Thursday, March 14, 2019

NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) is Officially in Trouble

          By Chuck Black

The rumor has been whispered in the corridors of space industry experts since almost the beginning of the program. NASA's expensive Space Launch System (SLS), an American shuttle-derived "super heavy-lift" expendable launch vehicle developed originally as part of NASA's long-term deep space exploration plans, would eventually be replaced by the smaller, but far less expensive commercial crewed vehicles currently undergoing their final testing and expected to fly astronauts to space over the next year.

And now, that rumor has exploded into public view.

During a public hearing of the US Senate Commerce Committee to assess America's future in space held in Washington DC on March 13th, 2019, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the agency would decide in the coming weeks about whether to take the first orbital flight of NASA's Orion spacecraft and its European built Orion service module on a pair of commercial launch vehicles, instead of the SLS.

This is a big thing. As outlined in the March 13th, 2019 Space News post, "NASA considering flying Orion on commercial launch vehicles," the mission, known as Exploration Mission (EM) 1, was: 
...intended to be the first flight of the SLS (with Orion and its service module). However, problems with the launch vehicle’s development have pushed that mission’s launch to the middle of 2020, and agency officials recently indicated that it could slip again.
Jim Bridenstine. Photo c/o NASA/ Bill Ingalls.
SLS is struggling to meet its schedule,” Bridenstine said in response to a line of questions from the committee’s chairman, Senator Roger Wicker (Republican-MI) “We’re now understanding better how difficult this project is and that it is going to take some additional time.”

Bridenstine went on to state that:
I think we as an agency need to stick to our commitment. If we tell you, and others, that we’re going to launch in June of 2020 around the Moon, I think we should launch around the Moon in June of 2020. 
And I think it can be done. We should consider, as an agency, all options to accomplish that objective.
Without SLS the only real option to launch EM-1 in June 2020 would be to use two large, privately developed heavy lift rockets in-place of the single larger SLS rocket. The rockets would each carry a component (either the Orion capsule or the service module) and those components would dock in orbit.

The alternatives to the SLS include the Falcon-9 and Falcon Heavy rockets built by Hawthorne CA based SpaceX for their Dragon capsule and the Centennial CO based United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, which are the favored rockets for the Boeing CST-100 Starliner at least until the ULA Vulcan rocket is expected to become operational in 2021, although the CST-100 can also be launched on SpaceX rockets. 

While not as powerful as the SLS, these alternatives would allow for the mission to move forward on schedule and for a far lower cost.

A Delta-4 launched a test version of the Orion spacecraft to 3,600km in 2014, so the plan to launch on another rocket is quite feasible. And spacecraft have docked with each other and with the International Space Station (ISS) hundreds of times over the last 50 years, going back to the NASA Gemini program in the 1960's. Maybe Canada could even sell the US another Canadarm to include with Orion in order to facilitate the docking.

It's worth noting that ULA is a partnership between Denver CO based Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Berkeley MI based Boeing Defense, Space & Security a subsidiary of the larger Seattle WA based Boeing Company, which is (along with ULA and others) also responsible for building the SLS.

As outlined in the March 14th, 2019 Ars Technica post, "Here’s why NASA’s administrator made such a bold move Wednesday," Bridenstine said NASA engineers are already studying how this can be done and a preliminary plan could be available as soon as next week.

This is the second piece of bad news for SLS subcontractors this week. 

As outlined in the March 13th, 2019 Hackaday post, "Proposed NASA Budget Signals Changes to Space Launch System," NASA's proposed 2020 budget, released on Monday, would defer work on the enhanced (Block 1B) version of the SLS with the Exploration Upper Stage intended to replace the lower powered Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (Block 1) in favor of increased funding for NASA's Lunar Gateway.

SLS is derived from the NASA Constellation program, a manned spaceflight program wrapped around another expensive, over-sized American rocket rocket intended to help the US complete construction of the ISS, then return to the Moon by 2020 (?) and finally send a crewed flight to Mars.

Constellation was officially cancelled in 2010 after the release of the Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee (more commonly known as the Augustine Committee) concluded that the then nine year old program was so far behind schedule and so underfunded and over budget that it would never achieve any of its goals.

But unofficially, at least one component of Constellation, the Orion crew capsule program, was reintegrated into the NASA budget almost immediately. Other components of Constellation also remained in place until Congress would act to overturn the previous mandate according to the January 7th, 2011 post, "NASA Stuck in Limbo as New Congress Takes Over."

Curiously enough, many of the remaining components of Constellation were re-integrated into the follow-on NASA plan for the SLS which, as announced in the September 14th, 2011 NASA press release, "NASA Announces Design For New Deep Space Exploration System," promised a "a new Space Launch System that will take the agency's astronauts farther into space than ever before, create high-quality jobs here at home, and provide the cornerstone for America's future human space exploration efforts."

According to the press release:
"This launch system will create good-paying American jobs, ensure continued U.S. leadership in space, and inspire millions around the world," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. "President Obama challenged us to be bold and dream big, and that's exactly what we are doing at NASA. While I was proud to fly on the space shuttle, tomorrow's explorers will now dream of one day walking on Mars." 
Maybe SLS did provide well paying jobs, for some of us at least.

But it certainly doesn't seem like the program going to send us back to the Moon, at least not any time soon and not without a lot of help from commercial launch providers.

For example, and as outlined in the September 11th, 2018 NASA post, "NASA updates Lunar Gateway plans," at least one SLS Block 1B SLS rocket will be required in 2024 by NASA for the currently scheduled EM-3 crewed Orion mission, which is supposed to mate both the NASA Lunar Gateway ESPRIT and the Utilization Modules to the previously orbited Power and Propulsion Element (PPE).

By pushing SLS Block 1B development into the next budget year, that could open up other opportunities for commercial providers, which might include being used for the 2024 EM-3 and other SLS missions.

Here's hoping. 
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog. 

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