The Space-Pork Empire

Strikes back:

SLS is still running behind schedule. It is very likely it will not be ready for that June 2020 launch. In a few weeks Bridenstine’s review will come out, and it is likely going to show that a combination of private rockets can do the job, on time and for less money. Faced with further SLS delays, Bridenstine will likely have the political clout to enable him to make the switch, especially because he clearly intends to also continue his public and strong support for SLS for later launches. Such statements will act to placate these naysayers

Get that first Orion launch up using private rockets however and game will shift. It will then become very obvious that SLS is unneeded, and too expensive. While the corrupt political class in Washington will likely continue pouring taxpayer money into this black hole for years to come, the political winds will steadily begin shifting against it. And this shift will become even more evident should SpaceX succeed in getting its Starship/Super Heavy rocket operational in the next few years. At that point even Washington lawmakers will have to bow to reality and shut SLS down.

What will they then do? Don’t fool yourself. The pork and corruption will not cease, as long as these people remain in power. They will find a new boondoggle they can fund that will use these cheaper private rockets. Gateway immediately comes to mind. It won’t get us back to the Moon, but it will give lawmakers a big space project which will allow them to funnel money to their big old space contractors like Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

I wonder if part of this is Bridenstine trying to light a fire under Boeing and Marshall to get SLS flying sooner?

22 thoughts on “The Space-Pork Empire”

  1. Now that the AR1 engine is dead I wonder what will happen.

    From what I understand the guys in OldSpace weren’t that convinced with Tory Bruno’s Vulcan rocket. But now that Bezos is building a factory in Alabama to make the BE-4 perhaps this will change? I think the course that will be plotted depends on how BE-4/Vulcan/New Glenn works out.

    Vulcan probably hits all their targets. i.e. a production line in Alabama, and it also uses solid rocket boosters to keep the ICBM/SLBM infrastructure in service.

  2. Given this administrations penchant with defense spending I would not be surprised if SLS is cancelled and the fund OldSpace to make some kind of reusable orbital transport vehicle or something like that.

    Yes it would duplicate what SpaceX is doing. But I think right now the OldSpace actors likely just want to them down a peg. Others might consider that having a single operator is problematic in the long term. We have already seen SpaceX getting less funding than other companies in the latest contracts. I would expect this trend to continue.

    This will increase pressure on SpaceX because it will make funding their Raptor powered rocket harder to come by.

    Also, while I think the current all metal rocket approach makes more sense than the prior concept design they had, there is a really huge amount of validation they need to do to prove that second stage. I think the design is still way too complicated. More that it should be. Also given all the effort SpaceX has made in terms of design tools I am surprised they don’t have a more sophisticated second stage design. That is an area where I think they are still lacking. Although Dragon V2 does show increased expertise vs previous designs of theirs.

    1. I am surprised they don’t have a more sophisticated second stage design.

      Make it too different from the first stage and they wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the tooling for the first stage.

  3. I think climate change is caused by all the hot air coming from Internet rocket scientists who know better than Elon Musk.

    Seriously? Even the OldSpace rocket scientists were saying Falcon 9 would not work without “new physics.” Musk said, “e pur si muove,” and made it work. And now the same Internet geniuses and OldSpace gray eminences are pointing at Starship and blah-blah-blah.

    1. Yeah I’m an armchair specialist. Yet I “predicted” SpaceX would have been better off using metal construction one or two years before they themselves did.

      Of course I also thought they would have used some other metal than steel. I still don’t think it is a good idea to use steel on the first stage at least. Not when Al-Li is already proven and the reentry environment is so benign. With regards to the second stage it just seems too, uh, simple to me. I’m also not sure about how it will handle reentry. Also their mock-up does not inspire confidence to me. I hope the actual flight version won’t be as weak as to collapse with a breeze.

      1. If I remember correctly, Sea Dragon was going to be all-steel construction, because it was cheap and easy to work with. Complex alloys may be more efficient, but history has proven that efficient rockets generally aren’t cheap rockets; for cheap launch you need to optimize cost, not efficiency.

        Also, Spaceship needs to be repairable on Mars, which is likely to be easier with steel than alloy or composite materials.

      2. There are steel alloys that can take the heat of first stage reentry without protection. With an aluminum based alloy you’d need some kind of heat shield or disposal system.

        1. It reminds of the Space Shuttle decision between a titanium airframe with a little head shielding and an aluminum airframe with a lot of heat shielding. The weight came out the same, and in consultation with Kelly Johnson, who had extensive experience building the titanium SR-71, NASA opted for aluminum and ceramic tiles (Johnson told them that if there’s in any conceivable way to not use titanium, don’t use it because it’s a pain to work with).

          I think the downside is that the option NASA chose was much less resilient, since damage to the tiles exposes the underlying aluminum, and the aluminum has far less ability to withstand the heat than a titanium airframe would. After a TPS failure you might have to repair or scrap the titanium airframe, but you probably won’t even get the aluminum airframe back.

          With the steel skin, the first stage doesn’t need much, if any, thermal protection, and thus there should be less to go wrong.

          And of course 301 stainless is easy to weld by stick, MIG, or TIG, and anybody can just run down to their local welding supply shop for the right materials. I would hardly know how to go about repairing a friction stir-welded aluminum airframe.

  4. I think that we can take Bridenstine at his word. This Administration wants to see real progress within their term. SLS kept getting delayed and so they are considering (that’s all it is right now) alternative approaches to achieve their objective (EM-1). But, they still want to go to Mars after they return crew to the Moon. They correctly believe that they need a SHLV to go to Mars and so they continue with the SLS. They are aware of the Starship but believe that it is too premature to let go of the SLS bird in hopes that the Starship birds will become a reality.

    1. So the ball is once again in SpaceX’s court and, as usual, SpaceX will come through, both with whatever part they have in an SLS-free EM-1 mission and with SH-Starship. I think the latter will make its first launch to orbit and return mission well before the 2020 election, giving Trump, Pence and Bridenstine the opportunity to announce a major change and speed-up in U.S. lunar plans as part of their agenda for a second term.

  5. The traditional contractors have already co-opted the COTS style of contracting. Look at the last round for rocket development or launch contracts. The payouts vary by company in part due to the government being willing to fund inneficiency. This does make some sense but also allows comoanies to work the system.

    BO will be great at this game.

  6. I like ZimmerBob a lot but I think he’s got the chronology wrong here. “The Washington Empire” has been striking back for some time – e.g., the DoD IG’s sudden interest in the F9 and FH EELV certifications, investigations of SpaceX’s safety culture, questions anent Elon Musk’s security clearance, even the absence of any LSA money for SpaceX.

    SpaceX’s public response has included marshalling the generally clueless CA Congressional delegation to publicly question the LSA awards and the filing of a protest of the LUCY contract award to ULA. But mainly it has involved re-engineering SH-Starship and putting the whole project on a war footing and – recently – being more aggressive anent D2’s schedule.

    Now, suddenly, in the space of a few days, a combination of the Trump administration’s proposed 2020 budget and Administrator Bridenstine’s testimony at Wednesday’s Senate committee hearing has served to put SLS in existential danger.

    The public face of this initiative is Administrator Bridenstine. The backing of Pence and Trump in this is tacitly assumed – correctly, in my view.

    But, given that both SpaceX and ULA seem to have been in on closely-held behind-the-scenes preparations for the past week’s surprises, I think it’s fair to speculate about just what else SpaceX might have pitched to Bridenstine and Pence, in private, beyond just solid help with their EM-1 initiative and what, therefore, might now be in the pipeline for contingency emergence at a series of future dates over the next year or so.

    The “striking back” by “The Washington Empire” essayed since the budget proposal and – especially – since Bridenstine’s bombshell of Wednesday, has been strictly rhetorical and rather pathetic. Shelby’s incoherently simultaneous acknowledgement of the unacceptability of SLS’s chronic tardiness along with an almost plaintive declaration in favor of still launching EM-1 on SLS isn’t going to inspire much confidence among his “imperial stormtroopers.” Neither is the weary and resigned-sounding missive released by the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration – aka the SLS lobby.

    There’s little doubt some actual strike-back will be attempted by “The Washington Empire,” but part of the clever politics of this whole affair – beyond the masterstroke of pitting the Orion part of the SLS-Orion coalition against the SLS part – is the degree to which it has raised the public profile of the whole long-running SLS soap opera. This makes it that much more difficult for the usual suspects to do their usual knife-in-the-dark stuff.

    We are in for some interesting times, but I think “The Washington Empire” is going to come up seriously short at the end of the day.

    1. To be fair to Bob Zimmerman, the catchy title isn’t meant to imply this is the first striking back. He has covered the continued efforts to protect SLS/Orion/Gateway and impede SpaceX.

      I find the battle over NASA to be less interesting than disgusting in the illumination of how corrupt our government is. NASA has a small budget, the corruption must be even worse for the flagship budget expenditures.

        1. So do I. There was an outfit awhile back that tried selling the Navy quite a good little SWATH vessel. That didn’t turn out too well. The USN declined to buy, but also got their design declared off-limits for sales elsewhere in the world. The Navy, at its worst, is even worse than USAF. That kind of “we won’t buy it, but you can’t sell it to anyone else,” crap seems to be the favored way for the incumbent contractors to use the uniformed services to kill off would-be competitors.

      1. I’m a regular reader and modestly frequent commenter on ZimmerBob’s site so I’m well aware of his keen attention to this long-running SLS mess.

        Is corruption and procurement elsewhere in government even worse than at NASA? Yes. It is my personal hope that the newly stood up Space Development Agency can be a catalyst for dismantling the well-established institutional corruption embodied in defense contracting. We shall see.

      2. the corruption must be even worse for the flagship budget expenditures.

        My view is that what’s going on with DoD procurement will eventually cause the US to lose wars.

        1. I’m of the same opinion. In a rational world, a lot of inside-the-beltway types would now be sitting on Leavenworth’s Death Row awaiting their dates with a rope.

  7. One way ULA could stay relevant is investing in ACES and the Kutter/Zegler propellent depot designs.

    If folks like Bridenstine and Bezos successfully exploit lunar propellent the Kutter/Zegler designs could be a hot technology.

    Does Boeing want to continue relying on the HLV gravy train and treating Kutter/Zegler like unwanted step children? If so these Dinosaurs deserve Chixculub.

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