The world’s two biggest rockets move to their launchpads!

The real cost of SLS and Orion
The expected real per launch cost of SLS and Orion

The big news in the mainstream press today is the planned rollout from the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) of NASA’s SLS rocket this evening in preparation for its dress rehearsal fueling and countdown planned for April 3rd.

This article by Newsweek is very typical. It glows with facts lauding SLS’s gigantic size and the monumental systems designed to slowly transport it the four miles from the VAB to the launchsite.

At a height of 322 feet (ft), making it taller than the 305ft Statue of Liberty, the SLS will be the largest rocket to move to a launchpad since the Saturn V launched on its last mission in 1973, when it carried the Skylab space station into orbit around Earth. Its size has seen NASA dub it a Mega-Moon rocket.

NASA says that the four-mile journey from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch pad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the SLS was recently adorned with the NASA logo, will take between 6 and 12 hours. It will be carried on the back of NASA’s 6.6-million-pound crawler vehicle. [emphasis mine]

If that April 3rd countdown dress rehearsal goes well, SLS will be rolled back to the VAB and then prepped for its first launch, presently scheduled tentatively for May ’22, though more likely in June or July.

For NASA the rollout today is somewhat of a relief. SLS was originally supposed to launch in 2015, making it seven years behind schedule. It has also been enormously expensive, costing close to $30 billion to build, if one does not count the $20 billion cost of the Orion capsule it carries. That the agency finally has this rocket assembled and almost ready to launch, after so many delays and cost overruns, means that NASA might finally be able to prove it is a reality, not simply a boondoggle designed by Congress to funnel cash through NASA to their constituents.

The Newsweek article however strangely ignores the launchpad stacking of another equally gigantic rocket that occurred yesterday. » Read more

NASA IG: SLS/Orion cost per launch equals $4.1 billion and is “unsustainable”

The real cost of SLS and Orion

At a House hearing today the NASA Inspector General Paul Martin stated unequivocally that the cost of NASA’s SLS rocket, Orion capsule, and the associated ground systems is about $4.1 billion per launch, which made the entire program, in his words, “unsustainable.”

Appearing before a House Science Committee hearing on NASA’s Artemis program, Martin revealed the operational costs of the big rocket and spacecraft for the first time. Moreover, he took aim at NASA and particularly its large aerospace contractors for their “very poor” performance in developing these vehicles.

Martin said that the operational costs alone for a single Artemis launch—for just the rocket, Orion spacecraft, and ground systems—will total $4.1 billion. This is, he said, “a price tag that strikes us as unsustainable.” With this comment, Martin essentially threw down his gauntlet and said NASA cannot have a meaningful exploration program based around SLS and Orion at this cost.

Martin’s testimony confirms what was contained in his November 2021 report, from which I took the graphic above. The article at the link details at length Martin’s testimony today, which was amazingly harsh. He also said that

NASA is obscuring costs that it is spending on the Artemis program and that, in aggregate, his office believes NASA will spend $93 billion from 2012 to 2025 on the Artemis program. “Without NASA fully accounting for and accurately reporting the overall costs of current and future Artemis missions, it will be much more difficult for Congress and the administration to make informed decisions about NASA’s long-term funding needs—a key to making Artemis a sustainable venture,” Martin said.

Martin has merely confirmed what I have been writing now for more than a decade, and documented at great length in my 2017 policy paper, Capitalism in Space. In fact, let me quote from one of my earliest essays on this subject on Behind the Black, from 2011:
» Read more

SLS launch delayed again

As expected, NASA announced yesterday that it will be unable to launch its SLS rocket on its first unmanned test flight in April, as the agency had hoped, and is now evaluating a May launch date instead.

“April is not a possibility. We’re still evaluating the tail end of May,” said Tom Whitmeyer, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development. “But I want to be really careful once again, being straightforward with you. You know, we really need to get through this next few weeks here, see how we’re doing.”

The next possible windows for launch are from May 7-21, June 6-16 and June 29-July 12.

March 16th is still being targeted for the rocket’s full launch countdown dress rehearsal. Since the agency has said it will need about a month to assess the results of that dress rehearsal, the May launch window is exceedingly unlikely. Based on the slow pace NASA has set throughout this entire project, I predict that the launch will not occur before June, with the excellent chance it will be delayed to the summer. And this is assuming the dress rehearsal goes perfectly.

Another SLS delay

NASA today announced in an update for its Artemis program that the wet dress rehearsal of its SLS rocket, essentially a full countdown on the launchpad fully fueled to T-0, has been delayed from February to March.

NASA has added additional time to complete closeout activities inside the VAB prior to rolling the integrated rocket and spacecraft out for the first time. While the teams are not working any major issues, engineers continue work associated with final closeout tasks and flight termination system testing ahead of the wet dress rehearsal. [emphasis mine]

Engineers and managers are now reviewing the schedule to see if the actual launch can be scheduled for April or May, assuming the dress rehearsal goes well.

Even if all goes well, I predict a June launch at the earliest, with mid-summer more likely. While private companies like SpaceX work incessantly to compress schedules to get things done, government agencies like NASA like to expand schedules — as NASA has done here — so that no one feels they are under too much pressure.

NASA’s second SLS mobile launch tower now behind schedule

Par for the course: According to one member of NASA’s safety panel, the contractor building NASA’s second SLS launch tower, is having performance problems and is already behind schedule.

On Thursday, during a meeting of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, one of its members provided an update on Mobile Launcher-2. George Nield, an engineer and scientist who previously led commercial space transportation for the Federal Aviation Administration, said the 90-percent design, review, and fabrication drawings for the large structure are behind schedule. These are the engineering drawings that should closely represent the final design and inform a construction schedule and logistics plan.

“Mobile Launcher-2 has encountered some challenges,” Nield said. “The selected contractor, Bechtel, has experienced some performance issues associated with underestimating the complexity of the project and some supplier related issues, as well as COVID.”

Note that NASA spent about $1 billion on the first tower, to be used only three times, at most. Its contract with Bechtel says the second tower will cost $383 million, but no one expects that number to be met.

Assuming Bechtel does not go over budget (hah!), NASA will have spent $1.4 billion on SLS’s launch towers, one of which will be used two or three times and then abandoned. That’s three times the cost of what SpaceX spent developing Falcon Heavy, and about a third the total development cost of Starship/Superheavy, including its planned launchpads in both Boca Chica and Florida.

Update on SLS: Still aiming for very unlikely March launch

A detailed update on the work being done by NASA and Boeing engineers to prepare SLS for its first unmanned test launch suggests that though a March launch is still the target, it is likely to be delayed.

The update at the link is very thorough, and outlines a large number of tests that need to be done to get this very cumbersome and complicated rocket ready for launch. They are just about done with the prep work for the core stage, and are now shifting to final testing of the upper stage, followed by some countdown sequence testing and a test of the flight termination system. In addition there are a number of other tests they wish to perform, all of which will take time.

Once these are done they will be ready to roll the rocket out to the launchpad for a final dress rehearsal countdown — dubbed the Wet Dress Rehearsal (WDR), now scheduled for mid- to late-February.

NASA will not set a launch date until after the WDR is completed and they can factor in any additional tasks with already-known work. “We’ve continually said that until we get through WDR we won’t set a launch date, so us getting out in mid-February for WDR allows them to look at March and April as opportunities,” Lanham said.

“I really can’t put my finger on it again until we come back from WDR and see if we have any issues there that we’ve got to go correct.” After the WDR test, the vehicle and Mobile Launcher will be rolled back to the VAB for final pre-launch maintenance and servicing.

Some have said the earliest realistic launch date is May, with the mid-summer more likely. We shall have to wait and see.

Engineers replace engine controller on SLS core; launch to be delayed

Engineers have successfully replaced the failed engine controller on the core stage of NASA’s SLS rocket.

Last week engineers and technicians successfully removed and replaced an engine controller from one of four RS-25 engines after the team identified an issue during a power-up test of the rocket’s core stage. Engineers are now performing standard engine controller diagnostic tests and check-outs, including controller power-up and flight software load. Subsequently, the team will work to complete all remaining SLS pre-flight diagnostic tests and hardware closeouts in advance of a mid-February rollout for a wet dress rehearsal in late February. NASA will set a target launch date after a successful wet dress rehearsal test.

The official schedule still lists the launch for February, but NASA has already admitted this is now impossible. Once they complete the wet dress rehearsal on the launchpad they will have to roll the rocket back into the Vehicle Assembly Building to do further tests. While it remains possible for NASA to meet an April launch window, more likely the agency will push back to windows during the summer.

Thus, the race between SLS and Starship for completing the first orbital flight remains neck-and-neck. Starship could launch this spring, but it faces an uncertain schedule determined not by SpaceX but by the bureaucracy in the federal government, which is reviewing the FAA’s environment reassessment for the Boca Chica launch site and really has no requirement to meet any schedule at all. The FAA says it plans to approve the reassessment by the end of February, but that is simply made up deadline. It could revise it at will at any time.

NASA meanwhile is still pushing to launch SLS in April, but this launch date is entirely unrealistic. Expect NASA to announce a new target date sometime in the summer in the coming weeks.

A detailed review of SLS’s present launch status

Link here. The article provides a detailed look at the engine controllers in the former shuttle engines that SLS is using on its core first stage, including some details about the failed unit and the issues involved in replacing it.

I found this historical data in the article most interesting:

The first attempt to launch Orbiter Atlantis and the STS-43 Shuttle vehicle was scrubbed before dawn on July 24, 1991, when the primary computer, DCU A, failed while propellants were being used loaded into the External Tank. … As a result, the launch was scrubbed to allow replacement of the controller, and the launch was rescheduled for August 1, 1991. The failure analysis of the controller revealed a broken blind lap solder joint connection of the bit jumper to the half stack, which is not a generic design problem.”

According to contemporaneous Shuttle Status Reports issued by NASA Public Affairs at KSC in late July, 1991, after the launch was scrubbed and the External Tank was drained and inerted, access to the engine area for maintenance was established on July 26. The broken engine controller was removed, and a new one was installed on July 27, followed by testing to verify the new controller on July 28; the three-day countdown was started over from the top on July 29 for the next launch attempt on the morning of August 1.

It took NASA less than a week to replace an engine controller in 1991. Now, it appears it might take NASA several months, including testing, to do the same thing on SLS. Moreover, the article suggests that there are other subcontractors and organizations (such as the range safety) that are also having trouble being ready for the presently scheduled mid-February launch.

All in all, this report suggests that SLS will not launch in February, will be delayed until April, with a strong chance that even that April date might not be met.

The report also illustrates the sluggish manner in which NASA operates today. Nothing is done with any speed. No task is done in one day if it can take a week. This is bad management, and also a very dangerous way to operate, as it actually encourages sloppiness because no one is under any pressure to work hard. The result has been endless niggling failures, each of which delays things interminably.

SLS likely facing another launch delay

Engineers for NASA’s SLS rocket have determined that they need to replace the flight controller on one of the engines in the rocket’s core stage, an action that will likely force a delay from the presently scheduled February launch date.

After performing a series of inspections and troubleshooting, engineers determined the best course of action is to replace the engine controller, returning the rocket to full functionality and redundancy while continuing to investigate and identify a root cause. NASA is developing a plan and updated schedule to replace the engine controller while continuing integrated testing and reviewing launch opportunities in March and April.

It appears they hope to make this change-out quickly and only have to delay one or two months, though at the moment it is also unclear this will be possible.

More delays for SLS?

According to a report today at Ars Technica, there is an engine issue with the SLS rocket presently being prepared for a February unmanned test flight that could delay the launch for months.

The info is buried at the very bottom of the article:

There’s an issue with an SLS engine controller. This past weekend, rumors emerged about a problem with the controller for one of the four RS-25 engines that power the Space Launch System. NASA has not officially commented, but Aviation Week’s Irene Klotz spoke with Aerojet’s RS-25 program manager, Jeff Zotti. Troubleshooting the problem began on November 22, Aviation Week reported.

Schedule impacts yet to be determined … If necessary, “replacing a line or a component … we’re probably talking about multiple days. Replacing an engine, we’re probably talking about multiple weeks,” Zotti told the publication. “On top of that, we have to assess what that does and how that affects the vehicle and the integration activities that are going on,” he added. All of that must be factored into a potential delay of the launch, presently scheduled for February 12. A summer launch for the SLS now seems far more likely than spring.

Any delay beyond March poses a very serious and complex problem. The solid rocket strap-ons have a one year life expectancy once stacked, and both were initially stacked about a year ago. The February launch pushes that life span somewhat. A longer delay is more than can be waived.

NASA IG: Artemis manned lunar landing will likely not happen in ’25

IG's estimate of SLS's per launch cost

According to a new NASA inspector general report released today [pdf], because of numerous technical, budgetary, and management issues, the planned Artemis manned lunar landing now set for 2025 is likely to be delayed several years beyond that date. From the report’s summary:

NASA’s three initial Artemis missions, designed to culminate in a crewed lunar landing, face varying degrees of technical difficulties and delays heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic and weather events that will push launch schedules from months to years past the Agency’s current goals. With Artemis I mission elements now being integrated and tested at Kennedy Space Center, we estimate NASA will be ready to launch by summer 2022 rather than November 2021 as planned. Although Artemis II is scheduled to launch in late 2023, we project that it will be delayed until at least mid-2024 due to the mission’s reuse of Orion components from Artemis I. … Given the time needed to develop and fully test [SpaceX’s Starship lunar lander] and new spacesuits, we project NASA will exceed its current timetable for landing humans on the Moon in late 2024 by several years. [emphasis mine]

Gosh, it sure didn’t long for my prediction from last week — that the new target date of ’25 was garbage — to come true.

Today’s report also states that it does not expect the first test launch of SLS to occur in February ’22, as NASA presently predicts, but later, in the summer of ’22. It then notes that the next SLS launch, meant to be the first manned launch of SLS and Orion and presently scheduled for late ’23, will almost certainly be delayed to mid-’24. And that’s assuming all goes well on the first unmanned test flight.

While the report lauds SpaceX’s fast development pace, it also does not have strong confidence in SpaceX’s ability to get its Starship lunar lander ready on time, and believes that NASA could see its completion occurring from three to four years later than planned.

The report also confirms an August 2021 inspector general report about NASA’s failed program to develop lunar spacesuits, stating that its delays make a ’24 lunar landing impossible.

The report states that Gateway is well behind schedule, and will likely not be operational until ’26, at the earliest. While the present plan for that first manned lunar landing does not require Gateway, Gateway’s delays and cost overruns impact the overall program.

Finally, the report firmly states that the per launch cost of SLS is $4.1 billion, a price that will make any robust lunar exploration program utterly unsustainable.

Before the arrival of Trump, NASA’s original plan for SLS and Gateway called for a manned lunar landing in 2028. The Trump administration attempted to push NASA to get it done by ’24. This inspector general report suggests to me that this push effort was largely wasted, that NASA’s Artemis program will likely continue to have repeated delays, announced piecemeal in small chunks. This has been the public relations strategy of NASA throughout its entire SLS program. They announce a target date and then slowly over time delay it in small amounts to hide the fact that the real delay is many years.

Expect this same pattern with the manned lunar landing mission. They announce a delay of one year from ’24 to ’25. After a year they will then announce another delay to ’26. A year later another delay to ’27. And so forth.

NASA admits manned lunar landing can’t happen before ’25

NASA administrator Bill Nelson admitted today that the goal of landing Americans back on the Moon by 2024 was impossible, and that the agency has now delayed that target date one year to 2025.

Nelson attempted to blame the delay on Blue Origin’s lawsuit against NASA for its award of the manned lunar lander contract to SpaceX.

He blamed the shifting timeline on a lawsuit over the agency’s moon lander, to be built by SpaceX, and delays with NASA’s Orion capsule, which is to fly astronauts to lunar orbit. “We’ve lost nearly seven months in litigation, and that likely has pushed the first human landing likely to no earlier than 2025,” Mr. Nelson said, adding that NASA will need to have more detailed discussions with SpaceX to set a more specific timeline.

This however is a bald-faced lie. The Trump 2024 deadline was never realistic. Moreover, delays in SLS and Orion have been continuous and ongoing for years, all of which made a ’24 landing quite difficult and if attempted extremely unsafe. Even as it is, trying this mission by ’25 is risky, especially if it depends on SLS. Moreover, as the article notes, how SLS, Orion, and SpaceX’s Starship will team up to get this mission — designed by a committee — to and from the Moon remains exceedingly unclear.

With great confidence I predict that if the lunar mission depends on SLS in any manner, it will not launch in ’25 either.

NASA runs out of money for building second SLS mobile launcher

SLS's two mobile launchers, costing $1 billion
NASA’s bloated SLS mobile launchers

NASA has had to halt construction of the second mobile launcher platform for its SLS rocket because the agency has run out of money.

Overall, NASA spent almost a billion dollars on the first launcher (to be used only three times), and now has budgeted almost a half billion dollars for the second.

That’s about $1.4 billion, and apparently it is not enough.

The second Mobile Launcher (ML-2) has a cost estimate of $450 million. However, like ML-1, that cost is likely to rise over time based on the challenges involving ML-1, which ranged from being overweight to suffering from a slight lean. Both of these issues have since been resolved via engineering solutions. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words illustrate more NASA incompetence. The first platform was designed and built badly, being too heavy for its purposes while also improperly tilting sideways The agency had to spend a lot of money and time fixing these problems.

Meanwhile, SpaceX moves its Starship spaceship and Superheavy booster about in Boca Chica using simple truck movers that probably cost the company no more than a million dollars each, if that. And they became operational quickly, and are now in use.

Musk: Starship orbital flight could happen as soon as next month

Capitalism in space: Elon Musk today announced that SpaceX will be ready to launch the first orbital flight of Starship as soon as one month from now.

“If all goes well, Starship will be ready for its first orbital launch attempt next month, pending regulatory approval,” Musk tweeted today [emphasis mine]

Musk’s tweet came one day after the FAA completed its public hearings on its environment reassessment of SpaceX’s operations in Boca Chica. Before the agency can approve that reassessment it has to digest the comments, then to hold an “industry workshop” on this reassessment.

Thus, while SpaceX is ready to go, our lumbering, oppressive government is not. As I’ve written before, I fully expect there to be pressure from the Biden administration and NASA to slow walk that government approval so that Starship does not launch before February 2022, when SLS is now scheduled for its first launch. Having SpaceX get its heavy lift rocket into orbit before NASA would be very embarrassing, considering that SpaceX has spent about a third the time and about a tenth the money getting it done.

I hope I am wrong, but this is what I expect from the corrupt federal government we now have.

NASA sets target launch date for SLS in February ’22

As expected, the first unmanned demo launch of NASA’s SLS rocket has now been scheduled for a February launch window.

The first launch window for NASA’s Artemis I mission opens on February 12 at 5:56 p.m. EDT – yes, we have dates and times for this long-awaited mission. The February window lasts two weeks, with the first half of that window allowing a six-week mission and a four-week mission on the back half.

If for some reason NASA cannot launch in that firs window, they have back up windows in March and April. These windows exist because the plan is to send the Orion capsule to orbit the Moon from four to six weeks, and then return to Earth.

The announcement came the day after NASA had finally stacked the Orion capsule on top of the SLS rocket, essentially completing the rocket’s assembly.

NASA document: Starship orbital flight in March ’22

Starship orbital flight date?
Click for full image.

According to a NASA proposal to observe and measure the temperatures on Starship’s thermal protection during its return to Earth from orbit, that flight is now tentatively scheduled for March ’22.

The graphic to the right highlights the pertinent language in the poster presentation.

It must be noted that the poster might not be telling us when Starship will first launch, but when the designers of the camera system will be ready to film. The two are different. Still, the slowdown in flight testing at Boca Chica by SpaceX since July suggests there may be some truth to this date. That date also seems more reasonable now in connection with the FAA’s regulatory pace, which still needs to provide the final approval of SpaceX’s environmental reassessment of its Boca Chica launch site.

It also seems to me that the March ’22 date would be very convenient for NASA, as it almost certainly guarantees that Starship will reach orbit after SLS, thus avoiding for the agency a very big public relations embarrassment. I would not be surprised at all if the Biden administration and NASA’s top administrators, led by Bill Nelson, are purposely pressuring the FAA to make sure that Starship orbital flight is delayed until after the first SLS test flight, now expected in the January/February time frame.

There is also the possibility that SpaceX’s targeted launch dates were unrealistically optimistic. The company had a lot of work it needed to do prior to launch on its orbital launch facility at Boca Chica, and that work could not go forward while test flights and static fire tests were taking place. Pausing those tests has allowed the launch facility work to move forward aggressively.

NASA awards Aerojet Rocketdyne contract to build 20 Orion main engines

NASA announced yesterday that it has awarded Aerojet Rocketdyne the contract to build twenty Orion main engines for capsules on missions running through 2032, with the first to be used on the seventh Artemis launch..

This engine is the one that Orion will use to enter and leave lunar orbit.

Based on the pace that NASA expects to launch SLS, once per year, I expect the last engine in this contract will fly in 2048, not 2032, since it will take about 27 years to put that many Orions into space after SLS’s first launch, expected sometime in the next five months.

In other words, this is a contract to keep the jobs at Aerojet Rocketdyne in existence for the next three decades, even if that company’s engineers build little and accomplish less. Nice welfare work I must say.

The problem Starship poses to NASA and Congress

An interesting essay published earlier this week in The Space Review raises the coming dilemma that both NASA and Congress will soon have to face once Starship is operational and launching large cargoes and crews to orbit, both near Earth and to the Moon.

That dilemma: What do about SLS and Lunar Gateway once it becomes ridiculously obvious that they are inferior vessels for future space travel?

I think this quote from the article more than any illustrates the reality that these government officials will soon have to deal with in some manner:

[When] the Lunar Starship ever docks with Gateway, the size comparison with Gateway will appear silly and beg the question as to whether Gateway is actually necessary. Does this even make sense? Couldn’t two Starships simply dock with each other and transfer propellant from one to another. Is there really a need for a middleman?

The author, Doug Plata, also notes other contrasts that will make SLS and Lunar Gateway look absurd, such as when two Starships begin transferring fuel in orbit or when a Starship launches 400 satellites in one go, or when a private Starship mission circles the Moon and returns to Earth for later reuse.

All of these scenarios are actually being planned, with the first something NASA itself is paying for, since the lunar landing Starship will dock with Lunar Gateway to pick up and drop off its passengers for the Moon.

The bottom line for Plata is that the federal government needs to stop wasting money on bad programs like SLS and Lunar Gateway and switch its focus to buying products from commercial sources like SpaceX. They will get far more bang for the buck, while actually getting something accomplished in space.

Though he uses different words, and has the advantage of recent events to reference, Plata is essentially repeating my recommendations from my 2017 policy paper, Capitalism in Space [free pdf]. Plata draws as his proof for his argument the recent developments with Starship. I drew as my proof a comparison between SLS and what private commercial space was doing for NASA, as starkly illustrated by this one table:

The cost difference between SLS and private space

The government has got to stop trying to build things, as it does an abysmal job. It instead must buy what it needs from private commercial vendors who know how to do it and have proven they can do it well.

If the government does this, will not only save money, it will fuel an American renaissance in space. As we see already beginning to see happen now in rocketry and the unmanned lunar landing business.

Prep of first SLS rocket continues to suggest no launch in ’21

Though NASA and Boeing crews and management have been striving very hard to get the SLS rocket on the launchpad for a liftoff before the end of this year, the schedule has as expected continued to slip, with the chances of a launch by December now increasingly unlikely.

NASA engineers have not discovered any major problems during the SLS testing, but key milestones leading up to the Artemis 1 launch have been steadily sliding to the right in NASA’s processing schedule.

Before NASA raised the Boeing-made SLS core stage onto its mobile launch platform inside High Bay 3 of the VAB in June, managers hoped to connect he Orion spacecraft for the Artemis 1 mission on top of the rocket in August. That’s now expected this fall.

The first rollout of the 322-foot-tall (98-meter) rocket from the VAB to launch pad 39B was scheduled no earlier than September. That’s now expected in late November, at the soonest, according to [Cliff Lanham, senior vehicle operations manager for NASA’s exploration ground systems program].

The schedule slips, while not significant amid the history of SLS program delays, have put a major crunch on NASA’s ambition to launch the Artemis 1 mission this year. The agency is evaluating Artemis 1 launch opportunities in the second half of December, multiple sources said, but that would require NASA to cut in half the time it originally allotted between the SLS fueling test and the actual launch date.

None of this is really a surprise. NASA had always said it would take about six to ten months to get the rocket ready for launch once it arrived in Florida, and it only got there in May. That meant a late November launch could only occur if everything went perfectly. As this is the first time this rocket has ever been assembled, it is not reasonable to expect such perfection.

Based on all factors, the launch will likely occur no earlier than January, but more likely in February, at the earliest. On that schedule it is very likely SpaceX’s Starship will reach orbit first.

Update on SLS: launch prep continues, launch in 2021 remains doubtful

Link here. The key milestone recently achieved was powering up the core stage with all stages stacked.

The initial power up was a significant milestone in pre-launch processing, marking the beginning of the systematic checkouts of the vehicle and ground systems that will be used for the first launch on Artemis 1.

It continues to appear that NASA and its SLS contractors are striving hard to avoid another delay and get the rocket off on its first unmanned test flight in the November/December timeframe that has been penciled in for the last two years. However, as noted in the article, meeting that deadline will be difficult, and the launch date is still likely to slip into early ’22.

The complexity of the tasks needed to get SLS ready becomes obvious if you read the article. This remains a very cumbersome and difficult rocket to launch. Though the prep this time is greater because it is the first time they are doing it, the assembly for later launches will not be much simpler. At best NASA hopes to trim the prep time from one year to six months.

Compare that with SpaceX’s goals on Starship/Superheavy. It is clear the company is aiming for the ability to prep the rocket and get it to the launchpad in mere days, not months, and by all measures it seems to be achieving that goal.

Even if one ignores the gigantic development cost difference ($50+ billion for SLS, $6 billion for Starship/Superheavy), the difference in getting the two rockets to the launchpad makes SLS the clear loser. How can NASA possibly expect to settle the solar system with a rocket that at best can only launch twice a year?

SpaceX installs 29 Raptor engines on Superheavy #4

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has now installed 29 Raptor engines on the fourth Superheavy prototype, intended to be the first to attempt an orbital launch, even as the company also prepares Starship prototype #20 for that flight.

In a marked increase to the already-impressive production cadence at SpaceX Starbase, it’s all hands on deck with Booster 4 and Ship 20 preparations ahead of the duo being sent to the launch site. Booster 4 was stacked on Sunday, with all 29 Raptors installed by Monday morning. While the orbital launch attempt is not imminent, the duo is expected to undergo a series of ground testing objectives, including multiple Static Fire tests for the booster. This will also provide time to complete the final elements of the Orbital Launch Site (OLS), from which the duo will conduct the milestone test flight.

Following a short ground testing campaign with Booster 3, which included cryo proofing and a three-engine Static Fire test, the focus is now on what will become the first integrated stack of a Super Heavy booster and a Starship vehicle. This is set to be achieved in double-quick time, following a call to arms from SpaceX to its workforce. This included the transportation of hundreds of workers from other sites in the country, as per a memo leaked on Facebook.

As predicted, SpaceX did not succeed in launching Superheavy/Starship on its first orbital test flight in August. However, as predicted the company is clearly pushing to attempt that flight before the end of the summer. Right now, based on the pace of operations, what has been accomplished, and what needs to be accomplished, I estimate that flight will likely occur sometime around late September to early October.

It also seems very obvious that SpaceX is trying very hard to beat SLS into orbit. If successful, it will underline most starkly the difference between free enterprise and government operations. The former got it done in about four years, for less than $6 billion. The latter has taken seventeen years, and about $60 billion, and has still not launched.

And even if SLS launches first, that contrast remains.

SpaceX wins contract to launch Europa Clipper to Jupiter

Capitalism in space: NASA today awarded SpaceX a $178 million contract to use its Falcon Heavy rocket to launch Europa Clipper to Jupiter.

If all goes according to plan, Clipper will lift off in October 2024 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida and arrive in orbit around Jupiter in April 2030. The probe will then study Europa in depth during nearly 50 close flybys of the moon over the course of about four Earth years, mission team members have said.

The award is not really a surprise. Falcon Heavy is really the only operational rocket with the power capable of launching this mission. Because for years Congress had mandated Europa Clipper be launched on SLS, it was designed with more mass than normal for such planetary missions. Delays in the SLS program however finally forced Congress to relax that mandate, but that left NASA with a payload too heavy for all operational rockets except Falcon Heavy, and even that requires this six year flight, with flybys of the Earth and Mars to get it to Jupiter.

The price for the launch is significantly greater than SpaceX normally charges for its Falcon Heavy, but since it was the only game in town, I suspect SpaceX drove a hard bargain.

The future of SLS?

In this long article describing the building the second core stage for NASA’s SLS rocket (the stage scheduled to take astronauts around the Moon in September 2023) was also additional information about the status of later core stages, still not entirely funded.

The key tidbit of information is this:

Core Stage-3 is the first build under the new “Stages Production and Evolution Contract” that was initiated in 2019; the contract is not yet completely finalized, with the latest estimate for definitization being early in Fiscal Year 2022 (which begins on October 1st, 2021).

Both NASA and Boeing are proceeding under the assumption that this Congress will approve full funding for later SLS rockets after flights one and two. While the signs strongly suggest that funding for at least two more rockets will arrive, that funding still depends largely on the success of the first unmanned SLS test flight, tentatively scheduled for November-December 2021.

It also depends on the political winds, and when Starship starts reaching orbit somewhat regularly (and cheaply). When that happens, all bets are off on the future of SLS. At some point it will become obvious that it can’t compete against that SpaceX rocket, and Congress will shift its funding appropriately.

Sadly, knowing Congress and the corrupt DC culture, this change will likely only happen after a lot of taxpayer money is wasted on a rocket that is simply too expensive and too cumbersome, and thus not practical for making space exploration possible.

NASA pushing for an SLS launch before the end of the year

According to a statement by NASA administrator Bill Nelson earlier this week, the agency is working hard in its stacking of the SLS rocket in Florida, with the goal of launching before the end of the year.

That statement was revealed in the last sentence of this article describing the work on getting SLS ready, work that appears to be moving along briskly with few surprises.

The present official targeted launch date is set for November. The agency had said it would take between six to ten months to get the rocket ready after the core stage arrived at Kennedy in May. This pointed to a launch sometime between November and March. Right now it appears that NASA is trying very hard to meet that earlier date.

This aggressive effort to launch on schedule is behavior quite out of character for the NASA of the past three decades. In the past, the agency would have moved leisurely along, so that those four months of margin would have almost certainly been used and the launch would have been delayed until March.

I suspect this push now to launch on time is partly generated by a fear that SpaceX’s Starship will reach orbit before SLS. If that happens it will be a major embarrassment to NASA, considering that the agency has spent about three times longer and ten times more money on its rocket than SpaceX.

Isn’t competition wonderful? It even makes government work more efficiently.

Stay tuned. There is still a lot of time between now and November. This race between comparable rockets being built by the government and a private company appears to be neck and neck as we head down the stretch.

NASA to scientists: Don’t expect to use SLS for science missions for at least a decade

In a briefing held by the planetary science community to propose its future missions for the next decade, a NASA official explained that there will likely be no available launches on NASA’s SLS rocket for planetary missions until the late 2020s, and more likely not until the next decade.

While NASA has a goal of being able to launch three SLS missions in a 24-month period, and two in 12 months, the supply chain is currently limited to one SLS per year. That will change by the early 2030s, [the official] said, growing to two per year and thus creating opportunities for additional SLS missions beyond the Artemis program. That will be enabled by changes to at the Michoud Assembly Facility to increase core stage production and a “block upgrade” to the RS-25 engine used on that core stage that will be cheaper and faster to produce.

The official also claimed that the cost of buying a launch on SLS is at best going to be $800 million, but that price won’t be available until the ’30s when SLS’s are launching more frequently. Until then, it appears NASA will charge one billion per launch.

All of this is pure fantasy on NASA’s part. Once cheaper and more usable private commercial rockets come on line, such as SpaceX’s Starship, SLS will go the way of the horse buggy. And this is likely to happen much sooner than 2030, more likely in the next three years.

Moreover, for both cost and practical reasons I cannot see any planetary scientist planning a mission on SLS, ever. There are now much cheaper options that are actually flying, such as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which costs about $100 million per launch. Moreover, SLS’s slow and cumbersome launch pace should scare any planetary scientist away, as such missions must launch on time, and SLS might easily miss their launch windows. In fact, this has already happened. For years Congress mandated that Europa Clipper launch on SLS. When it became clear that SLS would not be available for that mission’s launch window, Congress finally relented and allowed NASA to buy the launch from a commercial company.

SpaceX confirms it is shifting to Starship orbital test flights

Capitalism in space: By shifting both the 15th and 16th Starship prototypes to its garden at Boca Chica of retired spacecraft, SpaceX has essentially confirmed that it has shifted operations there from short test hops to Starship orbital test flights.

Built as the first of several planned backups to Starship SN15, which debuted a number of significant upgrades in April and May, it appears that Starship serial number 16 (SN16) has been retired to a display stand after its only sibling became the first full-size prototype to successfully survive a launch and landing on May 5th. SN16 actually reached its full height before SN15 lifted off and was more or less complete by May 10th. Since then, the prototype has remaining more or less untouched, seemingly waiting for SpaceX to decide its fate in lieu of Starship SN15’s major success.

Ultimately, with SN16 now sitting side by side with SN15 at what will likely become a sort of open-air SpaceX museum, it appears that the company has made up its mind.

In other words, prototype #16, though built and ready to fly, will likely never do so. Instead, the company is focusing its operations on preparing for the first orbital test flights using Starship prototype #20 stacked on top of a Superheavy, with the first flight planned to circle three-quarters of the globe to land in the Pacific northeast of Hawaii.

Since neither #20 nor its Superheavy are fully assembled, that flight will likely not occur in July, as SpaceX had initially suggested as its targeted launch date. However, with all work now focused on that orbital test flight, it is almost certain they will attempt it before the year is out.

The big question is whether Starship’s first orbital flight will beat out SLS’s first orbital flight, presently scheduled for November but expected to be delayed.

“The Endless SLS Test Firings Act”

The Senate passes a law! In the NASA authorization that was just approved by the Senate and awaits House action was an amendment — inserted by Senator Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) — that will essentially require NASA to build an SLS core stage designed for only one purpose, endless testing at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

The Stennis-specific provision says NASA should “initiate development of a main propulsion test article for the integrated core stage propulsion elements of the Space Launch System, consistent with cost and schedule constraints, particularly for long-lead propulsion hardware needed for flight.”

So what exactly is a “main propulsion test article,” and why does NASA need one? According to a Senate staffer, who spoke to Ars on background, this would essentially be an SLS core stage built not to fly but to undergo numerous tests at Stennis.

My headline above is essentially stolen from the Eric Berger article at the link. Because this ground test core is not funded, at best it would likely not be ready for testing prior to ’27 or ’28, at the earliest. By then who knows if SLS will even exist any longer, replaced by low-cost and far more useful commercial rockets. Thus, if this Wicker amendment survives, Stennis might be testing a core stage endlessly for a rocket that no longer exists.

And even if SLS is flying, what point is there to test a core stage that never flies? None, except if you wish to create fake jobs in Mississippi for your constituents, as Wicker obviously is trying to do.

Fortunately the bill is merely an authorization, and has not yet passed the House. Much could change before passage, and even after passage money will need to be appropriated to create this fake testing project.

Unfortunately, we are discussing our modern Congress, which has no brains, can’t count, and thinks money grows on trees. I would not bet against this fake testing program becoming law.

GAO finds more NASA cost overruns in Webb, SLS, and Orion

GAO graph documenting NASA's big project delays and cost overruns

The annual Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) report on major NASA-led programs has found that the cost overruns and scheduling problems it has documented now for years continued in 2020.

You can obtain the report here. The graph to the left, from the report, summarizes the data quite succinctly.

The cumulative cost overrun of 20 major programs in development, defined as those with total costs of at least $250 million, grew to more than $9.6 billion in the report. Three programs — the James Webb Space Telescope, Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System — account for $8 billion of that total, including $4.4 billion for JWST alone.

SLS and the Exploration Ground Systems program accounted for effectively all of the $1.1 billion in overruns in 2020. … SLS alone accounted for nearly $990 million in cost increases. About two-thirds of that increase came from NASA adopting a GAO recommendation to lower the original baseline cost estimate for SLS to properly account for work that had been shifted to later phases of the program.

The report also documented almost 20 years of cumulative delays, with Webb leading the way with delays of more than seven years. The new report added 37 more months of delays during the last year.

The report, and NASA, laid the blame for many of the more recent delays and cost overruns on last year’s COVID epidemic, but if so those delays were imposed by choice, not necessity, considering how both China and SpaceX moved forward without any delays during the same time period. In reporting on NASA for the last three decades I have found it willing to initiate long delays at the drop of a hat, sometimes for reasons, such as a storm that causes some minor damage, that do not justify either the delay or its length. The COVID panic was just another example of this.

SLS core stage arrives in Florida

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SpaceX wins competition to build Artemis manned lunar lander, using Starship

Starship prototype #8 on first flight test
Starship prototype #8 on its first flight test,
December 2020

Capitalism in space: NASA has just announced that it has chosen SpaceX to build the Artemis manned lunar lander, using Starship.

The award, a $2.9 billion fixed price contract, also requires SpaceX to complete an unmanned demo lunar landing with Starship that also returns to Earth, before it lands NASA astronauts on the Moon. The contract also still retains the goal to get this to happen by 2024, though NASA official emphasized that they will only launch when ready.

After these flights the agency says it will open bidding again to the entire industry, which means that others are now being challenged to come up with something that can beat SpaceX in the future.

Nonetheless, the contract award was a surprise, as NASA originally intended to pick two teams to provide redundancy and encourage competition. Instead, the agency completely bypassed lunar landers proposed by Dynetics and a team led by Blue Origin that included Lockheed Martin and Draper.

Even more significantly, though NASA explained in the telecon that they still plan to use SLS and Orion to bring astronauts to Gateway, who will then be picked up by Starship for the landing, this decision is a major rejection of the Space Launch System (SLS), since Starship will not use it to get to the Moon, while the other two landers required it.

In fact, this decision practically makes SLS unnecessary in the Artemis program, as NASA has also awarded SpaceX the contract for supplying cargo to the Lunar Gateway station as well as launching its first two modules, using Dragon capsules and Falcon Heavy. SLS is still slated to launch Orion to Gateway, but Starship can replace Orion as well, since Starship is being designed to carry people from Earth to the Moon. This makes SLS and Orion essentially unneeded, easily abandoned once Starship starts flying.

NASA’s decision also means the Biden administration is willing to use its clout to push for Starship over SLS in Congress, which has favored SLS for years because of the pork it brings to their states and congressional districts. They apparently think that Congress is now ready to risk the end of SLS if it comes with a new program that actually accomplishes something. These developments firmly confirm my sense from February that the political winds are bending away from SLS.

This decision is also a major blow to Blue Origin and the older big space companies that Jeff Bezos’ company partnered with. Their dependence on the very costly and cumbersome SLS rocket meant that their ability to launch on a schedule and cost desired by NASA was severely limited. NASA looked at the numbers, and decided the time was right to go with a more radical system. As was noted by one NASA official during the press teleconference, “NASA is now more open to innovation.”

Based on the details announced during the announcement, NASA was especially drawn to Starship’s payload capability to bring a large payload to the Moon, at the same time it brings humans there as well. It also appears SpaceX’s recent track record of success also added weight to their bid.

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