What the Frak is Going On With NASA’s SLS Rocket?

Good news, everyone!

The latest installment of PA’s semi-regular and quasi-popular series, “What the Frak is Going on with…”, arrived today from our home office in Oshkosh, Wisc. via carrier pigeon. (We’ve had some cutbacks.) This one looks at NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), which has been back in the news this week.

For some reason, they made this installment in Q&A dialogue form. So, to liven this up, imagine me answering the questions in the steady, authoritative voice of a DC policy wonk and Chris Matthews of MSNBC posing them in the way that he asks these things. (For anyone unfamiliar with Matthews, just substitute a hyperactive talking parrot. It’s a pretty close approximation.)

But, I digress. So, without any further delay, let’s get to it…

So tell me, what’s happening with this SLS thing?

NASA officials say they hope to make an announcement on a design by the end of the summer, although it might take longer. Administrator Charles Bolden told the House Science Committee this week that he selected a design on June 14 that he believes to be the best path forward. NASA is running an internal cost assessment in parallel with an independent analysis being conducted by Booz Allen Hamilton.

That schedule has infuriated Congress, which wanted a plan back in January. (Of which, more later.) Bolden and other NASA officials say they need time to develop a program that will fit within the tight budget and schedule laid down by Congress. They also say they were hindered because Congress was about six months late in passing a final budget for the current fiscal year.

Yeah, yeah. Congress is complaining. Again. The other day it was fluorescent light bulbs. So, what’s this thing going to look like?

Bolden has chosen the Spawn of Shuttle plan: a big orange fuel tank with solid-rocket boosters on the side, only with the main engines below the tank and cargo on top of it. There are some key differences from the shuttle system: the external tank will be elongated and strengthened; the SRBs will have five segments instead of four; the main engines will not be reusable; and the new J-2X engine developed for Constellation will be used as an upper stage. Bolden said this week that SLS will use ATK’s SRBs at the start. Those boosters might be replaced later by newer rockets selected through a competition.

Jupiter Direct Launcher Variants

SLS would initially launch 70-100 metric tons into low Earth orbit and would evolve to 130-150 metric tons, Bolden told legislators. Language in the House spending bill says that this two-phase approach is acceptable. The Senate has yet to weigh in but would likely go along. One of SLS’s key goals is to launch the Multipurpose Crew Vehicle (aka, Spawn of Orion) on voyages into the great BEyOnd (beyond Earth orbit). Although NASA has no definitive plans for such missions, much less the money to carry them out.

Is it on schedule?

Sort of. Congress wants the first flight to take place by the end of 2016. Bolden told House members that testing would likely not take place before 2017. That’s pretty much on time. By NASA standards, at least. Bolden mentioned the possibility of using a 2017 test flight to send an unmanned MPCV around the moon.

My guess is that once the program is approved and money starts flowing into Congressional districts, the schedule won’t matter that much.

So when will astronauts fly on it?

Bolden says SLS would not be human-rated until the late 2010s or early 2020s.

That long?

Yeah. And that’s a big problem. SLS and MPCV are supposed to be backups for the commercial crew vehicles. The schedule blows that plan out of the water.

The MPCV (nee Orion). Image Credit: NASA

But, MPCV would be ready long before the rocket, right?

Correct. NASA could always launch the MPCV on another vehicle such as the Delta IV in the interim, although that option wouldn’t be cheap. Bolden told Congress this week that MPCV would not be used for Earth orbit operations unless the commercial crew program failed completely.

So what’s the purpose of SLS?

Jobs, mostly. NASA wanted to delay building a HLV until it could develop some cheaper technologies and define some clear missions, but Congress said no. They want it built now, using the technologies and workforce we’ve been using for 30 years.

What about extra money for SLS? Would that help with the schedule?

Probably not. Taking a bunch of flight-proven shuttle-era hardware and adapting it for another vehicle sounds simple enough, but as NASA discovered in building the problem-plagued Ares I rocket, it’s not always easy or cheap. Some experts believe NASA would have been better off starting from scratch. Which is what NASA wanted to do with SLS in the first place.

Well, it’s what NASA already did with the COTS program. And Falcon 9 has already flown…

Twice. Right. And at a cost that’s a rounding error in SLS and MPCV programs.

As for the budget, the House measure provides SLS and MPCV with a combined $3 billion for FY 2012, up by about a quarter billion from the President’s request. That’s already a lot of money, and it’s not clear where any additional funds would come from in NASA’s tight budget. The House measure already cuts the President’s request for NASA by $1.9 billion.

So, Congress must be giving a lot of money to commercial crew to close the spaceflight gap?

No. The House budget keeps commercial crew spending flat at $312 million instead of the $850 million sought by the Administration, a reduction of over a half billion dollars. Legislators say it is premature to ramp up spending given all the uncertainties in the program. How they will resolve all the uncertainties without proper funding is anyone’s guess.

Boeing's proposed commercial capsule.
Artist's conception of Boeing's commercial crew module. (Credit: Boeing)

A classic Catch-22.

Right. Bolden said that the gap would widen by an “untold amount” if the House budget becomes law.  Any delays would be costly down the road and also leave the ISS reliant upon a single transport, the Russian Soyuz, for sending crews to and from the station far longer than planned.

The cost of a Soyuz seat has been going up and up. The price NASA pays has increased from $27.7 million to $43.4 million per seat this year. The cost would gradually rise to $60 million by 2015, the year that NASA hopes to have commercial crew vehicles up and running.

So, we would continue sending hundreds of millions of dollars to Russia that we could use for our own space program? That makes no sense at all.

That’s the argument that Bolden keeps making. It hasn’t convinced many people on Capitol Hill to fully embrace commercial crew, though.

Aren’t the Russians ripping us off?

Welcome to commercial space – monopoly style. It’s funny, the NewSpace crowd has long held out the Russians as the model for space commercialization. This is what you get when the market doesn’t develop. The decline in the dollar and rise in the value of the ruble haven’t helped keep prices down, either.

So is this our fault?

Pretty much. The U.S. government canceled the space shuttle and then fraked up the Constellation program. The plan was to have no gap, or at least a small gap, in spaceflight that could be easily managed. These failures have left the ISS dependent upon a single crew transport system, which is far from ideal from an operational standpoint. The Russians are really not happy with the increased risks and responsibilities this brings.

But, they’re making a lot of money.

Yes. But, keep in mind that the loss of the shuttle’s ability to transfer crews to and from the station has forced the Russians to put their lucrative space tourism business on hold for years. (To restart that service, Russia is ramping up Soyuz production from four to five per year, which is not cheap to do.) NASA’s payments will make up for that loss – and then some. But, the money probably comes with more duties than there are for launching individual billionauts to the station.

Having sole responsibility for ISS crew transport is also a challenge at a time when Russia is trying to carry out a very ambition space agenda. Major projects include: building a new spaceport from scratch; developing two new rockets; beginning Soyuz rocket launches from Kourou; designing a successor for the Soyuz spacecraft; and restarting the planetary exploration program. The strain has already begun to show. Long-time Roscosmos Head Anatoly Perminov was fired earlier this year after two launch failures and complaints about long delays in building new satellites.

You mentioned earlier that Congress is angry over NASA’s slow progress on defining the SLS design.  What’s up with that?

Last September, Congress agreed to cancel the Constellation program in exchange for NASA building the SLS and MPCV. Under the plan, these programs would evolve from the shuttle-derived Ares V rocket and the Orion capsule that were part of Constellation.

Legislators expected NASA to go full bore on the SLS to minimize any disruptions in the transition from the canceled Ares V heavy-lift rocket. A key concern involves jobs; legislators wanted to preserve the existing contracts held by companies working on Constellation. The contractors would also be able to keep together teams working on the old programs, thus minimizing layoffs.

However, NASA went in a different direction, awarding study contracts to 13 companies to determine how to build SLS within the funding and time constraints stipulated by Congress. Legislators ordered NASA to produce a report on the SLS design by January.  The space agency delivered only a preliminary document outlining options and promised a final report in the spring. That schedule has since slipped into summer and possibly fall.

What’s the main problem?

NASA’s new found candor. Previous administrators would have presented a plan long ago, agreed to build the rocket on whatever inadequate budget Congress and the Administration deigned to provide, and then watched the whole thing unravel confident that the program would be too big to cancel. Bolden told legislators this week that he is specifically trying to avoid that scenario so that NASA had a rocket it can afford to build and operate.

That’s refreshing. How’d that go over with Congress the other day?

It didn’t. Rep. Ralph Hall told Bolden the lack of a final SLS design “almost an insult to this committee”, that legislators have run out of patience, and that the House might to launch an investigation into the delays. The Senate already ordered NASA to turn over all program documents. On Wednesday, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison called upon the Administration and Office of Management and Budget to immediately approve NASA’s SLS plan. This seems unlikely and constitutionally dubious. I mean, can Congress really order them to do that?

I don’t know. But it sounds like Congress is trying to design a rocket. Isn’t that NASA’s job?

It used to be.

So, let me see if I get this straight. Congress is upset over a delay in a program that won’t be ready to carry astronauts for 8-10 years for which NASA has no immediate need. Meanwhile, the House is slow rolling the commercial crew program that could Americans back into space within four years at a fraction of the cost. And that would force NASA to continue paying a small fortune to the Russians to keep sending our astronauts to a space station that U.S. taxpayers largely funded?

Yep, that’s about the size of it. 

That’s crazy.

No, it’s worse than crazy. Way worse. Crazy plans actually work occasionally. If they’re like brilliant crazy. This is just insane.

And the definition of insanity…

…is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Look, the bottom line is that Congress simply doesn’t trust the commercial providers. The SLS and MPCV programs are known quantities that employ a lot of people in their districts and states.

But what about this whole American leadership in space thing? Everybody’s complaining about it now that shuttle’s ending.

Everyone complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. Including the House. It just cut NOAA’s budget.

Look, leadership costs money. And right now, Congress has been focused on debt reduction and is unwilling to raise taxes to pay for programs it wants to fund. And many of them can’t define leadership as anything less than massive government projects like the SLS. The future is commercial, if we want to do anything serious in space….

But that future isn’t here yet. So, what’s next?

The House budget is just the opening salvo in a long fight. The Senate has yet to weigh in, and it is controlled by the Democrats. The President also has leverage in this matter. So, we’ll see what eventually emerges from the legislative sausage factory on Capitol Hill.

I’m getting a headache from all this.

Well, I’m getting a beer. Care to join?

Sure. Maybe if I drink enough, maybe all this will make sense.

Now you’re talking.