Sat. Feb 4th, 2023
Spotlights shine on the largest rocket ever built.

An artist’s impression of the Space Launch System on the Florida launch pad.

This week, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, which counts rocket makers SpaceX and Blue Origin among its executive members, made headlines by declaring its support for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket. The organization’s new president, Alan Stern, announced at a conference that “we see many benefits in developing NASA’s SLS.” This caused a stir in the commercial space community.

Later, during an interview with Ars, Stern explained that the commercial space agency has had a “blood-curdling battle” in the past over the government’s massive rocket and its influential prime contractor Boeing. The commercial space industry group (of which Boeing is not a member) argued that the private sector could provide the same capability as the SLS for much less than the $2 billion NASA has spent annually this decade developing the rocket. The SLS will initially be able to lift 70 tons to low Earth orbit, but that could grow to 130 tons by the end of 2020.

But now, Stern said, the organization believes the SLS will enable commercial companies’ goals to develop businesses on the moon, as well as support asteroid mining and other ventures its members are interested in. “We’re looking ahead,” Stern said. . “This is clearly in favor of the expansion of commercial space travel. Now, with a new government and a new Congress, we wanted to put our commitment on the side of SLS.

Don’t forget sessions

At the same time this week, one Politics article pointed to efforts by former NASA consultant and SLS critic Charles Miller to push the Trump space program toward an aggressive campaign to begin lunar landings by the end of 2020. Miller is a former member of Trump’s NASA transition team, and he envisions making moon landings possible by leveraging commercial capabilities.

The Politics article says Miller is pushing the concept of an “internal competition” within NASA for launch and spacecraft contracts. The competition would be between NASA’s traditional contractors, such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and new aerospace companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin. For launches, fair competition would almost certainly favor SpaceX and Blue Origin, both of which are developing heavy rockets roughly in the same class as the 70-metric-ton variant of the SLS. This is because both companies are essentially developing their missiles out of their existing funds – with no direct cost to the taxpayer – and their cost per launch would be a fraction of the projections for the SLS.

The Politics piece probably overplays Miller’s influence, who is just one voice in the battle for NASA’s future. It’s worth remembering that a number of Jeff Sessions Senate Office staffers have moved on to positions in the White House, and they will have a lot of say in NASA policy. Sessions is from Alabama, where the SLS rocket is being designed and developed at the Marshall Space Flight Center.

Located on the pillow

So what does all this mean for the missile wars? Instead of an “us versus them” attitude, many aerospace insiders will take an “all of the above” approach to rocket capabilities in the coming years. Given the politics, NASA will likely continue to spend about $2 billion of its $18 billion annual budget on the SLS rocket. At the same time, Congress can continue to pass legislation that does not hinder private efforts to develop heavy missiles.

Ultimately, this issue will probably be decided on the launchpad, where it should be. After all, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy hasn’t flown yet, though it may finally do so this year. NASA’s SLS rocket is nominally slated for a November 2018 launch, though Ars understands that launch date will likely be early 2019. And while not much is known about Blue Origin’s New Glenn orbital rocket, company founder Jeff Bezos has said it’s coming to an end of this decade.

Theoretically, the United States could therefore have three heavy-lift missiles by 2020. If the reusable Falcon Heavy costs $200 million per flight, and the reusable New Glenn costs $200 million, while an expendable SLS missile costs $1.5 billion, the agency—and by extension Congress and the White House—would have an easy choice.

It could be argued at the time that NASA should never have spent more than $10 billion developing the SLS. But the bottom line is that six years ago Congress didn’t believe in SpaceX’s capacity to build a heavy rocket, and Blue Origin’s intentions weren’t known at the time. So Congress bet on NASA and its traditional contractor Boeing, and the agency kept its large workforce intact.

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation likely recognizes that raising its voice now, at least publicly, against the SLS has limited its political advantage with a Congress inclined to favor NASA’s big rocket. Instead of poking NASA or Congress in the eye with a stick, you better stay relevant. Ultimately, when SpaceX, Blue Origin, or both have a launch option that costs much less than the public alternative, the commercial space agency will have a much more powerful argument.

By akfire1

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