see yet another push to the right, this time beyond mid-2020, as the program faces billions in cost overruns, according to a scathing audit released Wednesday by the agency’s Office of Inspector General.

Originally slated to launch from Kennedy Space Center’s pad 39B in December 2017, a 322-foot-tall version of the rocket known as SLS Block 1 will likely still be unprepared for a liftoff on the uncrewed Exploration Mission-1 by June 2020, auditors said. Even if teams could technically meet that deadline, NASA would need to offer Boeing, the contractor building the first two core stages, an infusion of $1.2 billion: $800 million to secure first stage delivery to KSC by December 2019 and an additional $400 million to make sure EM-1 launches by June 2020.

“Consequently, in light of the Project’s development delays, we have concluded NASA will be unable to meet its EM-1 launch window currently scheduled between December 2019 and June 2020,” a portion of the 50-page report reads.

The report [pdf] states that Boeing’s budget will have to double to $8 billion to meet these demands. In truth, SLS has cost the taxpayers a lot more than that, probably in the range in excess of $30 billion, if you add up all the yearly appropriations from Congress specifically applied to this rocket project and extend them through the first manned launch, now probably not taking place prior to 2024. (See my policy paper, Capitalism in Space, to see the breakdown.)

If this audit is correct, and I see no reason not to believe it, it will have taken the modern NASA more than twenty years to build and launch a single manned capsule, with a total cost of over $60 billion.

SpaceX built Falcon 1, Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, Dragon cargo, and Dragon manned in about half that time, for a cost of about $2 billion. Falcon Heavy alone cost $500 million, and took only seven years.

From whom would you buy the product?

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NASA pushes upgrades to interim and final SLS upper stages

Because of increased funding to SLS from Congress, NASA is now pushing Boeing to do upgrades to the interim SLS upper stage as well as its final full power upper stage, dubbed the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) and originally planned for most SLS missions.

Those changes were prompted by the decision NASA made earlier this year to delay the introduction of the EUS. That stage was originally planned to enter use with the second SLS mission, Exploration Mission (EM) 2. Instead, the first flight of what’s known as the Block 1B configuration of SLS has been delayed to the fourth SLS launch, likely no earlier than 2024.

“That has put a slow down on the Exploration Upper Stage work,” said (John Shannon, vice president and program manager for the Space Launch System at Boeing). “We were rapidly approaching the critical design review.”

NASA has asked Boeing to spend some time to try and “optimize” the EUS with the goal of increasing the amount of additional payload it can carry. Such co-manifested payloads, such as modules for NASA’s proposed lunar Gateway, would be carried on the SLS underneath the Orion spacecraft. (emphasis mine)

Shannon also made what might be the biggest understatement I have ever heard when asked about SLS’s endless delays, noting that “We underestimated that somewhat,” referring to the time it has taken to build the rocket.

NASA got Congress to give them extra money to allow more flights of the interim stage, since putting humans on EUS on its first flight was absurdly risky. This way they could also avoid further delays on that first SLS/Orion manned mission, now set for 2023, almost twenty years since it was first proposed. By pushing for more upgrades, they can also justify again stretching the program out longer, thus stretching out the pork without actually flying anything.

The contrast with SpaceX’s development of Falcon Heavy with NASA’s development of SLS continues to be striking. The former was conceived, built, and launched in less than ten years, for a cost of half a billion. The latter remains unflown and unready to fly after fourteen years of development, and likely will not fly for another six years plus. And its development cost will likely top $50 billion by that time.

If I was a customer looking to buy a product, I would laugh NASA out of the room if it tried to sell me its SLS rocket. Unfortunately, the critters in Congress aren’t that smart, and continue to pour money into this dead end project, money that could be much more effectively spent buying rockets from the private sector.

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Trump administration goes all in for LOP-G

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

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

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

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

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

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A petition to kill SLS/Orion and LOP-G

Link here. To quote their announcement at the link:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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