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NASA’s New Rocket: Will Congress’s Pet Project Fly?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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An artist's representation of NASA's planned Space Launch System

Artist's conception of the SLS. Credit: NASA

NASA’s plans for human spaceflight, the subject of much hand-wringing since the curtains closed on the agency’s space shuttle program in July, took a big step this week when the agency announced plans for a powerful new rocket to take astronauts into deep space. But is the mammoth Space Launch System a step forward or a step backward? That remains to be seen, but there are plenty of reasons to worry.

One concern is hardly new. In fact, it’s endemic to NASA and to other federal science agencies: big projects make big targets when it comes time to cut back spending. One need look no further than the past few years to see this principle in action. The fate of the James Webb Space Telescope, a multibillion-dollar observatory designed to succeed and improve upon the venerable Hubble Space Telescope, hangs in the balance as lawmakers in the House of Representatives have moved to kill it. But the more relevant example here is the Constellation program, which sprung from President George W. Bush’s 2004 space plan. Constellation was going to be a pair of rockets, one small model and one heavy-lifter, to loft astronauts into orbit and beyond in a new Orion crew capsule. But President Barack Obama killed the plan in 2010 as Constellation staggered under schedule slips and cost overruns.

The bigger worry with the Space Launch System (SLS) is specific to the rocket itself. The SLS was born not on the drafting tables of NASA engineers but in the halls of Congress. Last year President Obama, in laying out his long-term plans for space exploration, had proposed that by 2015 NASA would design a new rocket to explore deep space and would then set to building it. But Congress, in its NASA-funding legislation, decided to press the issue. The NASA Authorization Act of 2010 mandated that NASA begin immediate work on what the law’s authors dubbed the SLS, with a 2016 deadline for initial readiness.

The lawmakers even dictated performance metrics for the rocket—an initial launch capacity of 70 to 100 tons, expandable to at least 130 tons—lest NASA should design a rocket to meet its own objectives. Congress also dictated that wherever possible the SLS should include technology from the space shuttle, whose own design comes from the 1970s, and from Constellation. (In fact, some commentators have remarked that the SLS closely resembles the heavy-lift rocket of the troubled Constellation program.)

So why did elected officials decide to play rocket scientist, calling the SLS into existence and sketching out its design by writ of law? A hint can be found in the statement issued Wednesday by NASA. “This launch system will create good-paying American jobs, ensure continued U.S. leadership in space, and inspire millions around the world,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. Note that jobs came first, and exploration second. Another clue comes from the fact that Bolden announced the SLS in Washington, D.C., joined by senators Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Bill Nelson of Florida, two states that benefited greatly from the space shuttle program.

If Obama had gotten his way, and NASA had spent a few years planning an entirely new rocket to explore deep space, the space workforce in Florida and Texas would have withered in the interim. Hutchison and Nelson have loudly championed the SLS, going so far as to accuse the Obama administration of trying to “undermine America’s manned space program” by not accelerating the rocket’s development.

And if NASA had decided to harness new rocket technologies rather than borrowing the old, companies that have long prospered under NASA’s human spaceflight program would have suffered. ATK Aerospace in Utah, for instance, makes the solid rocket boosters that once launched the space shuttle, and those same boosters will also launch the SLS. Not surprisingly, Utah lawmakers have pushed for SLS development and its use of solid motors. (The indelible Congressional mark on the new rocket has led some to derisively refer to the SLS as the Senate Launch System.) As is, the SLS is expected to cost $18 billion by 2017.

NASA seems to have pushed back at first. The space agency issued a report in January expressing doubts that the SLS could be ready by 2016 and questioning whether the rocket would meet Bolden’s pledge to undertake projects that are “affordable, sustainable, and realistic.” Hutchison has not been pleased with such demurrals. “The political leadership at NASA and at [the White House Office of Management and Budget] has dragged their feet on implementation,” she said in a statement last month. “After many requests for NASA to comply with the law, the Commerce Committee finally initiated a formal investigation earlier this summer.”

In the past, Bolden has noted that the U.S. does not yet have a use for the beefed-up SLS. “NASA does not need a 130-metric-ton vehicle probably before the next decade,” he has said. He has also said that NASA would “continue to negotiate and discuss with the Congress why that is not necessary.”

Even the initial 70-ton capacity of the SLS is of questionable utility. As Jeff Foust wrote in January in The Space Review, “The debate about how to build [a heavy-lift rocket] will likely raise another question: why build one now?” The stated mission of the SLS is to explore deep space and to provide a NASA-owned option for reaching the International Space Station, which today’s astronauts can only access via Russian rockets. But neither job screams out for the SLS that Congress has mandated. “In the case of the latter the SLS is considerably oversized,” Foust wrote, before noting that “in the former case the specific transportation needs aren’t clear since NASA hasn’t settled on a specific exploration architecture.” Or, as lunar scientist Paul Spudis put it in a blog post, “In the absence of any specific mission, the payload capacity of your launch vehicle is entirely academic.”

Bolden is now supporting the SLS, at least in public, but what choice does he have? The law of the land requires that he build the SLS, regardless of whether NASA needs it—and regardless of whether better options exist for delivering astronauts to Earth orbit and to deep space. From its inception, the SLS has been fundamentally an instrument of politics, not exploration. Whether it can be both is the $18-billion question.

About the Author: John Matson is an associate editor at Scientific American focusing on space, physics and mathematics. Follow on Twitter @jmtsn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. bookwerm 3:23 pm 09/15/2011

    The SLS as proposed is ill advised. A waste of money.
    Any deep space mission should use existing launchers, there are plenty of suitable lift capacity systems either existing or in development.
    On orbit assembly on a deep space system is essential. Some of the components may end up being connected by cables so you can spin and get G’s, which means you only need hard points! Redundant cables to prevent single point failures.

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  2. 2. Viracocha711 5:40 pm 09/15/2011

    We should shave $50 BILLION from defense spending & give it to NASA to do what NASA does…EXPLORE!! I can’t stand the fact we cut science programs when it comes to cutting the budget as the cuts do not do a DAMN THING for improving the budget! Oh well, we are going to turn over full control of the country to a bunch of Christian NUTS in 2012 anyway…And the way some RED STATES & some of the traditionally BLUE STATES under RED control are attempting to change election law so as to divide electoral college votes up by districts to insure a Democrat is not elected to the White House again in a very long time we will probably be a Christian Theocracy by 2020. If the scientist start to leave I will not be far behind!

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  3. 3. zampaz 7:08 pm 09/15/2011

    This is silly, I hope you see the pathetic humor in it as I do.
    The good news is that the SLS will have the payload capacity to put and Congress and a large portion of any executive branch into deep space where they belong.
    Of course we can’t send them to the moon or mars because that would imply a goal.

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  4. 4. vasbinde 7:12 pm 09/15/2011


    At risk of flame baiting, I must ask: So it is your opinion that Christians are out to take over the U.S. Government? Based on your verbiage, can I also assume that you believe that all Christians are anti-science; knowledge-fearing “nuts”?

    Are those summaries of your opinions correct?

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  5. 5. jack.123 7:40 pm 09/15/2011

    The only way deep space missions are going to work is to build a whole new generation of ships that are nuclear powered.These ships will be capable of 1 G acceleration half way to the target then 1 G to slow the ship till arrival,also reducing the speed of reentry ships to 0 with no fiery reentry and all the precautions no longer needed,you just drop in.doing this would reduce the time it takes from months and years to days and weeks.Your typical trip to Mars would take 2 weeks with gravity all the way and with radiation exposure reduced to a safe level.Of course there would be considerable protest against it.But these ships could be built in Moon orbit and never return to Earth.With the only risk being sending up the the initial fuel for operation,with the first task being finding off world sources of uranium to power the ships.All trips to the Moon and returning to Earth would use conventional fuels.These would be obtained on trips to the Moon and deep space as well as a great many other things like rare earth metals.The sooner we do this the better.Just think of the economic boom this would bring both for the U.S and the rest of the world.

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  6. 6. Quinn the Eskimo 8:51 pm 09/15/2011

    The sad truth is this: After 50 years in space, NASA has no where to go.

    Even their pilots are leaving for real jobs. NASA is the new Dunsil. An object with no decernable function.

    Giving money to NASA is like throwing it out an open window in January.

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  7. 7. Martin Wirth 9:16 pm 09/15/2011

    A jobs program in times like these is a beautiful thing. Far be it from me to complain about the big SLS. There are loads of scientists, engineers, technicians, and regular suppliers desperate for business and work. The shame of loosing all those skills and our national edge in space is a worse evil than spending money to build a big old-fashioned rocket. With that kind of lift capacity, we could put a hotel on the Moon and add a lab or two. There will be plenty of uses. Build it and they will come. I can easily imagine quite a few of them.

    But there’s a problem with this picture and trouble brewing in Paradise.

    Whenever political concerns override good engineering decisions, giant fireballs kill astronauts. We saw it in 1996 when a flexible seal failed and allowed a flame to penetrate the hydrogen fuel tank on the space shuttle, Challenger. Warnings about the defect were ignored prior to the disaster for political reasons. Columbia disintegrated on re-entry in 2003 because insulating foam that routinely broke off the hydrogen tank punched a hole in the leading edge of the left wing. Nothing was learned from the lesson of 1996 as problems were ignored again to keep political appointees happy. Political priorities rarely result in good engineering decisions. The SLS has been born from a political womb, not from engineering and scientific necessity.

    Politics compromises the potential success of the project from the very beginning. If we cannot find a way to clean out politics from the process of building and launching the SLS, then we’re only wasting billions of dollars to build giant bombs for some of our most talented people to climb aboard and get blown to bits.

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  8. 8. jack.123 9:53 pm 09/15/2011

    No place to go?There are millions of asteroids,many made up of platinum,gold,and assorted other metals.A few good trips would not only pay for the entire program,but the national debt as well.Materials for a space based solar energy systems are there for the taking with no need for lifting them from Earth at great cost.As for the risk most of the stuff needed for the first ships can be sent up on unmanned rockets.With people only going up for the final assembly and the trips out there.There is risk with every endeavor.You can die driving to work every day.The astronauts taking part on these missions know the risks and are willing to take them.Only this time there is a real goal and a gigantic payoff for all of mankind with the first asteroid mining successes.The only thing holding us back is the fear of a few.

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  9. 9. Martin Wirth 6:55 am 09/16/2011

    Proofreader had the night off. Replace 1996 with 1986 in my screed above.

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  10. 10. newman 8:01 am 09/16/2011

    In my opinion the big problem in nasa and white house is the obstacle to future of humanity is the religion christianity. By centuries they want stop the progrees of mentality and technology (I remember of Galileo). But we have another problem! Is the economic crisis! The politics cut down the money for the survey. The scientists, engineers, technicians go away. And the all research disappear and forgotten. As became all This years of researchs, missions to moon, mars, etc?
    Anybody have the same opinion?

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  11. 11. ennui 3:44 pm 09/16/2011

    The Nasa Clan and some Govenment people are hoping that the public can be kept stupid by using an outdated technology. Throw-away $35 Billion Dollar Rockets will not do anything good, only bad.
    The patented technology, used by the Flying Saucer, which was offered to Nasa in 1980, was rejected, as it would make the obsolete Rocket Industry more obsolete. If it had been applied to the Shuttles, they could have flown with a constant acceleration of ONE G
    to the ISS in one hour, to the Moon in a couple of hours. They would have flown very economically for many motre years instead of rusting away in Musea.
    Congrats to Nasa Management to keep the public in the dark.
    The Chinese will beat you by years, they are not stupid like you.
    Look at > One Terminal Capacitor Joseph…<

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  12. 12. manishm 7:05 am 09/17/2011

    Dear Scientific American,

    What this one-sided blog fails to mention is the importance of MPCV and SLS to deep space exploration. If we wait until 2015 or 2020 to decide to build a system that will take us into deep space, we will not actually accomplish this task until sometime in 2040. Also, having NASA strictly working on space technology and not a vehicle will significantly ground the agency for many decades. Another misnomer, is that the SLS IS a different rocket and has more performance capability than the Saturn V. This is not about jobs, but about bringing the Nation forward in science and technology through developing and designing a complex vechicle. It will provide the capability for the U.S. and other Nations to explore asteroids, possibly comets, moons of Mars, Mars and even the Moon. Something else the blogger fails to mention is that by having the goal of developing this vehicle, MANY new technologies and engineering/science discoveries will result. There are always constraints when developing a vehicle, the Apollo Program had many engineering and political constraints, but it revolutionized our view of Earth and the Cosmos. I believe we need to support NASA – for this is a very challenging and exciting task it has been given. I am proud of our Space Agency. I wish them the best.

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  13. 13. eboyhan 9:20 am 09/20/2011

    It’s the wrong approach for deep space missions. We should use existing launchers to loft components into LEO. Build deep space vehicles in LEO; power them with something like VASIMIR which can do constant acceleration to Mars or asteroids (reachable in weeks instead of months/years). Rather than using a heavy lifter and an Apollo-like capsule (real uncomfortable that for 6 months or a year). We missed an opportunity with the shuttle to build a near earth infrastructure capable of supporting hundreds in LEO. It’s still a good objective. We should crawl before we walk; we need a robust LEO presence before tackling deep space.

    Building a heavy lift launcher is a waste of money — it’s one-off technology — we need LEO reusability — something like VASIMIR couple with existing launcher inventory is the answer.

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