SLS: NASA’s New Launch Vehicle may be Too Little, Too Late

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and to do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” 

This is perhaps the most famous passage of US President John F. Kennedy’s “Man on the Moon Speech”. Delivered in September of 1961, just a few weeks after the Soviet Union launched Yuri Gagarin into Low Earth Orbit, Kennedy’s speech drove home two important points to the American People– Firstly, that the United States was losing the so-called “Space Race” to its main geopolitical rival. This fact came as a major shock to Americans, who at the time primarily saw the Soviet Union as a poverty-stricken and technologically backwards place, where one was unlikely to find a color TV, much less a highly efficient space program. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Kennedy’s speech outlined a path for an American comeback in this race against the USSR, a comeback featuring manned lunar missions. Kennedy’s words, and the ensuing flood of public support, lit a fire under NASA and Congress alike to overcome the countless administrative and technological hurdles that arose in the years to come, eventually culminating in the successful Apollo Program, which carried out Kennedy’s vision of putting American men on the moon before the decade was out.

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President John F. Kennedy delivers his “Man on the Moon” Speech at Rice University, 1961

(It’s worth pointing out that any written description of the Space Race is, unavoidably, a vast oversimplification of the events that transpired. The paragraph above leaves out a number of important political points; notably, Kennedy’s assassination, and how it aided his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, in strong-arming congress to appropriate the necessary resources to fulfill his legacy, which ultimately may have saved the program).

The primary focus of this article is on the final days of the Apollo Program, and the transformation that NASA underwent in the years that followed. Like the moon, public interest in lunar missions began to wane over time. After the Apollo 11 mission cemented Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins’ status as international heroes upon their return to Earth (now seems like a good time to mention that “upon their return to earth” is probably the coolest ending to any sentence possible), people just started… losing interest. As the film Apollo 13 put it, “…we made going to the Moon about as exciting as taking a trip to Pittsburgh.” By the time the third planned mission, the aforementioned Apollo 13, took place, the  program was losing public support. And after the disaster that almost led to the loss of three astronauts, it was decided to cancel the final missions. Since 1972, no person has left Low Earth Orbit, where the International Space Station is today.

Now we get into those post-Apollo days. With Johnson choosing not to seek reelection in 1968, Richard M. Nixon had ascended to the presidency, and his administration oversaw all six moon landings. With the Apollo Program over, and NASA seeking new direction, the final decision– “what will America’s next moon shot be?”– ended up on the President’s desk. Up to that point, NASA’s overriding vision had been that of Wernher Von Braun, the former Nazi Rocket Scientist and lead technical mind behind the Apollo Program. His  “Von Braun Paradigm” describes the ideal space program; It states that after putting its first human in space, a nation should develop reusable orbital vehicles, build a space station, and use the space station as a base for a future mission to Mars.

That could have been more immediately possible, if not for the aforementioned sudden drop in public interest. Congressional support plummeted, and with it, the patience of a president who already saw no practical reason to continue space exploration. The US had beaten the Soviet Union, what point was there in proceeding with such an expensive program? With NASA’s proposed budget for 1972 severely cut, there were only two options realistically on the table for the agency to pursue: develop a reusable launch system with no tangible goal, or use a Saturn V or similar vehicle to attempt a Mars Mission.

President Nixon had urged NASA to cancel the last two Apollo Missions, after the Apollo 13 incident brought US Astronauts to the brink of death 200,000 miles away from Earth. His fear of losing Americans in space (coupled with the fear of his own legacy being tied to such a disaster) led him to select the Reusable Launch Vehicle option. At first, this seemed to many as the right path for NASA if it wanted to achieve its unspoken goal, following Von Braun’s vision to Mars. Indeed, it was later decided that this new launch vehicle would be used to build a massive, American Space Station. It would be called Freedomand it could perhaps have been used as a base for future Mars Missions.

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Wernher Von Braun demonstrates an early model of his “Space Ferry” a precursor to the Space Shuttle, c.1952

But the reusable launch vehicle, better known as the Space Shuttle, and formally known as STS, (Space Transport System), stalled. Dissatisfaction with several proposed reusable launch vehicles abounded– historians and engineers alike have speculated that it was simply too efficient to be popular. The problem with a reusable vehicle is that it only has to be manufactured once, which is bad for aerospace companies that want to score long-term contracts with the federal government. Individual representatives and senators divvyed up the shuttle program among themselves, so a wide variety of constituencies would be involved in the long-term manufacturing of the shuttle. The result bore little similarity to Von Braun’s original “ferry rocket” design, which he had first proposed over a decade before. Rather than a smaller vehicle mounted at the nose of a powerful, winged adaptation of the dependable Saturn V rocket, the Space Shuttle was mounted on the side of a massive External Fuel Tank. As a result, the Thermal Protection System on the underside of the Shuttle, already fragile, suddenly became a lot more vulnerable. When the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up on reentry in 2003, killing its seven-member crew, the disaster was attributed to damage of that TPS, inflicted by falling debris during launch. Nearly twenty years earlier, the Space Shuttle Challenger had broken apart 73 seconds into its flight. The shuttle had been left out in the cold overnight, and as a result, it’s O-rings– like giant rubber bands left in the fridge overnight– became brittle, and came apart, destroying the vehicle. That sort of issue never would have occurred on a more traditional, Saturn V type rocket.

The Shuttle Program failed to significantly reduce the cost of access to space, and, as mentioned above, it presented a plethora of design and safety issues that were nonexistent with expendable launchers. Costwise, when compared to the expendable Russian “Proton” Rocket, which used the same design initially thought up during the 1960s, and which continues to operate to this day, the Shuttle was four times more expensive to launch than its Russian counterpart. That’s not to say that the Shuttle Program was without its merits, only that it could have been much better. The Freedom American Space Station was never meant to be, particularly after the pitfalls of Skylab, although the Shuttle turned out to be integral in building the International Space Station, as well as the launch and continued maintenance of the Hubble Space Telescope.

But for an idea of how unusual, even bizarre, the United States’ dedication to the Space Shuttle was, consider the following anecdote: The Soviet Union was baffled by what it saw. The Soviet Military assessed the Shuttle as “… not economically viable, and inexplicably large”. The only logical explanation? They figured the United States must have had some nefarious purpose in building this vehicle. Perhaps it was transporting nuclear payloads into orbit, or building some other space-based weapon? This, to the USSR, seemed like the only likely reason the US could have to build such an inefficient and expensive vehicle. Afraid, the Soviets build their own Space Shuttle, called Buran, although it was fully automated. It launched, docked with the Russian Space Station, Mir, and returned to Earth safely, without a single human on board. This was purely to demonstrate to the Americans that the USSR was equally capable of carrying out whatever secret plot the US must be planning. After that launch, the Buran Shuttle was left to rot in a warehouse. Recently, experts have speculated that it was a better Space Shuttle than the United States’ own STS.

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Buran, the Soviet Counterpart to the US’ Space Shuttle, on the Launchpad

In 2005, President George W. Bush initiated the cancellation of the Shuttle Program. At the same time, he touted a recommitment to space exploration, proposing a new launch vehicle, and describing manned lunar bases by 2020. The program was ill-advised, particularly during a period of record deficits in the United States. During the Obama Administration, the cancellation of the Space Shuttle program went through, but so did Bush’s plans for a a new American presence in space.

In its place, NASA put forward under the Obama Administration a new launch vehicle: Space Launch System, or SLS. While it derives from the Space Shuttle, it is an expendable-launch vehicle, more in the fashion of the Saturn V that brought men to the moon. Essentially, SLS was designed to be everything the Shuttle should have been, the logical successor to the Saturn V and Apollo Program. But now it seems like even SLS might be too little, too late. It’s designed to be the most powerful rocket ever built, but it fails to take advantage of new technology– or to capture the public’s interest– like Apollo did in the 60s, or like private space exploration companies do today. During the past forty-five years, during which time not a single human has left Low Earth Orbit, new innovators have brought their own visions, inspired by the old Apollo days, to the private sector. Elon Musks’s SpaceX has developed its own rockets, just as capable of delivering payloads to orbit as STS, significantly less expensive, and capable of landing upright back on its launchpad. Other companies, such as Orbital ATK, Lockheed, Boeing, and Airbus, have been operating their own orbital rockets for years, and the government has been using their services to launch satellites for some time now. The public has been captivated by SpaceX’s launch and landing livestreams, and is excited by its announcement that it will ferry passengers around the moon in 2018, in a way that it just isn’t excited by NASA’s announcement that SLS will be launched the same year… or the next year… or the next… the schedule keeps changing, the date of the first launch pushed back with every congressional hearing. SLS is supposed to be the most powerful rocket ever built. So is SpaceX’s proposed Falcon Heavy.

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SpaceX’s Dragon Cargo Capsule delivers cargo to the International Space Station, 2012.

Space Launch System is over-budget and behind schedule, and it lacks the public support and the involved Commander-in-Chief that, history has proven, is necessary in order to achieve success in space. Recently, relevant members of congress have begun to let their thoughts on the matter be heard; Representative Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology committee, said during a hearing on November 8th that “It is very disappointing to hear about delays caused by poor execution when the US taxpayer has invested so much in these programs… NASA and the contractors should not assume future delays and cost overruns will have no consequences.” He continued, “Alternatives to SLS and Orion almost certainly would involve significant taxpayer funding and lead to further delays. But the more setbacks SLS and Orion face, the more support builds for other options.”

It remains to be seen whether or not congress would, or even could, turn to “other options” for manned space travel in the future. There are still so many paths that the future of Space Exploration could take. Maybe there’ll be a new, private Space Race, between companies rather than countries. Maybe China, which has been rapidly gaining on the US in terms of technological capacity in space, will present enough of a threat for the public to get behind a well-funded government solution. But one thing is for sure: despite the slow progress and failures of previous decades, the world is poised, both technologically and culturally, to take another moon shot– but maybe this time, we won’t stop there.

 

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