Thu. Mar 23rd, 2023
Administrator Charles Bolden speaks with NASA Social participants at the Kennedy Space Center on Thursday, September 8.
Enlarge / Administrator Charles Bolden speaks with NASA Social participants at the Kennedy Space Center on Thursday, September 8.

Charlie Bolden is nearing the end of his tenure as NASA administrator — he’ll likely leave the agency after this year’s presidential election or early 2017. Perhaps that’s why he’s more willing to voice his views on the private sector and its ambitions to launch large heavy-lift rockets build. And Bolden clearly does not approve.

On Tuesday, during a Q&A session at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Space 2016 Conference, Bolden was asked his thoughts on the emerging market for small satellites and launch vehicles. He chose instead to respond with his thoughts on NASA’s own rocket, the Space Launch System, and the development of larger launch vehicles in the private sector.

“When you talk about launchers, we believe it’s our responsibility to take care of the nation for things normal people can’t or won’t do, like big launchers,” Bolden said. “I’m not yet a big fan of commercial investments in large launch vehicles.”

The comments from Bolden, the four-time astronaut who has led NASA since July 2009, are noteworthy because they come a day after Jeff Bezos revealed some initial details about his New Glenn rocket. While Bezos’ company Blue Origin has not disclosed how much lift capacity the New Glenn will have, based on its 3.85 million pound thrust, estimates of its payload to low Earth orbit range from about 35 to 70 tons. This is in the same class as the Falcon Heavy rocket being developed by SpaceX, which is expected to have a capacity of 54.4 tons in low Earth orbit.

The implication of these developments is significant, as it would mean that two private US companies are now developing heavy rockets with a power roughly comparable to NASA’s own Space Launch System rocket and its 70-ton lift capacity. The main difference is of course the cost. The development of Falcon Heavy and New Glenn will cost the American taxpayer little or nothing in direct expenditure. The cost per flight will likely be around $200 million per launch.

However, the space agency is expected to spend $13 billion on the design and development of SLS and its ground systems during the first flight alone in late 2018. An estimate by Ars suggested it will cost NASA about $60 billion for 20 launches of the SLS. rocket through the 2030s.

New Glenn's two- and three-stage variants will be larger than any rocket in existence.
Enlarge / New Glenn’s two- and three-stage variants will be larger than any rocket in existence.

Blue Origin

Nevertheless, despite the demonstrable efforts of both SpaceX and Blue Origin, Bolden said that “normal people” cannot or will not develop large launch vehicles. What the administrator seems to be arguing here is that NASA is more special or better than those in the private sector when it comes to building rockets. This exceptional nature is curious, considering that NASA hasn’t actually built a rocket since the 1970s and the space shuttle, and that the SLS is highly derived from shuttle components, including the engines and side-mounted solid rocket boosters.

It’s also unclear why Bolden wouldn’t be a “fan” of commercial investment in large launch vehicles. Both SpaceX and Blue Origin are attempting at their own expense and risk to build heavy rockets that will boost the United States’ launch capability. Both companies have developed brand new engines (SpaceX’s Merlin 1D and Blue Origin’s BE-4) at a time when no major new rocket engine has been brought forward in the United States for decades and the US national security services have to rely on Russian engines to send their spy satellites into space.

Finally, both SpaceX and Blue Origin are designing their heavy lift rockets to reuse the large first stages by landing them on the ground or on sea platforms. This aggressive approach to reusability, which has the hitherto unfulfilled promise of significantly reducing launch costs, contrasts with the Space Launch System, which is fully replaceable.

With regard to his perception of big missiles, Bolden’s philosophy is strikingly different from that of his former deputy administrator, Lori Garver, who left the agency in 2013. working with is more of a socialist plan for space exploration, which is just an abomination of what this country should be doing. Try not to compete with the private sector. Stimulate them by powering technologies that will be needed by us as we explore further.”

By akfire1

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