The Space Launch System may be years behind schedule, but it has strong Congressional support and isn’t going away any time soon. (credit: NASA)
by A.J. Mackenzie
For the last seven years, part of the space advocacy community has been waging a campaign against NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). They’re convinced that the rocket is a massive waste of money, unnecessary when SpaceX, Blue Origin, or others will be able to provide heavy-lift launch at a far lower price.
It’s been one of the least effective advocacy efforts in recent memory, outside of perennial lost causes like space solar power. SLS may have had its technical problems, but it’s been largely immune to political difficulties. It’s consistently won funding at or often above the levels requested by both Democratic and Republican administrations over these last several years, and no one on Capitol Hill has made any serious effort to cancel the program.
Recently, some of those advocates held out their hopes that the new NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine, was a secret critic of SLS. They noted that he said, on several occasions, that the exploration architecture he seeks to develop to return humans to the Moon should be reusable. “We want the entire architecture between here and the moon to be reusable,” he said. The SLS, or course, is not: in fact, it takes shuttle-era components, like the main engines and SRB casings, that were intended to be reusable and expends them.
Last week, though, Bridenstine poured cold water on any such theories. According to media reports, he dismissed any thoughts he might not back the SLS. “I am for SLS,” he said. “While SLS may not be reusable, it is important for building that reusable architecture.” Not surprisingly, he made those comments in Huntsville, home of the Marshall Space Flight Center and the epicenter of the SLS program.
It was, of course, silly for people to think that Bridenstine would somehow be a closet SLS critic. He would not have gotten the job had he not made it clear, to the administration and to Congress, that he supported one of the agency’s biggest programs. Recall that Bridestine got the endorsement, early during his extended confirmation battle, of Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the biggest, and most influential, patron of SLS in Congress.
It’s time for SLS critics to give up on the futile efforts to stop the program in Congress, not because the SLS is perfect—it may well be seriously flawed—but because the program has sufficient political support, and momentum, that any effort to try and stop it now is futile. It’s time to stand back and let SLS fly or fail on its own merits.
This doesn’t mean that SLS is a perfect program. Far from it: it’s experienced technical problems and extensive delays. Four years ago, NASA expected it to be ready for launch in late 2017, or in three years. Now, it’s expected to be ready for launch in mid-2020, about two years from now: one year closer to launch after four years of work. The recent report by NASA’s Inspector General sharply criticized both Boeing and NASA for their handling of the SLS core stage of development, but both the company and the agency say they’ve fixed those problems. We shall see.
Yet, SLS is hardly alone in experiencing problems. In fact, the SLS may not be the pacing factor for the delays in its first launch, given the difficulties ESA and Airbus have experiencing building the service module for the Orion spacecraft that will fly on EM-1, problems so bad NASA had to have Lockheed Martin send over technicians to help their European partners. The service module and the SLS core stage have been neck-and-neck on the critical path for EM-1.
Delays are commonplace on other programs as well. The two commercial crew contractors, Boeing and SpaceX, are years behind schedule in the development of their vehicles. While funding shortfalls might have contributed to delays earlier in the program, the delays now are due to technical problems the two companies have suffered, from parachute testing issues to a malfunction during a hot fire test of an abort engine.
One can argue that the commercial crew delays are a bigger issue than those involving SLS. That rocket might be a key part of NASA’s future exploration architecture but infrastructure in space today relies on SLS. If SLS slips a year, or more, it only pushes back those plans: embarrassing, perhaps, but not much else. Commercial crew delays, on the other hand, threaten our access to the International Space Station, a problem exacerbated by the recent Soyuz launch abort.
Barring an unforeseen change of events, it’s hard to see congressional support for, and funding of, SLS to change dramatically in the next few years. Shelby is chairman of the appropriations committee in the Senate and, even if he loses his chairmanship should the Democrats take control of the Senate next month, he will still be an influential force. It’s hard to see him going along with any proposal that would jeopardize development of SLS.
Shelby will be up for reelection in 2022, at which point SLS will (hopefully!) have made its first launch, and maybe a second as well. He will be in his late 80s at that point and may be considering retirement, although nonagenarians in the Senate are hardly unprecedented. If he does retire, SLS will lose its patron, but by that time the rocket should either have demonstrated its worth, or demonstrated it’s not worth it.
It may be time for SLS critics to take a page from Dr. Strangelove: stop worrying and, if not love the SLS, learn to live with it. The next four years is a prime opportunity for them to make an alternative case for space exploration, one that relies on commercial heavy-lift rockets (themselves likely to suffer development delays like the SLS) and other capabilities such as on-orbit assembly and propellant depots. Rather than keep pounding their heads against a wall, now’s the time to use their heads to find a way to scale it.