Until a few years ago, NASA was the undisputed ruler of space. With only three countries that have independent (manned) access to space, America was the only country that ever went to the moon and had the world’s most advanced machine ever with the Space Shuttle. But now, much of that glory has been lost as NASA has no manned spaceflight program anymore. A controversial and astronomically priced rocket called the Space Launch System is supposed to change that – but is NASA on the right path with SLS? It looks like SLS is starting to become a rocket to nowhere…
1. What is SLS?
SLS stands for Space Launch System, and is to be America’s new way into space. The rocket is to be the successor to the Space Shuttle, which last flew in 2011. There are two versions of the rocket: One that can lift 22,000 ft3 to LEO, and another for a whopping 58,000 ft3 to orbit.
SLS isn’t a standalone project. Another important part of the program is the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), the construction of which was outsourced to Boeing. Orion is the capsule that will actually take astronauts up into space.
SLS’s first test flight is scheduled for 2020, with the first manned flight of Orion following in 2023 – if all goes accordin”g to schedule…
Independent access to space
From 1983 to 2011, America had its own way into space with the Shuttle-program. It was one of only 2 countries with independent access (for humans) into space – China following in 2003. Since the Space Shuttle retirement, America can’t get its own astronauts into space, making the country dependent on the Russian Soyuz for expensive flights to the ISS.
The Space Shuttle program was envisioned to be a low-cost way of getting into space, primarily because of its reusability of the spacecraft. The 3 remaining shuttles at the end of the program had a life expectancy of 100 flights, but when cancelled the shuttles had flown 25, 33 and 39 flights respectively.
Both the ever increasing costs of the program, and the harsh conclusions of the investigation of the 2003 Columbia disaster led to NASA cancelling the program prematurely.
The next big step
That left NASA with a big problem, because what was to be the next step for manned space? There was the International Space Station, but America now had to rely on the Russians to ferry astronauts and cargo up and down – a pretty expensive endeavour.
There was something else, too: The loss of employment tied to the program. Expensive as the Shuttle-program was, it provided employment to thousands of Americans which was lost as the program ended. Because of this, American senators and governers wanted Congress to come up with an alternative.
So for America, it was clear: The country had to have independent access to space again. But how? And where to? Under president George W. Bush, the Constellation program was set up, but it was cancelled almost the minute Obama set foot in the White House.
Between a rock and a hard place
Since then, NASA has been in a split between making setting up it’s own access to space, and focussing on robotic missions into deep space.
It’s hard to figure out just exactly what SLS is being built for. Will we use it for colonizing the solar system? Or is SLS merely a display of power, something to show the world America has never really left the moon and can build a big rocket just as easy? It looks like that’s the case, but where are Orion and SLS actually supposed to go? By now, the development cost of the rocket and capsule have risen so much, ironically there’s practically no money for actual missions in the program.
Besides cost of development, consider the significant budget costs NASA has had to face in the recent years. Almost every year since the end of the Apollo program in 1972, the agency has received less federal funding – a development that’s not going to change anytime soon.
When SLS when start making its first manned flights in 2023 (which is already 2 years later than NASA had originally intended, NASA’s budget for ‘manned spaceflight’ will have decreased even more. With this budget, the agency is supposed to continue the ISS program by sending not only astronauts but continues supply missions to the station, at least until the end of 2024 and most likely well beyond that.
No money = no mission
There’s ample room left in the budget for even a single launch of SLS. Come to that, only one launch so far has been actually planned – the first test flight, with two astronauts riding in an Orion-capsule that seats 4. The ‘mission’ will consist of 3 orbits around Earth, testing critical life support systems before falling back into the ocean.
Roadmap to nowhere
After that, NASA has no real goal for the rocket.
The continuation of the ISS program can almost fully be run by private companies: Boeing, Orbital Sciences, and SpaceX. The latter two already fly supply missions to the station, while both SpaceX and Boeing are currently contracted to design a manned capsule as well for ferrying astronauts up and now – making the United States less dependable on their tense relations with Russia.
Theoretically, this gives NASA breathing room for missions further into the solar system: When private entities take over Low Earth Orbit, NASA has the time, money and manpower to focus on getting beyond LEO.
But NASA’s roadmap to the stars is murky and unclear.
Getting your ass to Mars…
There are two goals on the horizon, of which Mars is the most obvious one. There are many proponents for a manned mission to the Red Planet – most notably second man on the moon Buzz Aldrin who has devoted the last 30 years of his life on convincing NASA to get its ass to Mars. At the same time however, such has a mission an equal number of opponents, citing a Martian mission to be ridiculously expensive, dangerous, and unscientific to boot. So, despite an overwhelming ethereal desire to colonize the galaxy, NASA is at a stalemate for such a mission because of strict budgets.
…. or doing something out of a sci-fi movie?
Another mission on paper sounds even more ridiculous than Mars but in reality is much closer to completion: The Asteroid Redirect Mission. This mission, ARM for short, uses an unmanned probe to redirect an asteroid from the Kuiper Belt to a lunar orbit, than sending astronauts to it to investigate the asteroid. For this mission, an SLS/Orion-combination is needed.
There’s just a slight problem: ARM too is a far goal on the horizon. The very earliest that astronauts would theoretically go on their first ARM-mission would be 2025, and that’s only if NASA starts ARM’s roadmap tomorrow morning.
There’s still a lot to be decided on ARM though, nothing of which will happen in the coming year at least.
So, NASA’s stuck with a rocket it has little use for.