Clock is Ticking on NASA Human Deep Space Program

Lamar Smith

It seems that nothing so becomes a politician’s public life like the announcement that he or she is leaving it.

George Washington’s decision in 1796 to not seek a third term as president is widely hailed as the ultimate example of a small-r republican virtue of restraint the general demonstrated throughout his public life. Americans trusted Washington with power because they knew he would exercise it wisely and, that when the time came, he would walk away. Voluntarily.

In an age when many kings claimed a hereditary right to rule for life with absolute authority, relinquishing power was an astounding act. But Washington, a master of exits in war and peace, knew it was time to go. In so doing, he set a two-term precedent for the presidency that would stand for 144 years.

More recently, we’ve seen another result of what happens when politicians decide they’ve had enough: candor. Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) both launched fiery broadsides at the current occupant of Washington’s old office — and a member of their own party, no less — upon announcing they would not seek re-election next year.

Which brings us to the hearing the House Subcommittee on Space held earlier this week on NASA’s human deep-space exploration mission.

The latest member of Congress’s Retirement ’18 graduating class, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), leveled his sharpest criticisms yet at an exploration program whose schedule keeps moving to the right even as it consumes nearly $4 billion per year from the public treasury.

“Congress needs to have confidence in NASA and the exploration systems contractors, which I don’t believe we have now. That confidence is ebbing,” said Smith, who chairs the full House Science Committee. “If it slips much further, NASA and its contractors will have a hard time regaining their credibility.”

Of course, NASA’s announcement before the hearing that the first flight of Space Launch System (SLS) — known as Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) — could slip six months from December 2019 to June 2020 couldn’t have pleased Smith. But, it was his invoking of the once-unthinkable “a” word — alternatives — that showed the candor of a politician not long for public life.

“NASA and the contractors should not assume future delays and cost overruns will have no consequences,” Smith warned in his written statement. “If delays continue, if costs rise and if foreseeable technical challenges arise, no one should assume the U.S. taxpayers or their representatives will tolerate this.

“Alternatives to SLS and Orion almost certainly would involve significant taxpayer funding and lead to further delays,” he added. “But the more setbacks SLS and Orion face, the more support builds for other options.”

Strong words — even though in just over a year, Smith won’t be in any position to administer punishments if NASA’s schedule continues to deteriorate or protect the program from its critics. In a sense, the comments were probably as much of a plea as a threat. Please get your act together, NASA. Don’t let me end 32 years in Congress, and six years chairing the House Science Committee, with a program that is even more off track than it is now. Don’t repay my staunch support of these programs this way.

The singular irony in the case of NASA’s human deep space exploration program is that it’s doing exactly what Congress wants it to do. For the most part, anyway. SLS, Orion spacecraft and Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) are specifically designed to consume tens of billions of dollars while employing many thousands of people in multiple states and Congressional districts for decades to come. Good jobs is how Congressmen stay in office.

Just look at SLS.  It is a conglomeration of hardware — main engines, fuel tank and solid rocket boosters — that traces its lineage directly to the space shuttle program that kept thousands of people employed from its approval in 1972 to its final flight in 2011.

SIS is similar to the design of the Ares V booster the Obama Administration canceled in 2010 in favor of developing a new heavy-lift rocket from scratch using modern technologies. Unwilling to accept the job losses that came with the cancellation, Congress reversed the decision. Ares V morphed into SLS while the Orion and EGS programs, which Obama had also canceled, were similarly revived.

Not surprisingly, these programs are turning out to be a lot more complex and expensive than everyone thought. There have been welding problems and delays in the European-supplied service module for Orion. In February, atornado hit NASA’s Michoud facility in New Orleans were components are being built, damaging buildings and causing further delays.

The tornado aside, these problems are not the least bit unusual. Technical problems and schedule slips are par for the course in complex programs. The real problem lies with the alternatives that Smith mentioned but did not identify.

SpaceX is looking to launch its own heavy-lift booster, Falcon Heavy, as early as next month. In September, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk unveiled plans for an even larger rocket named BFR that would dwarf anything yet launched into space. Meanwhile, Rival billionaire Jeff Bezos is working on his own heavy-lift rocket, New Armstrong.

These reusable rockets could render the expendable SLS an obsolete and expensive boondoggle — if they work as advertised, of course. The more SLS slips, the closer NASA comes to having alternatives that could be considerably cheaper than what the agency and its contractors are building.

Whether Smith or anyone else would ever follow through on a threat to cancel SLS and Orion in favor of these private boosters is unclear.  The job losses and the political blow back would be tremendous. And the Republicans might have to admit that maybe, just maybe, Obama had been right about these programs.

William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, did his best during the hearing to reassure Smith and other skeptical Congressmen that despite the potential for a further delay, NASA is actually making good progress on the systems needed to send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit.

“NASA has made significant progress in addressing some of these development issues,” he said in his statement. ” For instance, the SLS program has resolved the VAC weld strength issues and all VAC assembly welding for EM-1 is now complete. Additionally, NASA continues to make progress on key elements. All EM-1 booster separation motors are cast and finalized, and the engine controller qualification testing has been completed.”

Good words. But, NASA is still facing enormous challenges in getting SLS and Orion off the ground. And time may be running short.

  • Robert G. Oler

    |LOL …great words now that the show is over.|

    its not hard to imagine what we could have done for the 3 billion a year…for the last 10 years

  • echos of the mt’s

    If SLS was built, moved to the launch pad, fueled, defueled, moved back to the VAB, and then the pieces run over with bulldozers the senators and house reps would think that was just fine. As was said, its just a work program for certain states and districts.

    When Falcon-Heavy and New Armstrong are flying I can see congress trying to do a mandate that Americas can only ride the SLS. Even if its just to the ISS. By golly we will make the SLS useful!

  • therealdmt

    I don’t think it’s candor because he´s retiring; I think it’s fear that Falcon Heavy and Dragon (and to a lesser extent Starliner) are now likely to fly within months and thus make SLS/Orion look bad, ridiculous even, for the world to see.

    Most of us here know that SLS and Orion are expensive make work projects that work best at making work if they’re forever in development or at least production (no reuseability, please!) and that industry can and is working on doing better, but the average person just doesn’t know this. Once Falcon Heavy flies, once Dragon flies, the game is going to be almost up. And once Falcon Heavy launches tourists around the Moon, perhaps before SLS even does its first unmanned test flight but very likely before the SLS/Orion first manned flight now scheduled for 2023(!), it’s all over. Congress is going to be sitting there with egg on its face, but worse, the very purpose of Marshall Space Flight Center (designing civilian rockets) and to a lesser extent Johnson (training astronauts — to what extent are astronauts needed when the spaceships can fly themselves around the Moon and tourists can go without so much as even a valet?) will be seriously called into question. That’ll be bad news for NASA’s budget of course, but is the point to have the biggest budget or to actually get things done?

    There will certainly have to be big adjustments all around, but regardless, SLS is about to get badly exposed and, finally feeling the pressure, Rep. Smith is suddenly getting religion about the rocket actually being able to do something sometime. Nothing like a little competition, eh?

  • windbourne

    Spot on.

    The only thing missing is that we need a way to traverse easily between earth and moon. Ideally, it would be a BA-330 (or perhaps a sundancer) with a tug. Though with NASA not doing a fast tug, it will be up to private space to build one. Oddly, ULA should be doing it and having one ready with 2 years, and yet, they have it tabled. Sad.

    Hopefully, OATK is considering doing one.

    And yes, we need LOTS of competition.

  • windbourne

    multiple space stations.
    Back on the moon.
    Restart our nuclear engineering industry.
    Finish building a nuke engine.
    And that is just 1 or 2 years of that 10.

  • Jacob Samorodin

    I think it’s time to transition NASA from being a socialist monolithic agency over a period of four years to morph into several private/ free-enterprise aerospace companies that will sink or swim on their own coin. I’m sure Bezos, Allen & Musk would buy up the assets and rehire the employees on those billionaire’s terms. BTW, the late Margret Thatcher made a wise statement regarding socialism, saying, “Socialism does not work, because, sooner or later, they will run out of other people’s money.”

  • ThomasLMatula

    Why? There is no NASA contract or program for a tug?

    Remember these are government contractors. They will build one when the government tells them to build one.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Actually the Swamp is ahead of you. The Competitive Launch Act of 2015 basically gave the NASA Administrator the power to use the SLS for any mission they deem it “necessary” for, even ISS resupply. So all they have to do is declare the CCP entries “inadaquate” and they are go to go with SLS.

  • Vladislaw

    Didn’t the GAO just determine that both the SLS and Orion have no reserves? Plus they have spend the cancellation reserves they are supposed to have in case a program is shut down. So even if they cancel tomorrow it will still cost billions more like the last time they did the same thing with Constellation ..

  • Vladislaw

    I believe it was SpaceX selling a flight for a lunar flyby was the real nail .. Orion was supposed to be the only spacecraft able to go beyond LEO ..

  • windbourne

    Build it, and they will come ( with some strong incentives ).

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, the Field of Dreams Fallacy.

    If NASA wants it they will put out an RFP. While SpaceX and Blue Origins will just build their own if they need it.

    BTW the first product Orbital tried to build was a tug to go with the Space Shuttle in the early 1980’s. After the Challenger accident changed the rules on what Shuttles would be allowed to carry they almost went under. The only thing that saved them was Pegasus.

  • windbourne

    If Oatk has built a tug before, then it should be easier and cheaper to build one.
    Look, SX and BO, along with Bigelow, are making things that not only NASA, but DoD/Intel world, along with commercial sats need. Heck both sX and BO are building systems targeting commercial. Dragon V2/FH make the moon a possibility for private Enterprise. Likewise, new Shepard will be used for simple sub-orbital jaunts mostly by commercial, but even NASA and DoD have shown an Interest.

    If OATK builds a tug/fuel Depot, and then markets for smart use, such as helping with orbit cleanup, pushing cargo to the moon, pushing SATs to GEO, pushing axiom or Bigelow units to the moon. In particular, if they can push a ba330 to the moon and back, they will have plenty of work to do. In particular, even if initially it is trips for say 6-10 ppl to loop around the moon, I think that Bigelow would sell trips.

    Oddly, u have been a hater of NASA screaming that SX has it wrong that they took gov money, and now you gripe about the idea of new space taking off.

    Make up your mind which side you stand on.

  • ThomasLMatula

    You mistake my opinions for advocacy. OATK is a publicly traded company. If they gamble on building a tug and no one buys it then the market will punish their stock. That is why government contractors like them learn not to even design something unless there is the potential of the government, or someone else, paying for it.

    No one has proposed needing a tug.

    SpaceX and Blue Origin, private owned firms, have their own lunar plans. If they decided they need some one to build a tug for them they will hire them.

    Bigelow, when they see a market for a lunar station, will go with whoever gives them the best price. Then that firm will figure out, as part of their contract, how to get it to the Moon. Then if they need a tug, or just a modified transfer stage, they will build it or contract some one to build it.

  • Robert G. Oler

    My impression of where this is going is that the big “race” in the next five years is going to be the development of a resuable lifter that tosses 15 or so tons to the moon but where the first stage is recoverable…that works for both GEO and other satellites and works for a lunar program.

    New Glenn, SpaceX are all going in that direction “racing” sort of SLS to try and develop a lifter that can do lunar projects…(its no real race of course SLS is just dead)

    What comes next will be decided by whoever is in the Oval on Jan 20 2021

  • Michael Halpern

    Red dragon had other problems as well, first being the landing legs through the heat shield, then there is the fact that BFR would make it obsolete so it may be more of a question if red dragon was even worth the effort. SpaceX treats the government as a customer, a very important customer but by no means their only customer. The capsule method has a very limited crew capacity, and because it implies an expendable second stage, it would never be great for tourism besides tourism isn’t where they make their money and Dragon is more of a slightly profitable learning exercise for SpaceX, in addition a near fully propulsive landing for Mars would require much more fuel, instead they plan to use the thin atmosphere of Mars to cancel 99% of their kinetic energy enabling them to use a slightly smaller (compared to 2016 version ITS) but much more useful BFR

  • Michael Halpern

    The way I see it, it’s alright for NASA to have a big budget, but now that there is a self sufficient and advancing commercial launch industry, they don’t need to work work on launchers but instead focus their budget not on job creation but market creation, and do this in tandem with the exploration programs, now some markets have been created by NASA and government space, largely in electronics, but very few that directly involve space, one thing they could do is have space junk be applicable under maritime salvage law, while that would reduce the appeal of the small deorbiting spacecraft, it does have it’s advantages for all sizes of debris, and it would be easier to economically justify, small debris can be used (carefully) as propellent mass for a mass driver. Market creation is harder but it is what they need to do

  • Michael Halpern

    What they need is to refocus, learn to better leaverage commercial resources and promote those resources and create incentive for new commercialization, NASA isn’t any more socialist than any government program, problem is that NASA gets money for creating jobs and their contractors have held monopoly on their business for decades. If NASA doesn’t create jobs they don’t get money, which gives them little incentive to actually make progress unless they have to meet a launch window or other deadline

  • Michael Halpern

    Fortunately the SLS cadence due to production rates is limited to 2, maximally 3 per year and the CCP players collectively have substantial lobby power

  • Vladislaw

    Bigelow has been putting forth the tug concept in the Gate I & II reports he did for NASA.

    “Per the documentation, Bigelow Aerospace will be contracting for a family of transit tugs that it needs for its inflatable habitats, claiming NASA can take advantage of his tugs without having to pay any research and development for them, while adding “SpaceX, Boeing and the Sierra Nevada Corporation are all now working on the future of space transportation systems, not just for low Earth orbit, but in many instances for use beyond LEO as well.””

  • Vladislaw

    Why do you climb a mountain? Because it is there.

    Once Bigelow has a commercial destination in LEO and there are two operational transportation services going there, I believe it will be commercial activities in LEO that are really going to take off.

    my .02 cents… smiles

  • ThomasLMatula

    And when he puts out an RFP and shows there is money I am sure firms will respond. But until then they won’t waste their investors dollars on it.

  • Vladislaw

    Oh I agree… I was just responding to this:

    “No one has proposed needing a tug.”

    Bigelow has “proposed” needing a tug. Just has not proposed funding it.

  • duheagle

    There was no credible technical problem with Dragon 2’s landing-legs-through-the-heat-shield design. The Shuttle also deployed its landing gear through its own heat shield. This was a last-minute power play by the faction of NASA HEOMD that has been looking for an opportunity to shove a dry corn cob up Elon’s butt. Elon’s response was to redesign BFR and accelerate its schedule so that Red Dragon was no longer necessary.

  • duheagle

    Not going to happen. SLS is fatally production-limited. Even its BEO missions are going to stretch production capability. The RS-25E won’t be available in time for SLS to do any CRS-type missions to ISS. The EUS won’t be available for years and the glorified Centaur to be used on the Block 1 flight is a one-off. Nor is there any current funded source for more than the two Orion Service Modules that ESA is building. Also, so far as I know, Orion isn’t capable of docking to ISS. It’s just physically impossible for SLS to do ISS resupply.

    Then there are the politics of all this. You seem to have the goofy idea that Sen. Shelby and his fellow Swamp Things can pretty much rule by decree. They can’t. If something as raw as what you’ve spitballed was attempted all hell would break loose, including a full-fledged civil war in HEOMD between the ISS and SLS-Orion factions.

    This is boogeyman-in-the-closet stuff.

  • duheagle

    More like one, maximally two, per year.

  • Michael Halpern

    I was being generous and assuming that one year they only launch 1 or none leaving them available for the following year

  • Michael Halpern

    The shuttle, and Dream Chaser also completely stow their landing gear Dragon 2 didn’t, yes it was mostly political but there is only so much Red Dragon would be useful for

  • Michael Halpern

    I will say this, there is a chance that the adapter for the Orion capsule for multi mission support is based off the NDS, in which case it can dock with the ISS, though that would be because of technology reuse for deep space gateway, though I do hope that DSG is organized in a way that promotes all aspects of commercial space, it would not only drastically cut the costs but help promote new markets in space, like the BA 330 and all the stuff Made in Space is doing, that isn’t mentioning all the proposals that involve activity on the Moon itself. NASA as a jobs program is pretty much finished, however that doesn’t mean that they won’t be able to create jobs, in fact I think that they will be able to create more jobs, for less money while making more progress than they can under the traditional jobs program model of throwing money at the problem. The problems with SLS were really an eventual inevitability they would have happened to any government launch system as soon as someone made a commercially successful launcher that was reasonably reliable and at far below the EELV price, especially once they would achieve high cadence.

  • Robert G. Oler

    almost no one actually does that