Sun. Oct 2nd, 2022
SLS Green Run Test
enlarge The SLS core stage at NASA’s Stennis Space Center after launching for the Green Run test on Jan. 16, 2021.

Trevor Mahlmann

Nearly two years ago, then-Vice President Mike Pence delivered the most sweeping space policy speech of his term. At a National Space Council meeting at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, Pence explained the Trump administration’s plans to land humans on the moon by 2024.

“We need to redouble our efforts here in Huntsville and throughout this program,” Pence said, speaking with engineers leading the development of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket. “We must accelerate the SLS program to achieve this goal. But know this: The President has instructed NASA and Administrator Jim Bridenstine to achieve this goal by any means necessary.”

At the time, NASA engineers at Marshall told Pence that they were confident the SLS rocket would make its debut in 2020, and would set a schedule to allow astronauts to return to the moon by 2024. Still, Pence insisted he was under no obligation to any rocket or contractor. The moon was the goal – not the means to achieve it.

“If our current contractors can’t meet this target, we’ll find one,” said Pence in Huntsville. “If U.S. industry can provide critical commercial services without government development, then we buy them. And if commercial rockets are the only way to get U.S. astronauts to the moon in the next five years, then so will commercial rockets.” .”

Two years have come and gone since then. The vice president’s ambitious goal for 2024 to land on the moon has fallen out of reach. Pence has left the office. And of course the SLS rocket was not launched in 2020. Now it is almost certain that it will not be launched before 2022. So what comes next?

One way or the other

What to do with the Space Launch System rocket is one of the biggest space policy questions facing the Biden administration — which has yet to name its top leaders — in the coming months. It is true that the large rocket that NASA has been developing for ten years and has developed almost 20 billion dollars is getting closer and closer to launch. However, there are no guarantees about when the SLS will be ready.

It is clear from Pence’s speech that he spent time learning about NASA’s problems, was frustrated and tried to address them. This rocket was originally supposed to launch in 2016 and it was fed up with the delays. The nation, Pence thought, could do better. As a senior astronaut who wasn’t a fan of the Trump administration told Ars, “He’s the first vice president to give a little space in 20 years.”

The reality, however, is that without extraordinary efforts, the White House cannot support a program like the SLS missile, which enjoys broad support in Congress and supports jobs across the country. And the Trump administration never did.

When it came down to it, the White House went along with NASA, Congress and the big contractors like Boeing who build the SLS rocket, spending about $2.5 billion each year to keep it going. And while the SLS didn’t launch in 2020, it did reach a test bench in Mississippi in preparation for a major static fire test earlier this month. The goal was to ignite the rocket’s four main engines for four to eight minutes, demonstrating that it was ready for launch. Unfortunately, the rocket’s core stage only fired for 67.2 seconds, and now NASA is considering whether to retest the rocket before shipping it to its launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

After the test on Jan. 16 and after a press conference to discuss the preliminary results, Ars spoke with NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. He acknowledged that things had not gone as planned, but said the SLS program was making progress. “We’re close,” he said. “We are so close.”

When Pence drafted the lunar plan in 2019, it was up to Bridenstine to cobble together the plan to get humans to the lunar surface within five years. Within days of Pence’s speech, Bridenstine seemed to be doing just that. He appeared before Congress and said NASA is studying the possibility of using SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket — which is already flying — to get the job done. But soon influential members of Congress told him to abolish it. Despite Pence’s talk of finding other contractors, the House and Senate had none of it. For nearly the rest of his tenure, Bridenstine talked only about SLS launching humans to the moon. The “commercial missile” revolt was over.

Only after the major nuclear test in January, and with less than four days to go in his tenure as NASA administrator, Bridenstine was a little hesitant about this position. “NASA needs to go back and see what the options are for getting to the moon as soon as possible,” he said. “And I think the SLS rocket will be that option, if we’re talking about sending humans to the moon.”

Opportunity Cost

The SLS rocket may be close, but the opportunity cost of flying it is high for NASA. While the agency needs a large, powerful rocket to send people and lots of cargo into deep space, it may not need one based on technologies from the space shuttle era, now nearly 50 years old, such as the SLS. booster.

In this way, NASA misses out on the revolution in a launch led by SpaceX, but soon followed by Blue Origin in the United States and other space agencies around the world. As China, Europe, Japan and others look to their next generation of missiles, they are all considering reuse and the potential for many launches rather than a few.

When explaining why his Blue Origin rocket company was designed for reuse from the beginning, Jeff Bezos made this comment in 2016. “Right now, the things you do in space must be incredibly important, and because access to space is so expensive. is “If you can do it another way, you will,” Bezos said. “That’s why you get very few launches. That changes when you can drastically cut access costs, and the only way to do that is reusability.”

By spending the entire last decade developing a large, expensive rocket that can be used once in a while, NASA has largely ignored the technologies that could enable a more sustainable space transport system. Until recently, the space agency hadn’t invested in reusable space tugs to move cargo between Earth and the moon, harvest water resources from the moon and asteroids, and store and transfer propellant into space. These technologies – coupled with a low-cost launch – are likely to be the breakthroughs that will facilitate space travel in the 21st century. Instead, Congress has told NASA to look back rather than forward.

After this month’s aborted static fire test, the future of the SLS rocket is uncertain. No one knows for sure how the Biden administration will move forward or what Congress’s response might be. However, we can make some assumptions.

If the SLS rocket fails catastrophically during the test phase, which is unlikely, or fails on its first test launch in a year or so, the program will become much more vulnerable to cancellation. This may seem unfair, but given the linear nature of the SLS missile design and development program, it’s not really undergoing a “test” campaign but rather a “validation” campaign.

The second thing that would likely accelerate the end of the SLS rocket is the successful launch of SpaceX’s Starship vehicle on a Super Heavy rocket. This launcher has greater lift capacity than SLS, is fully reusable and could probably be used for a tenth the cost – or much less. This could happen before the end of 2021, but the ambitious Starship program still has significant technical challenges to overcome.

The fact that the 2024 moon landing target is no longer achievable may play a big part in the Biden administration’s calculation regarding SLS. If the big rocket will soon no longer be needed for a 2024 landing, what’s the harm in waiting for cheaper commercial rockets to arrive? However, it is more likely that the Biden administration will continue to fund the SLS rocket, but may try to delay or halt funding for an upgrade — the Exploration Upper Stage being developed by Boeing — that will cost billions of dollars more.

We should get some answers to these questions in the coming months.

By akfire1

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