Is SLS the Key to NASA’s Future or a Doomed Boondoggle?

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During the Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium is being held this week in Huntsville, discussion has  naturally turned to the Space Launch System (SLS), the heavy lift booster being designed in the same city where von Braun and his team created the massive Saturn V.

Two very different views of SLS have emerged during the symposium. Its detractors say it is a massive boondoggle that will be squeezed out of existence by its own massive costs, low flight rate and tight government budgets. Meanwhile, the companies build the SLS say the booster’s immense launch capacity is the key to deep space exploration and could create a demand for additional missions that would increase flights rates and lower unit costs.

Former space shuttle program manager Wayne Hale, who is now director of human spaceflight at Special Aerospace Services, expressed deep skepticism about SLS during his keynote address.

Hale outlined a mixed bag of NASA successes in wake of the Apollo moon missions, noting that the agency has languished for almost 40 years as different visions for NASA have died amid a lack of funding.

The current Space Launch System – a heavy lift rocket under development at Huntsville’s Marshall Flight Center intended for deep space exploration – could soon fade away like other programs, such as Constellation in 2009.

“The current plan is fragile in the political and financial maelstrom that is Washington,” Hale said. “Planning to fly large rockets once every three or four years does not make a viable program. It is not sustainable.

“Continuing to develop programs in the same old ways, from my observations, will certainly lead to cancellation as government budgets are stretched thin. It is time to try new strategies.”

During a separate panel discussion at the symposium, representatives of companies involved in building SLS and its Orion crew vehicle took a “build it, and they will come (up with something to do with it)” approach.

One of the main criticisms of the SLS plan relates to the vehicle being developed without its range of missions, or payloads, already in place. However, that was countered by Mark Kinnersley, Director, MPCV ESM Resident Liaison, Astrium North America Inc.

“I’ve been involved in introducing a new launch vehicle and there weren’t any missions for it. But because the vehicle became available we suddenly enabled a multitude of missions. I think these ideas (new missions) will come about as SLS matures.”

Another concern is based on the cost of the launch vehicle placing a stranglehold on funding for the payloads it could launch. However, panel members believe that the capability of SLS may prove to be attractive to science organizations by vastly reducing the mission timescales for scientific exploration.

“One of the things that we forget about is that when you have a capability, people say the payloads are going to be so expensive, where are we going to get the money?” Jim Crocker, Vice President and General Manager, Civil Space, Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company noted.

“When you have that capability, you can substitute that capability for expense, or you can get some other advantage. Think about outer planet exploration, (such as) with today’s launch vehicles it can take a decade to get out to the outer planets.

“Imagine the science return with SLS, where we can get there within a few years and how that can accelerate scientific discovery.”

Speakers talked about increasing the flight rate to twice per year, which would significantly drop unit costs.