The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews
Waiting for Launch ebook
 

 
SLS illustration
To some, the Space Launch System is an essential tool for space exploration. For others, it is an unaffordable and unnecessary project. (credit: NASA)

Dennis Tito’s “Spaceship to Everywhere” may be a dead-end for NASA


Bookmark and Share

Dennis Tito, the multimillionaire who was the first space tourist to visit the International Space Station, recently wrote an article for The Huffington Post called “The Spaceship to Everywhere” that was prompted by published criticisms of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket (SLS) and Orion spacecraft, such as an op-ed for SPACE.com I wrote titled, “Will SpaceX Super Rocket Kill NASA’s ‘Rocket to Nowhere’?”

Contrary to Tito’s claim, there are in fact many people who are extremely well informed about SLS/Orion who make very strong arguments that it is an enormous waste of money.

In his piece, Tito writes, “Short-sighted critics like to call it [SLS] the ‘rocket to nowhere,’ an incredibly uninformed reference that sells short the accomplishments of NASA and industry over a relatively short period of time, and which carelessly dismisses the significant investment and progress already made in ‘SLS/Orion.’” In the article, he refers to the combination of the SLS launcher and Orion spacecraft as “The Spaceship to Everywhere.”

Contrary to Tito’s claim, there are in fact many people who are extremely well informed about SLS/Orion who make very strong arguments that it is an enormous waste of money. And those people exist both within NASA and outside of it. They say it is a waste that NASA can ill afford during a period when its budget is unlikely to increase anytime soon. Just a few of those many substantiated arguments follow.

According to a 2011 study that NASA itself commissioned from Booz Allen Hamilton (BAH), SLS will probably stay on schedule within its assigned budget for the first three to five years of development. “Beyond this horizon, the inclusion of large expected cost savings in the estimates, the beginning of development activities, and the potential for significant risk events” decreased the confidence of the BAH report’s authors. This situation would result from SLS being restricted to an annual budget of a size that Congress will actually appropriate. It renders meaningless the claim that SLS’s meeting of its current development schedule is an indicator that the rocket is viable, since the total development time to date is still within the five-year window specified in the BAH report. In fact, the report says that after the window period, it is likely the amount of time between the accomplishment of the developmental goals will get stretched further and further apart.

Thus, it is possible a flight of the least powerful Block 1 version of SLS may occur on schedule in 2017 (within the three-to-five-year period), but milestone test flights afterward are likely to be pushed indefinitely into the future. Indeed, the continual delays between developmental goals may mean that the completion of the more powerful Block 2 version of SLS could be perpetually pushed into the future, never to actually fly. Furthermore, studies from NASA itself, industry, academia, and renowned veteran Apollo engineers indicate that using either SLS or a similar Shuttle-derived vehicle is the least economically practical way to do significant spaceflight to the Moon and beyond and would not be the fastest nor safest way. Given these points, a primary argument of Tito’s defense of SLS (saying it shouldn’t be canceled because of the work that has already been done on it) is just another example of the classic “Sunk Cost Fallacy”.

Those “most experienced and skilled” personnel should be working on something more worthy of their immense talents. Instead of advancing NASA forward in the best way possible, SLS/Orion is retarding it from reaching ambitious spaceflight goals.

The Augustine Committee reported in 2009 that if a large Shuttle-derived heavy lift rocket (such as SLS) were actually built, it would be so expensive to operate on a regular basis that NASA could not afford to use it. Oft-touted figures of $400 million to $500 million per flight by SLS proponents either don’t count all of the costs when figuring per flight expense and/or assume unrealistic flight frequencies.

Mr. Tito is particularly gung-ho on using SLS with the Orion spacecraft to execute his Inspiration Mars plan to do a crewed flyby of Mars by 2021. Along with discounting the drawbacks of SLS, this idea unrealistically ignores certain facts about the Orion spacecraft.

Orion was originally designed for sending astronauts to the Moon; as such, NASA decided that the spacecraft’s thermal protection system (TPS) would be made of AVCOAT, essentially the same heat shield material used on the Apollo spacecraft in the 1960s. This poses a problem using Orion on a Mars expedition. Reentry speeds from Mars are much higher than those for a return from the Moon, which means that the spacecraft will experience much higher temperatures during reentry than it is currently designed to withstand. Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin is not even sure it is capable of handling reentry temperatures generated from a return from a near Earth asteroid mission, which would have somewhat higher reentry velocities than lunar return. As Lockheed Martin stated in a 2009 presentation about its “Plymouth Rock” asteroid mission concept, “Reentry velocities are 11.05 to 11.25 km/s for asteroid missions, vs 11.0 km/s for lunar return. TPS enhancement may be required depending on the ultimate capability of Orion lunar TPS.”

Even the relatively modest enhancement of the TPS for a near Earth asteroid mission may require a significant budget increase that Congress may be loathe to approve, implying the much more radical TPS alteration needed for a super-fast Mars return would almost certainly be a nonstarter.

These are only a few of the technical and fiscal pitfalls of SLS/Orion. There are too many of them to cover in a short article. However, there is one point on which Dennis Tito and I both totally agree, when he states in The Huffington Post article that SLS/Orion is “being built for NASA by the most experienced and skilled space manufacturing workforce in the world.” Tito apparently doesn’t realize that the technology and contracting methods used for this endeavor were chosen for political reasons rather than what was most efficient. Those “most experienced and skilled” personnel should be working on something more worthy of their immense talents. Instead of advancing NASA forward in the best way possible, SLS/Orion is retarding it from reaching ambitious spaceflight goals. As I stated earlier, those goals could all be accomplished using alternate methods without increasing NASA’s budget and would allow America’s space agency to eclipse its Project Apollo glory days.


Home

Subscribe

Enter your email address below to be notified when new articles are published:


ISPCS 2015