NASA’s Space Launch System: Too Much Too Late?

I’ve long held the stance that NASA should be shifting its activities away from the rudimentary tasks of getting things into orbit and focusing more on pushing the envelope of their capabilities. Whilst there are no private agencies yet at the same level as what NASA was capable of with the Shuttle and other previous launch systems there are many that are coming very close, some only a couple of years away from sending people into space. Unfortunately due to the tough times that the United States is currently facing it seems that all agencies over there have had to suffer some set backs and this has put many of NASA’s cutting edge projects in jeopardy.

The James Web Space Telescope for instance has recently been placed under review due to the massive cost overruns that the project has been facing. Pegged as the spiritual successor to the Hubble Space Telescope the JWST was initially priced scoped at costing roughly $1.6 billion but the latest estimates have it costing well over 4 times that, threatening other programs that NASA runs. That’s bad enough in itself but NASA has also had its budget cut by appoximately $1.9 billion, a quarter of which was dedicated to funding the JWST. That means that if the project is to continue either additional funding has to materialize or NASA will have to cut other projects to see it through. Some of the possible projects included the as of yet unannounced replacement for the Shuttle, which would mean a significant delay for the return of NASA’s ability to launch humans into space.

However NASA does appear to be dedicated to the challenge that President Obama laid before them some time ago and have just recently announced their plans for a new ambitious rocket called the Space Launch System:

SLS will have an initial lift capacity of over 70 metric tons – about 154,000 pounds (70,000 kg). That’s three times the lift capability of the space shuttles! In the event of a Mars mission that can be upgraded to 130 metric tons – about the weight of 75 SUVs.

The first developmental flight is targeted for the end of 2017.

SLS will be the first exploration-class vehicle since the giant Saturn V rockets that carried the Apollo astronauts to the Moon. Using rocket technology developed during the shuttle era and modified for the canceled Constellation program, combined with cutting-edge manufacturing processes, SLS will expand the boundaries of human spaceflight and extend our reach into the solar system.

On paper it’s quite an impressive rocket, able to heft a whopping 130 tons into orbit if required to do so. Compared to the Saturn V this is about 11 tons more payload into orbit and whilst the initial designs show Shuttle like solid rocket boosters on the side the ultimate goal is to eliminate those entirely. The rocket’s intended goals are to form the basis of future exploratory missions to the moon and beyond, with the first launches scheduled for 2017 on an unmanned trip around the moon.

Keen observers will notice how similar this design looks to the DIRECT proposal I briefly talked about just over a year ago. Indeed many of the aspects that they advocated should be in a new launch system made their way into the SLS including reuse of many key components and man-rating designs that already have a proven launch record behind them. Their designs however aren’t currently feasible due to the shutting down of several key manufacturing plants but you can definitely see the heavy influence that DIRECT advocates have had on the SLS. Whilst this might reduce the launch gap that the United States will experience I’m not 100% convinced that this launcher has been conceived with the best of intentions.

The shuttle’s design was, in many ways, heavily influenced by politics and pork barrelling. A good portion of the shuttle isn’t built anywhere near the launch site with its various construction facilities strewn all about the USA. The worst of these was by far the external tank which is built in New Orleans and then needed to be shipped by barge across to Cape Canaveral. The reasoning behind this was simple, it spread the shuttle’s economic benefits across different states thereby garnering more support for it to proceed. Unfortunately this also had the terrible side effect of tying NASA to multiple states making it nigh impossible for them to do anything that could negatively impact on one state or another, even if it would be beneficial for the shuttle program overall.

The SLS then (sometimes dubbed the Senate Launch System) looks to be going down a similar path thanks to the reuse of current components which will undoubtedly mean using the same suppliers. Whilst I don’t disagree that this will create “good American jobs” I don’t like the idea that NASA exists solely for the purpose of being a pork barrel endeavour that’s only use is to redistribute government money to the public. This is especially true when you consider just how little government money they get in the first place and way too much of it is spent on keeping the giant force of people on staff rather than doing what they were initially formed to do: to push the envelope of human capabilities in space.

Maybe I’ve just been in the Slashdot/HackerNews echo chamber for too long but I’m becoming increasingly disillusioned with NASA and their endeavours in space. They still do great work from time to time but so often I see them getting caught up in political mine fields that I wonder why the USA keeps them running at all. NASA once served to inspire generations of scientists, aeronautical engineers and mathematicians that all wanted to push humanity into the final frontier. Today however NASA seems to be more of a political punching bag than anything else, and that saddens me deeply.

I still hold out hope that I’m just cynical, however.

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