This week NASA announced its new soon-to-be-realised behemoth: the SLS (Space Launch System - what's in a name?). Again, it looks like Apollo on steroids. A very heavy launcher for big pieces of space equipment and a little less heavy launcher for the Orion, which survived the Constellation debacle.
|Apollo on steroids all over again: NASA's new SLS proposal. And this is just the smaller one. (photo: © NASA)|
Now Constellation really was something of an awfully bad idea and similar design and it was good it was cancelled. Launching people on a sole SRB is just not a good idea. To have to develop new engines for the Ares V would have taken at least ten years, It's not the age of the Space Race any more. The big Ares V looks about the same as what thiokol proposed to NASA in 1978 and what NASA has dreamt up now, a 120 meter colossus with two SRB's. But there also is a big difference with this one: Most of it is shuttle derived equipment. Two extended SRB's on either side of a big rocket, which is using five Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME's) as engines (hopefully the first stage can be recovered in one piece, those SSME's are very expensive and very reusable…) On digital impressions the rocket has been painted white with black roll markings, making it even look more like a Saturn V.
I fear this new SLS, again, is a rocket the Americans can do without very well. It is huge and that appeals to them, I know. The urge to get back to the Moon and to be the first on Mars might call for such a design in some people's eyes but is it the right way?
With the available launch vehicles of the United Launch Alliance, the Atlas and Delta the US could get big stuff up there in a jiffy. They already exist and are operational. Soon SpaceX will launch their first Falcon Heavy and then the US has enough heavy lift capability to get a nice big spaceship up, in parts, okay, but Dock those pieces together in space and voilà, at a fraction of the cost it would take to develop this huge giant SLS without a proper name they have a big habitat to travel to the moon, to MArs and even to an asteroid.
The manned spaceship could easily be launched on either one of aforementioned three rockets. So in short: There's no need for this SLS.
Even a lander as big as the later designs for the Altair lander, that had to go with the Constellation program, could be launched with either of the available launchers. Just dock it all together in orbit. Hell, you could even dock a second lander if you wanted. Two crews, two returning spacecraft, perhaps even some robotic landers to take along. A little push of some engines and off we coast to Moon, Mars and beyond.
Everywhere on the web I read of Americans angry with their incapability to autonomously send people up into space and to have to rely upon others to do so. A ride as "a second class passenger", as someone wrote, launched in a Soyuz is not what the proud Americans want. It all just looks a bit like their cars, they also seem to want their rockets bigger than necessary.
My conclusion for now is that the Americans apparently need to have a big white impressive loud and expensive eye-catching rocket to deal with their grief of retiring their space shuttle. It's all psychology.