Wednesday, August 24, 2022

A Unique Overview of the SLS

Over at Ars Technica, Eric Berger who is their senior space editor and has been for the years I've been reading over there, puts together a good perspective piece on next Monday's scheduled Artemis I mission.  It's entitled “The SLS rocket is the worst thing to happen to NASA—but maybe also the best?” Yeah, I've done a few pieces on the mission, and with it starting to drown out all other subjects in the "usual sources," I'll probably have to do some more in the coming days, but it's hard to not get drawn into the story.  

Eric starts out with a pithy observation.  

President Eisenhower signed the law establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on July 29, 1958. At the time, the United States had put about 30 kg of small satellites into orbit. Less than 11 years later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon.

President Obama signed a NASA Authorization Act on October 11, 2010. Among its provisions, the law called on NASA to create the Space Launch System rocket and have it ready for launch in 2016. It seemed reasonable. At the time, NASA had been launching rockets, including very large ones, for half a century. And in some sense, this new SLS rocket was already built.

At virtually 12 years since the program was authorized, it has taken longer to get SLS ready to launch than the entire Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs (until the moon landing) put together.  Every single major piece of the Saturn rocket family had to be created from nothing - by engineers and scientists with primitive computers and slide rules.  Every single piece of SLS is either completely reused or modified from earlier programs.  The most challenging aspect of virtually any new launch vehicle is its engines.  Not for SLS.  It uses RS-25 engines left over from the space shuttle program.  As Berger puts it:

So here we are, nearly a dozen years after that authorization act was signed, and NASA is finally ready to launch the SLS rocket. It took the agency 11 years to go from nothing to the Moon. It has taken 12 years to go from having all the building blocks for a rocket to having it on the launch pad, ready for an uncrewed test flight.

I have decidedly mixed emotions.

On one hand, he says he's incredibly happy for the people who actually busted hump to get this thing ready to fly.  It is, after all, going to be the most powerful rocket at liftoff in history, and who doesn't want to watch something like that fly?  

On the other hand, it's difficult to celebrate a rocket that, in many ways, is responsible for a lost decade of US space exploration.  It's absurdly expensive;  NASA Inspector General Paul Martin said in March of this year that operational costs alone for a single Artemis launch—for just the rocket, Orion spacecraft, and ground systems—will total $4.1 billion.  The RS-25 engines, $600 Million for just the four engines on the first stage, are thrown out after one use - they were designed to be reusable when they were the Space Shuttle Main Engines.  

The way the program was setup, as a jobs program for a handful of contractors to ensure votes for certain D.C. "Deep State" players, was looking entirely backwards.  It was to be an Apollo-style system - including its "best of the 1970s" technology.  

Effectively, NASA was told to look backward when this country's vibrant commercial space industry was ready to push toward sustainable spaceflight by building big rockets and landing them—or storing propellant in space or building reusable tugs to go back and forth between the Earth and Moon. It's as if Congress told NASA to keep printing newspapers in a world with broadband Internet.

To be fair, there were people in NASA who tried to push in the direction of newer technologies, such as refueling on orbit, reusable vehicles, and more.  That was fought by "Big Aerospace" pushing on members of congress.  Let's be honest; building rockets that nobody wants to use, but that just sit in storage somewhere (ICBMs), or even better, rockets that get thrown away after one use, sounds a lot easier than building a rocket that can go to orbit, come back, land and be ready to fly again within days. 

Artemis I/SLS on Pad 39B, August 19.  Trevor Mahlmann photo. 

This is just a tease for Eric Berger's article.  He goes into lots of details because he has been watching and reporting on SLS for virtually the entire program.  It's a long and twisted story that's hard hitting; it's the same story we see in virtually every federally-funded program haunting our country today.



  1. hmmm, blow up on the pad or veer off course and get "aborted" in flight... or it rapidly deconstructs on its own and the grifters won't know why

    1. Well, if Boeing had any part of the control system...

  2. I have an acquaintance who works at/with NASA and he insists that there's no way we ever got to the Moon. Because he's part of the system that has stopped dreaming forward. His main claim to fame is his bosses bring him into meetings so he can tell everyone else how stupid they are and how they can't achieve anything.

    That is modern manned NASA. "We can't achieve anything." "We can't evolve and develop new stuff."

    Seriously, Gemini and Saturn/Apollo were far ahead of SLS/Orion is. Those two programs understood using 'off the shelf' equipment (mainly ICBM systems and parts) and understood maximizing lift for minimizing costs. They also understood that they were making throw-away systems and worked hard to maximize performance. And they were working on reuse/refurbish/recover, both with the Gemini and with later Saturn/Apollo systems (post-Moon Sat/Ap systems were to have recoverable/refurbishable engines and capsules.)

  3. NASA is long past dead. Declare it over and dead, and cannibalize for parts.
    Anyone above first-level management should be marked as ineligible for any government rehire, under any circumstances, not even as TSA guards or census takers.
    NASA is nothing but a flytrap for the incompetent.

    1. How about as medical test subjects? I hear Fauci is out of beagles.

  4. Astronauts will probably be on the Lunar surface wearing SpaceX-designed suits as the first SLS astronauts attempt to actually land there. NASA is *that* ossified now. They awarded SpaceX the Lunar Landing System to them because... they didn't have any lander hardware ready nor anybody that wanted to build it for a reasonable cost. So, they awarded it to SpaceX because Cheaper Faster Better, and SpaceX has the knack and the engineers to Git 'er Done! Of course Blue Origin burst a blood vessel and tried to horn in on the business, but... one word: BE4.

    Just my $2 worth.

  5. Excellent article, great perspective. Give Elon that money, though, and we'd be on Mars within two orbital opportunities.