"As NASA Administrator, I already own a Heavy Lifter (in) the Space Shuttle stack. I will not give that up lightly and, in fact, can't responsibly do so because.... any other solution for getting 100 tons into orbit is going to be more expensive than efficiently utilizing what we already own."
-Dr. Michael D. Griffin, NASA Administrator, May 2005
In our last instalment, I covered a little of the history of the shuttle program, and the current administrations attempts to “change the direction” of our manned space program. To recap, after the Presidents campaign position to “delay” the Constellation program, then his reversal pledging to support it, he cancelled it.
The administration did this unilaterally, against the wishes of members of both parties in Congress, who were, and still are, understandably upset. The country had already spent $9 billion on the project, most of which seems to be destined to be wasted, as pork for aerospace contractors. The cancellation costs alone are in the billions of dollars.
The administration intended to transfer much of the current funding to private companies, to fund them to develop multiple “LEO taxi” services, supposedly freeing up NASA to do blue sky research on “game changing” technology. The LEO taxi service will be simply that, a taxi to the International Space Station.
The Ares V heavy lift launcher was to be cancelled, and replaced with a program to develop a large liquid fuelled engine for a future heavy lift launcher that may or may not be developed for a mission that may or may not happen at some future date, long after the people responsible for this vandalism will be long gone.
Congress, to put it simply, was not going to sit still for this. They grudgingly have gone along with cancelling Ares I, the ill thought out Solid Rocket Booster derived launcher, designed to keep Thiokol in the solid rocket booster business, while shaking the crew to jelly. However, they were not willing to accept the death of heavy lift, and therefore the death of any notion of going beyond 400 miles up, for the first time in over thirty years.
To this end, Congress demanded what amounts to the resurrection of Ares V. Just to be sure that no one at NASA got any more funny ideas, Congress spelt out what they wanted. They wanted a rocket based on Shuttle technology, capable of the following:
(c) Minimum Capability Requirements.–
(1) In general.–The Space Launch System developed pursuant to subsection (b) shall be designed to have, at a minimum, the following:
(A) The initial capability of the core elements, without an upper stage, of lifting payloads weighing between 70 tons and 100 tons into low-Earth orbit in preparation for transit for missions beyond low-Earth orbit.
(B) The capability to carry an integrated upper Earth departure stage bringing the total lift capability of the Space Launch System to 130 tons or more.
(C) The capability to lift the multipurpose crew vehicle [Orion Crew Vehicle].
They want the initial capability to be ready by 2016. Also, NASA was to have the plan ready by January of this year.
Here we are, at the end of July, and the plan is *not* ready. However, details of the plan have leaked out.
The first launch of the initial “configuration”, debuts in 2017, a year late. The first planned mission, SLS-1, is supposed to send an unmanned Orion capsule around the moon and back. The first *manned* mission doesn’t take place until four years later, in 2021!
Let me emphasize that, *four years later*. Subsequently, *one* mission per year is planned for the next several years. The first six missions will use up the remaining Space Shuttle Main Engines, which instead of being reused, will be allowed to burn up in the atmosphere. The seventh mission will introduce the “RS-25E”, a disposable version, which should be less costly, because the components won’t have to survive multiple flights.
There is no mention of what these missions will actually be, except for a lunar flyby. What the point of a lunar flyby is, without developing the ability to land there again, is quite frankly, beyond me.
This initial system will be able to lift about what the Space Shuttle stack can currently lift, minus the obiter. Eventually, in 2032, when your humble author will be sixty-three years old, the “evolved” version will be ready, which will feature, among other changes, five RS-25E engines instead of three, and the ability to lift about twice as much mass into orbit. Again, twice as much, what? Nobody knows.
This is hardly awe inspiring stuff.
No matter how you look at it, this is all very bad news. There seem to be two possibilities:
· * NASA honestly wishes to obey the law, and has honestly and forthrightly come up with a plan within what they honestly feel will be what is possible within the constrained budget they currently have. This would be a first.
· * NASA is employing every trick in the book to get the Space Launch System cancelled.
Considering current behaviour, the latter seems more likely. After all, this is a system that the administration did not want. As I type this, spacref.com has reported that the Senate Commerce Committee has finally issued a subpoena in the latest attempt to actually see the documents concerning the Space Launch System decision making process. NASA has failed to release documents that the committee has been requesting for *months*.
Effectively, NASA and the administration are in Contempt of Congress, again. Honest and transparent government officials do not refuse to release documents to congressional committees. There is no reasonable excuse.
Shuttle derived systems have been studied for decades. It beggars belief that it will take six more years for one unmanned test, and ten years before the first manned flight. At $2 billion a year, that’s $20 billion for one manned test. If a bargain is what is required, a side mount Shuttle derived system could be ready well before 2017, and at a fraction of $20 billion. Surely NASA can come up with a way to undertake these mysterious missions using a 100 ton to LEO launcher. After all, one of the points of the ISS was to demonstrate orbital assembly.
There is plenty of blame to go around here. Mr Bolden, if he doesn’t want to obey the law, but rather obstruct elected lawmakers, should consider his position, because it is untenable. Congress should provide sufficient funding to actually carry out what it demands. Potential presidents shouldn’t lie and dissemble to win Florida’s twenty seven electoral votes.
NASA needs a sustainable, reasonable budget, and a sustainable and inspiring mission. Thanks to the current administration, we are further away from that that ever.