20 September 2011

The “Future” of Human Spaceflight

Posted by Ryan Anderson

Well, it looks like Congress has finally decided what NASA’s next foray into human spaceflight will look like:

If you’re thinking to yourself that that rocket looks the offspring of a Saturn V rocket and a Space Shuttle, then you’re absolutely right. Those solid rocket boosters on the sides are the same as the ones used for the Space Shuttle, as is the main engine for the first stage. In fact, if you take off Saturn V-like paint on the first stage, you would find a big familiar orange fuel tank. The second stage will use J-2x engines, based on the Saturn V engines.

The rocket shown in the picture is supposedly only the initial configuration. The plan is to eventually ramp up to a more powerful variant capable of lifting 286,000 pounds into low earth orbit. In case you were wondering, the Saturn V could lift 262,000 pounds to LEO. The first flight of the SLS is scheduled for 2017, and the fully “evolved” cargo-carrying version would make its debut in 2032. That’s 59 years after the final Saturn V launch.

Now, you may recall that president Obama called upon a panel of aerospace experts to give their recommendations regarding the future of human spaceflight, and the “Augustine Commission” published a report in 2009 with the results of their study. Jeff Greason, who was on the Augustine panel, says that their study showed that a rocket like SLS will require about $12 billion per year to be successful. SLS is likely to get about $8 billion per year. And remember, NASA is in the category of “non-defense discretionary spending” that is oh-so-easy for congress to cut when they want to look like they care about the deficit.

In Greason’s words:

I’m not saying that SLS can’t be built — only that if it is built, the cost of keeping it operating will be so high that NASA’s budget won’t support developing, for example, planetary landers that would be needed to make it useful.

It’s definitely worth reading the full interview.

Bottom line? The SLS, breathlessly touted as the rocket that will take us to Mars by news outlets, is repeating many of NASA’s previous mistakes. It will come out of the starting gates underfunded and I would be shocked to see it survive long enough to launch even once. But that doesn’t matter to congress because they don’t see these rockets as fulfilling a mission to explore the universe. to politicians, the mission for the SLS is to keep jobs in their states. We’re not using Space Shuttle and Saturn V-based components because they are necessarily the best components for the job, we’re using them because the contractors that make those components employ a lot of people and lobbied their representatives successfully.

As you can tell, I am pretty deeply cynical about the whole process at this point. I just hope that SpaceX is successful with their Falcon 9 Heavy program, and/or that a miracle happens and the SLS is given the funding that it needs to succeed.

For more information about the SLS and its implications, I recommend these excellent posts:

Senate to NASA: Back to the Future

NASA Unveils New Rocket Design

Preliminary NASA Plan Shows Evolved SLS Vehicle is 21 Years Away