Get PJ Media on your Apple

The White Elephant in NASA’s Living Room

The Senate Launch System is a rocket to nowhere.

by
Rand Simberg

Bio

August 21, 2013 - 1:09 am
Page 1 of 2  Next ->   View as Single Page

Space policy has not traditionally been particularly partisan, but amidst the ongoing fiscal battles, the recent congressional attempts to write an authorization bill for NASA have generated some unusual (for space policy) rancor between the Republicans and Democrats on the relevant committees. There were two points of contention: one about the agency’s direction, and the other about the budget with which it would carry it out.

Rather than visiting an asteroid, as was proposed early in the president’s first term after cancellation of the Constellation moon program, NASA and the administration’s latest proposal is to capture one, and bring it to the vicinity of the earth and moon, where it can be studied up close by humans. Perhaps we could develop techniques for mining it. The goal would be to demonstrate our ability to divert such objects if one were to threaten earth (the one that injured hundreds in a blast over Russia early this year could have killed tens of thousands had it exploded closer to the ground), and also investigate the possibility of providing abundant new resources for use in space, and perhaps on earth. This would be necessary to make space development affordable.

Congressional Republicans have never been happy with what they perceive as the administration’s abandonment of George W. Bush’s moon program, and the new asteroid proposal did nothing to assuage them. They insist, instead, on a return to the moon, and in late July, on party-line votes, both the authorization and appropriations committees in the Republican-led House prohibited any agency expenditures on the asteroid mission.

Unfortunately, they don’t seem inclined to properly fund a lunar project. Over in the Senate earlier in the month, the major issue wasn’t over what NASA would do, but how much money they’d get to do it. Space committee Republicans, including Ranking Member Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, insisted that NASA not be authorized to spend more than allowed by the sequester, while Democrats, led by Chairman Bill Nelson (also of Florida), insisted that an authorization bill (which doesn’t provide actual funding, but only allows NASA to spend what is appropriated) didn’t have to be bound by it. In that case, the minority Republicans lost, again on a party-line vote. If there is to be a NASA authorization bill this year (there often isn’t), it will have to be reconciled in a conference between the House and Senate.

But all the fighting over destinations and budgets is a diversion from the agency’s real problem, which is bi-partisan. With the exception of House Science Committee Vice-Chairman (and former chairman of the space subcommittee) Dana Rohrabacher of California, both the House and the Senate insist that NASA build the Space Launch System (SLS), a huge rocket for which it hasn’t sufficient budget, and for which there are no identified or funded payloads or missions.  It’s been almost three years since the rocket was initially designed in the Senate (hence its nickname by its detractors as the Senate Launch System). Even with a just-completed Preliminary Design Review, NASA has never provided a firm cost or schedule for it. This is unsurprising because despite claims made by its supporters, its primary purpose is not to send humans to other worlds, but to continue to send billions of taxpayer dollars to the states and districts in which the contractors of the cancelled Space Shuttle reside. For that end, an annual congressional appropriation, with no long-term plan, is sufficient.

Others, of course, have provided a cost estimate for it. In late July, at the weekly on-line publication The Space Review, a compelling analysis was put forth revealing that each rare flight of the vehicle (the first one to not occur until at least four years from now) will cost several billion dollars, or over twenty thousand dollars per pound of payload. NASA had no direct response, because the analysis is correct.

Comments are closed.

All Comments   (20)
All Comments   (20)
Sort: Newest Oldest Top Rated
I am so over NASA. It is a big boys' rocketry club.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
This is a bit off topic, but it seems to me the single greatest argument for the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence is that they have not openly contacted us.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
"Unfortunately, they don’t seem inclined to properly fund a lunar project. "

Hmm. Maybe, just MAYBE, that's got something to do with the fact that we are bankrupt?

Nah, couldn't be that.

After all, this is SPACE exploration, and earthbound realities can't be allow to interfere with our childhood fantasies!

49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'm not saying that they should fund it. My point is that if they're not going to, they should stop demanding that NASA do it with inadequate funding.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Part II

Apollo, however, while a glorious technical achievement, moved us to an "ammunition paradigm". Please read G. Harry Stine's "Halfway to Anywhere: Achieving America's Destiny In Space" (Oct 1, 1996) for a further analysis of this concept. Basically, since we were in a race with the Soviet Union, we could not afford to fail. NASA became very, very risk averse. The Saturn, and later the Shuttles and all subsequent NASA rockets, were essentially ICBM's. They were designed to work perfectly, once. (Even the Shuttle required major refurbishment between launches and was only reusable by the most extended interpretation of the term). In a circular chain of logic, since NASA was so good at its job, it became impossible for them to ever fail - a chain that inevitably lead to the Challenger and Columbia disasters.

NASA's craft were and are not designed to be economical to use over the long term. The shuttles were high-performance race cars, taken to the edge of their technological limits. However, as Stine makes very clear, you don't run a trucking industry with race cars, and you most certainly don't require rebuilding (much less throw the whole truck away) after each trip.

But designing for the long-term requires a mind set that is currently foreign to the Space side of NASA (which doesn't seem to talk much to the Aeronautics side). This is most vividly demonstrated by NASA's treatment of the DC-X. The DC-X, built in the 1990's (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McDonnell_Douglas_DC-X) was an experimental "X" craft developed by DARPA and McDonnell Douglas to investigate single-stage to orbit, fully reusable launch vehicles technology. While not capable of orbital flight, it demonstrated many of the concepts necessary for a fully-reusable vehicle that could be turned around between flights in a time and manner similar to an airliner. The program was transitioned to NASA in 1995; NASA promptly crashed the DC-X and never restarted the program. They simply weren't interested in the airliner paradigm for launch vehicles.

SpaceX and Elon Musk (http://www.spacex.com/) have taken over where NASA dropped the ball and quite frankly they're doing what NASA should have been doing 20 years ago. Take a good look at the "Reusability" page on their site (http://www.spacex.com/news/2013/03/31/reusability-key-making-human-life-multi-planetary) and the video of the Grasshopper flights. Slowly, carefully, and incrementally they're proving the technology necessary for a fully reusable, commercial space launch system that will make the SLS obsolete before it's even built. Launch costs will drop from hundreds of thousands of dollars per pound to orbit to hundreds.

And they're not the only ones. There are at least a half-dozen other companies that are working on a wild assortment of reusable launch vehicles, space hotels (Bigelow Aerospace), and commercial space operations (e.g. asteroid mining). While they may use the government as a first customer (an honorable and time-proven tradition, and - IMHO - one of the governments roles) they are not depending on it for their long-term existence. I think that we will find that in the end, the SLS will die a long and slow death and we will find ourselves in the space Hilton of "2001" drinking a toast to its demise.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Use of a new vehicle being developed by SpaceX, called the Falcon Heavy, currently planned to fly next year, will reduce the cost per pound of payload to a thousand dollars or so, a factor of twenty less than that for SLS.

It may surprise people to know that space exploration is not NASA's primary mission. NASA's first job is the development of advanced technologies for the U.S. aerospace industry: high-risk, bleeding-edge technologies that even Boeing can't afford to do much of. Check out NASA Tech Briefs (http://www.techbriefs.com/); each month they publish hundreds of different technologies that are available for licensing from NASA, mostly having to do with aerospace industrial techniques but ranging from computer software to aircraft engine design. When you consider that aircraft constitute one of the United States' main exports, NASA has more than paid for itself over the years.

The whole argument is rather involved, but private firms very, very, rarely do research that doesn't directly lead to a product and potential profit. Xerox Palo-Alto and Bell Labs are the rare exceptions; when it takes 40 years to move from an initial concept to a marketable product, as with the X-22 tilt rotor, it works best for the government to take the lead. Besides, NASA research is available to all U.S. businesses for free or for a nominal fee, whereas if one company does the research by itself they get to keep the rights.

NASA's predecessor, the NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) simply developed technology (among other things, the first commercially successful airliner, the DC-3) depended on NACA-developed engine cowlings and other technologies for its fuel efficiency). The name was changed and NASA was charged with the United States' space exploration in the 1960's as part of the space-race with the Soviet Union. Some may argue that this was a very bad idea.

Prior to the 1960's, the general idea floating around was that we would first develop space stations, then base from them to explore the Moon, then move on to Mars and the other planets. At each step we would lay the foundations for a permanent space infrastructure that would serve not only government but commercial, industrial, and private interests towards the end of a long-term move of civilization in space. As an example, watch the beginning of "2001, A Space Odyssey" (made before the first lunar launch) - the famous space station is a hotel, not a government outpost, and the shuttle is run by Pan Am.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
See Part II above
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
The government does have a place in space in technology development. Developing the technologies for debris clean-up in LEO for example. Or the tools necessary to maintain orbital fuel caches.

Let private industry do the doing.

p.s. I've never been happy with the altitude restrictions. Just how much station keeping is necessary at 300 miles? I recall the Gemini (with an Agena stage) going to 900 miles. Likely that's a LOT cleaner environment than the current ISS altitude.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
That would put it up in the Van Allen belts, with associated high-radiation environment.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'll see that 900 mile and raise to 4000 miles.

MUCH better view! And safely between inner and outer belts.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Much more costly to resupply. And it's not a better view -- it's ten times as far away.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
See posting above: NASA's primary job is technology development and space exploration. I can see an argument for transitioning the ISS to either a commercial operator or an agency like the National Science Foundation (who runs McMurdo Station in the Antarctic).

Above all, the government needs to get out of the way of private industry. Chiefly this means streamlining the bureaucracy, especially ITAR (the International Trafficking in Arms Regulations) that cover EVERYTHING having to do with spacecraft and launch vehicles.

The altitude restrictions had to do with the maximum altitude of the Shuttles and other launch vehicles that had to reach the ISS. Also, it needs to be well below the Van Allen belts in order to keep the radiation dosages sufficiently low.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
In addition to a kick ass view, low earth orbit has several things that are difficult, expensive, or impossible to duplicate on Earth. Extended micro gravity and endless hard vacuum to name just two.
As for space travel in general, someone once calculated that to bring the living standards of the entire Earth's population up to a level equal to that of US citizens would take resources greater than the entire Earth's mass. We either learn to go get those resources elsewhere or condemn most people to lives of want and poverty.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Nonsense
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Obama and the democrats have already announced that the whole purpose of NASA was to show how clever Moslems are and how they invented everything that advanced technology in the past thousand years. So NASA must continue its Islamic purpose.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
This is nonsense. All that ever happened is that Bolden made an idiotic comment in an interview with Al Jazeera. NASA spends no money whatsoever on this.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Democrats killed Bush's moon program for exclusively partisan reasons. It's one of the only big accomplishments credited to JFK (for whatever reason), and they don't want any Republican getting a piece of that, especially George W. Bush.

Plus, they'd rather have the money to spend on boondoggles like green energy and Obamacare.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
This is also nonsense. Bush didn't have a moon program -- Mike Griffin wrecked it with a disastrous and unaffordable choice of architecture. The Augustine Comittee wasn't "Democrats."
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
1 2 Next View All