36 thoughts on “Cancel SLS Now, Not Later”

  1. Superb article!

    I hadn’t thought of Gateway possibly being useful once ISRU is in operation on the Moon. That’s a very good point (I’d previously considered Gateway entirely useless). However, I fully agree that doing Gateway before ISRU is active on the moon is folly.

    I’ve long opposed SLS, primarily based on cost. Even without SpaceX and Blue’s future systems, SLS is not needed – fuel depots in LEO plus commercial launch can do anything SLS can do, and do it better, with already-flying systems.

    I’m very much in favor of terminating SLS. However, I do think that the SLS hardware that already exists could be put to good use; use the structural test articles and launch tower to create a real-looking SLS permanent display for the Mall in DC, as a reminder to Congress to never repeat such a folly.

  2. Terrific piece, Mark. Welcome to the Rebel Alliance.

    I especially liked the mention of Stephen Jurczyk’s remarks to Business Insider. Jurczyk is a career NASA engineer-turned-administrator who has no ties to MSFC, the home of SLS. In fact he has long been a senior guy in the Science and Technology Mission Directorate, one of the many NASA sub-entities that has suffered, fiscally, over the years due to Congress’s gluttonous overfunding of SLS-Orion.

    His long stint in NASA’s administrative ranks renders him nearly as much a politician as Bridenstine. Accordingly, it is interesting that he felt he could make such remarks without any strong likelihood of serious adverse consequences. Bridenstine dutifully walked Jurczyk’s comments back in public, but, so far as I know, Jurczyk was not sanctioned in any way for having made them.

    Being an optimist, I take this to mean that the forces of darkness centered in Huntsville are finally beginning to lose their erstwhile iron grip on NASA manned spaceflight policy.

    Bridenstine, like his boss, Mr. Trump, seems to be a man with a sense of urgency anent NASA at all levels. The recently stood-up CLPS program to accelerate lunar unmanned exploration via heavy reliance on privately-developed launchers, landers and rovers is the paradigmatic case in point. Bridenstine, via CLPS, has, in essence, done an end-run of sorts around the career lunar foot-draggers at MSFC.

    His frequent use of words like “sustainable” anent a U.S. return to the Moon seem an all but clear-text rebuke to the expendable SLS. As NASA’s politician-in-chief, he can’t yet come right out and say what Jurczyk did. But I think as soon as SH-Starship and/or New Glenn reach orbit, Trump, via Bridenstine, will bring the hammer down on SLS and probably Orion as well. The next 24 months bid fair to be decisive anent how, and whether, the U.S. gets back to the Moon.

  3. Whittington references Bridenstine’s tweet as evidence that Bridenstine would never consider a vehicle such as the SHS as a replacement for the SLS.

    I view Bridenstine’s tweet as potentially being a non-denial denial. Being political, Bridenstine could be stating that NASA’s plans currently place the SLS at the heart of its BLEO plans. True. And so long as there is no working alternative it will remain that way.

    Then also, Bridenstine’s tweet could essentially be stating that there is currently no specific date set to transition away from the SLS. Well, technically that is true. But does that exclude a re-examination of whether the SLS makes sense when the SHS comes on line providing far better performance at far less cost?

    In the final analysis, SpaceX need to achieve a superior SHLV and then we’ll see once and for all how this will all play out. My bet is that that is when the SLS will die a rapid, inevitable death. So, it’s up to SpaceX and I’m very, very pleased to see them making progress just as fast as they humanly can.

    1. “My bet is that that is when the SLS will die a rapid, inevitable death.”

      I’ll take that bet. This is the federal government we are talking about. I’ve seen enough zombie federal programs to think that logic and common sense has nothing to do with continued funding.

      1. You’ll lose. The one thing that always beats institutional inertia and backroom powermongering is public ridicule. The now-iconic “Bridge to Nowhere” had both in spades. In the end, that didn’t matter. When SH-Starship reaches orbit – and especially when it takes Mr. Maezawa and friends around the Moon – SLS will be rendered ridiculous.

        1. Went away in the ’90s, but not before destroying a large chunk of family farms (Economics 101: when you give a straight price subsidy to a market where producers are small, numerous, and disorganized, whereas the buyers–mostly Aussie textile mills–were large, few in number, and very organized, most of the subsidy winds up in the pockets of the latter).

          It didn’t help that mohair was always a niche market, and synthetics were encroaching. Buggy whips, and all that.

    2. And so long as there is no working alternative it will remain that way.

      My suspicion is that it will take two operational alternatives because NASA will fall back on redundancy.

  4. ISS was built out of < 15 ton modules. There is no goddamn reason on earth why a lunar gateway, lunar base, mars ship or interstellar ships for that matter couldn't be built out of similar sized pieces.

    Heavy lift is a fools errand, including the Blue Origin and SpaceX aspirations, who i suspect just got caught up in a schlong measuring contest

    1. “Heavy lift is a fools errand, including the Blue Origin and SpaceX aspirations….”

      NASA foresees launching a crew a year. For that purpose, heavy lift is likely a waste of money. Musk foresees launching thousands of people at each Mars launch window. For his purpose, heavy lift could easily be worth the cost of developing it.

      It’s about matching the launch vehicle to the purpose — “impedance matching,” as I believe Rand once referred to it.

      1. SpaceX also has a market that demands a lot of launches every year and they have to compete on cost, service, availability, ect, so they design vehicles to meet these requirements. NASA? Not so much.

    2. In the case of those two, going big allows them to use novel reusable designs that wouldn’t have worked at smaller scales. That completely upends the cost structure of the industry.

      As such, I don’t really have a problem with the wasted mass and volume on each launch, given how little the extra fuel needed adds to the cost.

      1. It’s always true for NASA, but you are also right, it can’t go on forever. In the meantime, SLS can still point to JWST as an excuse; “See, it’s better managed than… ”

        oh for f sake, shut it down.

  5. I have a silly idea. If one wants a lunar gateway, why not just go with the Bigelow/ULA proposal?

    We get more space at a cheaper price and distributed lift/ACES developed as par of the deal?

    And please don’t say not enough opportunity for graft and corruption…

    1. If you want to know why Bigelow/ULA isn’t being done, you really shoudn’t exclude any of the possible answers – especially the one that best fits the actual situation.

    2. Aren’t both of these companies already involved with Gateway?

      SLS/Orion/Gateway and even the new lunar prospecting program all make great conversation but they all have a problem of heavy government involvement/interference. It is going to be hard to commercialize Gateway and/or lunar operations, especially considering our international partners are just a tad hostile to commerce.

      The most immediate opportunity for commerce that is relatively free of governments domineering activities is LEO. If these private run stations come on line, it is very promising for expanding commerce through cislunar space.

  6. The one thing I like about Gateway that perhaps hasn’t gotten much press is the capability of the location to simulate deep space and perform experiments that develop technology. Want to do a nuclear power experiment? Keep it away from Earth (but don’t pay the mass penalty to land it on the moon). An experiment that needs a colder environment? Get out of the Earthshine and the moonshine. Only manned part of the time? Great, if something goes wrong with a hazardous experiment, you aren’t endangering lives. Perhaps thinking of it as a experimental platform that astronauts can service (like a technological Hubble) is a different concept. Use it to help develop and demonstrate the technological capabilities that will make it actually useful in the future (prop depot, deep space power, ISRU processing).

    1. Nice idea in the abstract. Unfortunately, no version of Gateway seems to include provision for any of that genuinely useful stuff. That’s because usefulness was never really a design criterion.

  7. How is the development of the RS-25 replacement coming? SLS might not get cancelled but it isn’t going to get more than a few flights in without new engines.

    The important part about what is going on at NASA isn’t the SLS track but rather the lunar prospecting track. IMO, far wiser to do extensive prospecting before site selection for human missions that would be used for winnowing sites for base construction. Just about everything on the table will be rendered obsolete if SpaceX is successful with Super Heavy and Spaceship.

    Any efforts to get humans to the lunar surface will be just as wasteful as SLS. Better to save up those funds from SLS and other plans and instead extensively study where to go and then purchase launches from SpaceX to put significant numbers of people on the Moon to do activities at a significant scale.

    There is a desire to rush ahead but that might not be the optimal thing to do when looking at alternatives over a 10-15 year period.

    1. @ Wodun;

      What I’m hearing (and it may be wrong) on the RS-25 replacement is that they continue to have issues, a huge one being that, at the moment, meeting their thrust-to-weight and ISP goals (considerably better than the old RS-25 SSME) are looking doubtful (something I’ve predicted for years). If so, that’ll impact SLS’s claimed payload capacity significantly. I’m also dubious as to whether they can deliver any of the engines at anywhere near the planned timeline.

      I’m not too worried though, because IMHO SLS will be just as useful without engines as with them.

      As an aside for those who might not be aware, if SpaceX’s Starship develops roughly as planned, it’ll have the ability (with one refueling in LEO, a required ability for it anyway) to do a manned lunar landing mission. In fact, that’s my guess for one of the early test flights. I think that, especially once it happens, will torpedo any plans for NASA to develop a lunar lander. (at least, I hope so).

      I fully agree with you that unmanned lunar prospecting should be the immediate focus.

      1. “As an aside for those who might not be aware, if SpaceX’s Starship develops roughly as planned, it’ll have the ability (with one refueling in LEO, a required ability for it anyway) to do a manned lunar landing mission.”

        Are you sure about that? I don’t see how a Starship could do even a one-way lunar landing, with just a single Tanker flight for refueling.

        My curiosity about the SpaceX “Dear Moon” lunar tourism mission, led me to do some back of the envelope calculations. And according to my results, the Starship needs slightly more propellant than a single Tanker mission can provide, just to do that modest lunar flyby mission.

        My result is based on assuming a 100t payload to LEO for Starship, 150t propellant to LEO for the Tanker, and a tourist/life-support “payload” of 10t. My estimates indicate the Starship needs 258t of propellant in LEO to do a lunar flyby and still land on Earth. But after reaching LEO with the tourists aboard, the BFS will only have 90t of excess propellant remaining. That leaves 168t of propellant the Tanker(s) must deliver to the Starship in LEO. But one Tanker flight can only lift 150t of propellant, 18t short of the mission requirement.

      2. I’m also dubious as to whether they can deliver any of the engines at anywhere near the planned timeline.

        Its such a long timeline though, hah.

        I think that, especially once it happens, will torpedo any plans for NASA to develop a lunar lander.

        IIRC, the lunar prospecting missions are supposed to develop several landers. I don’t necessarily see this as bad but SH/Spaceship is such a game changer and it could move faster than the lunar prospecting program.

  8. If we get 3 different rockets which can lift over a 100 tons to LEO. it seems rather excessive.

    It seems a problem with even the Heavy Falcon, is there is lack of enough market for it.

    It seems that a lunar base would not cause much rocket demand. And it seems a Mars exploration program would likewise not provide a lot launch demand.
    Commerical lunar water mining has to provide a lot rocket demand or I don’t think lunar water mining can be viable without making 1000 tons of lunar rocket fuel per year. You start with 50 to 100 tons, but it has grow rapidly.
    How one uses 1000 tonnes lunar rocket fuel is the main problem of lunar water mining- NASA can’t use it.
    So developing a market for lunar rocket is the problem, but if it’s solved, one will have a large demand of earth launches. And such a demand might allow for 3 different rockets lifting over 100 tons to LEO.
    It seems what needs to be done [or should have done decade ago] is explore the Moon to determine if the lunar poles has mineable water. And then explore Mars to determine where [and if] there could be viable human settlement. Of course if one get human settlement on Mars one also have to large market for earth launchers- a much bigger market as compared to what is needed for lunar water mining.

    Anyhow, always been oppose to SLS, but at this point, I think one get one launched as quickly as possible. And focus of SLS should be to have an operational rocket which lifts 70 tons, and over 100 tons should only be the plan in terms use for Mars exploration. And we need about 10 years to explore the Moon.
    I think lunar exploration should about 1/2 budget on robotic and it should be about 40 billion dollar program. And should include LOX depot in LEO.

    1. “It seems a problem with even the Heavy Falcon, is there is lack of enough market for it.”

      It’s true there is not much demand for launching 60 metric tons or so to LEO at present. Even if that doesn’t change, though, there is a customer with very deep pockets who occasionally launches 25 metric tons to LEO using the Delta IV. Since Falcon Heavy is so much cheaper than Delta IV, the potential market for Falcon Heavy is at least as large as that for the Delta IV.

      1. ” Since Falcon Heavy is so much cheaper than Delta IV, the potential market for Falcon Heavy is at least as large as that for the Delta IV.”

        Yes. I thought NASA should used Delta IV to explore the Moon, and provided more market for it.
        Of course currently NASA could use Delta IV and Falcon heavy and SLS [70 ton] to explore the Moon. And after exploring Moon, could use larger rockets and Delta IV, and etc for Mars exploration. But only once the Moon becomes a destination, because it has cheap rocket fuel at lunar orbit and surface will it add enough market for 100 ton rockets which because of enough yearly launches they can be cheaper in terms of cost of payload to orbit.
        Or the value of heavy launcher is they should be cheapest in terms of per kg to orbit- but if and only there is enough demand.
        And having 3 of them reduces the demand per launcher, though having that launch capacity does to s small extent increase the demand. Musk thinks he can drive this demand- but Mars and Moon there is too much uncertainty, and they need to be explored in order to reduce this uncertainty- allowing a faster operational uses of these potential resources

    2. The growth in Falcon 9’s payload margins has certainly cut into the market for FH.

      But it still could be substantial. There are two FH flights scheduled for this spring (Arabsat 6A and the Air Force), and that is twice as often as Delta IV Heavy flies in a typical year. Next year, there are three flights tentatively on the manifest.

      Beyond that, we wait to see how much of the Starlink constellation will be going up on top of Falcon Heavies versus Falcon 9’s.

    1. I think it will be pretty intense in just the next 3 years. The first Dragon crew vessel is already on the pad, with no Orion in sight. The first crew may fly on Dragon by this summer.

      I have to say more than this year, because SLS isn’t expected to put crew up before June 2020, and that could easily slip to 2021. By 2022, the disinterested public will have to notice the differential flight rate and capability. Then, the popcorn will be really tasty. NASA could be the talk of those midterm elections, and not in a good way.

      1. No, June 2020 is the NET date (which GAO expects to slip anyway) for EM-1, the *uncrewed* flight of Block 1.

        The first one with crew is EM-2, and that has a NET date of June 2022. Which I also expect to slip (to 2023).

        I think we will see at least three crewed Commercial Crew flights to ISS in 2019 (2 SpaceX and 1 Boeing), and four each year thereafter.

          1. Well, you’re not entirely wrong.

            If and when they do launch the first flight of the Block 1B, it is planned at present as a crewed flight. And that *will* be the first flight of the new upgraded second stage, the Exploration Upper Stage.

  9. I suggest Trump reprogram SLS funds to create an SLS Component Testing Area which would run from Brownsville TX to National City, CA, with a width of one mile. The Testing Area would of course require an Environmental Mitigation and Safety Wall, construction of which would begin on the southern edge of the Zone.

    Bingo, two problems solved at once. Everybody back to work, now.

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