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Paper models, photos and musings of a Paper Kosmonaut

10 September 2016

Here's a little rant about SLS, the whitest elephant in the room.

Recently, NASA told the press they still don't know how much an actual SLS launch will cost but that they wanted to bring the costs of a single SLS flight down to under 2 billion dollars. When you take into account they ultimately plan at maximum two flights per year, it still is an extremely big amount of money, even compared to the total costs of a single space shuttle flight. And then I didn't even add the development costs to the equation. Now, I understand that SLS has been heavily endorsed by politics (it hasn't been nicknamed the Senate Launch System for nothing), securing thousands of jobs in otherwise emptied NASA-related factories, but I don’t see any other practical reason why NASA insists on actually making any launch vehicle themselves.


SLS in an earlier livery. © NASA
To be clear, I of course am not an American, I am Dutch. But I also pay taxes and see some of it being spent on European spaceflight endeavours. But in Europe, the ESA itself doesn’t build launchers. That is left to the industry. ESA creates missions, schools astronauts and coordinates the EU space efforts in general. The industrial consortium called Arianespace and smaller European companies are manufacturing the rockets, satellite buses and space probes. This leaves ESA with lots of room to deal with the other aspects of spaceflight. Mainly the organising aspect and the combining of all the separate efforts into one more or less streamlined practice. (That also used to be different somewhat 50 years ago, but I think 'we' kind of learnt from it...) 
Now before I go on, Here is a recent and  interesting article on Arstechnica on the SLS.  
And another one. 
And here's a shorter one on NASAwatch. 
Further below, I will have a nice personal rant about the SLS and its predecessors to get some stuff off my chest.


(tl; dr: NASA keeps designing the same giant billion dollar rocket over and over again and they don't really need it.) 
The story of the ±100 meter tall heavy launchers, supported by two big SRB’s
 
In the US, NASA apparently wants to do it all. Create missions, teach people how to become an astronaut, teach scientists how to do rocket science, gaze at deep space and theorise about it, and actually design and build the launchers and spacecraft to go there. This is a lot of things for a governmental agency. Okay, I can accept the fact they want to design spacecraft. 
NASA knows exactly what specifications all the probes, satellites for scientific research, and even specialised manned spacecraft for specific missions should have. But rockets, no. Rockets are just rockets. That is something NASA should not have to be dealing with. Especially when you consider that building rockets also is done for a long time by lots of specialised companies. And all of these rockets are actually used by NASA. They even invest in them being designed and built. They even might have had an actual say in their development. After all, although they do launch commercial payloads, the US rocket industry practically only has two really big customers, NASA and the US. military. So these launchers are already practically made on demand.


But NASA apparently needs another launcher, designed and built by themselves. They did this once before, with the Saturn launcher. But that was more or less legit. In that time, all rockets around were too small and lacked the power to launch the payloads NASA wanted to bring into space. Saturn V was designed by NASA, but built by commercial contractors and could not be compared to any other launcher. Besides, they needed to go to the moon in a decade, quick and dirty. So by all means, the Saturn wasn't a waste of money. 
But in the years after Apollo, engines became more powerful and smaller. And the launchers that are around now, are very capable vehicles. Still, NASA has always had a yearning for a in-house designed Saturn V follow-up. It’s a bit like if the FAA would build a type of aircraft on their own. That is a waste of taxpayer’s money. Especially when, like in the recent past, the next government cancels the project which up ’til then already has been costing quite a couple of billion dollars. And yes, it happens a lot.

Magnum
Since the end of the eighties, there have been several serious attempts to produce a new. big monstrous rocket, with two (extended) Space Shuttle solid rocket boosters. In the mid-90s, NASA's Marshall Space Center presented the Magnum. A more than 100 meter tall heavy launcher, about 8,5 meters in diameter, supported by two big shuttle-derived SRB’s. Mainly a freighter to bring up big pieces of a space station, but eventally also capable of launching people.


The Magnum launcher. Look at that big, no, huge engine bell of the central core stage.
[picture from Wikipedia.]
But Magnum was more or less announced too soon. The time wasn't ripe for a successor of the shuttle, which in itself also was especially designed to carry space station segments to orbit. And it still flew. Which was becoming a point of dispute because flight numbers didn’t increase at all, and turnarounds didn’t become any cheaper or faster. And, there was no space station in sight any time soon. In time, it got worse, especially after Columbia broke apart and burnt up in the upper atmosphere. By that time, the Magnum already was cancelled for about a decade. 

Constellation
When the Shuttle's retirement finally was announced, NASA already had a plan lined out for a successor but it wasn't until NASA's next administrator, Mike Griffin, that it was initiated. And thus the "Constellation Program" came to be. Constellation consisted of three main elements: two launch vehicles called Ares, a smaller one and a big one, and a spacecraft called Orion. The 'small' launch vehicle, Ares 1, well, that is just one of the silliest and stupidest idea NASA ever came with. I'll spend no further words on that. But there also was the Ares V. (Hmm… Shall we please the public? Let’s put the V of Saturn V in Ares. They'll love it!)

Ares V. Hmmm.... Where have I seen this design before?
[picture from Wikipedia]
Ares V was, you guessed it, a more than 100 meter tall heavy launcher, about 8,5 meters in diameter, supported by two big SRB’s. Thanks to lobbies by a couple of governors, work for the rockets was secured and kept on going in their respective states, so no jobs would be lost. The Michoud factory could still produce the Shuttle External tank parts, Rocketdyne could reopen the RS-25 production line (the SSME - Space Shuttle main engine) and Thiokol could keep the SRB's in production. This also had a big influence on how the rocket would look. Work already started on the infrastructures to build the behemoth, the first actual drawings were made and there even was a test launch of that hilariously stupid Ares I, which was basically just a stretched shuttle SRB with a fake capsule on top. And it didn't look quite right. Furthermore, NASA administrator Mike Griffin was so in favour of this new project, he lacked the foresight ignored the proposals to let the already proven and flying Delta IV and Atlas V launchers to be man-rated, which could have prevented a gap in manned US space flights.

Direct
Development of the Ares V would take at least another decade before any manned flight would take place. But the shuttle would retire very soon, and well, there wasn’t a replacement yet. In the meantime, A group of renegade NASA engineers had thought up another suggestion to create a new big launcher in almost no time at all using proven material in a new configuration. Their idea also was to reuse the existing shuttle infrastructure and fabricate derived equipment to create a new launcher. This would also save the jobs the government so eagerly wanted to keep.


Jupiter Direct. What a load of possibilities! All Shuttle stuff without that Shuttle!
[picture from Wikipedia]
They called it Jupiter. Or Direct. Or Jupiter Direct. Anyway, it looked a bit like (a little less than) 100 meter tall heavy launcher, about 7 meters in diameter, supported by two big SRB’s. But of course, being renegade NASA engineers, they weren’t really heard at first and NASA really wanted to focus on the Ares, so their idea was put to rest. 
But then there were elections. exit Bush, enter Obama. And the results were that the next US. Government cancelled the plans and ordered NASA, suffering from budget cuts and another cancellation, to come up with something better. Again, loads of money were thrown away.

SLS
So, what about this new launch vehicle? NASA thought long hard and deep. And they came up with a brilliant solution. They took the idea of the Magnum Jupiter Direct Ares V that more than 100 meter tall heavy launcher, about 8,5 meters in diameter, supported by two big SRB’s and renamed it SLS. (Hmm… Shall we please the public? Let’s put the black and white stripes of Saturn V on the SLS. They’ll remember the good old Apollo days!)

SLS in its first appearance. Hmmmmm..... Where have I seen this design before?
[picture: © NASA]
SLS in its most recent livery, having lost the silly retro Saturn V look and now sporting a Shuttle-like coloured tank and trendy swooshy swirlies on the solids. Which also will be left off before it will ever be launched because of the unnecessary extra weight of the paint. But, maybe it will only fly with some paint. Like a Cola-logo or one from a burger restaurant. Maybe a life insurance company. Or, for Mars, a real estate firm.
[picture: © NASA]
Now, this launcher apparently and actually will be built. The first hardware is already made. And the SLS, like its similar still-born predecessors, will be a launch system based on what once was the Space shuttle program. The four main engines are SSME’s, the Solid Rocket Boosters for SLS are the same as those of the shuttle launch system, only one segment longer. The main tank is based on the big orange external fuel tank structure of the shuttle. And the Orion capsule, the only thing that survived the 2011 axing of Project Constellation, is an enlarged (and very much modernised) Apollo style capsule.

Old wine in new bags, as we Dutchies say
It's all proved equipment, that’s true. But also quite outdated. And constructed from parts that used to work together, but put into a new configuration. And, not to say the least, extremely expensive. And it is the umpteenth ‘new’ US vehicle, because NASA tends to throw all its useful hardware away after finishing a project, forgetting about it and then start and reinvent the wheel. And also leave big gaps between manned space projects so everyone can complain. After Apollo ended in 1975 it took 6 years to get the US astronauts back in orbit. After the Shuttle retired, NASA bought seats on the Soyuz so everyone could complain they had to 'ride with the Russians'. But at least they still had a flying launcher.
 
Now of course, there is that Russian way of doing it; “never change a winning team”. The R7, amicably called Semyorka, through all of its improved variants, already flies since 1957 and is still going strong. The Proton launched first in the late 60s and also still flies. But there are newer rockets coming. Angara, for example. One big difference is that all of these launchers are made by more or less independent companies. Khrunichev makes the Proton and Angara launchers. Progress builds the Soyuz launchers. Not Roscosmos. They just order the appropriate launch vehicles, probes and satellites, train their cosmonauts and coordinate the space activities in general. Just like ESA in Europe. They work like agencies, not industries.
Celebrating NASA employes after Apollo 11's successful return. Not all of these guys were exactly young but the science boys (and girls!) in the backroom were. The programmers, the mission specialists. "We're go on that 1201 alarm". That were the backroom people, not the guys in the 'trenches'. But anyway, average age of NASA people in 1969: 28. Figure.
[picture: © NASA]
Of course, I know NASA isn’t that quick thinking, fast reacting, young think tank any more like it was in the early sixties. The "SCE to AUX mentality", the "1202 alarm skippers", the John Houbolts and other outside-of-the-box thinkers now apparently all work at places like SpaceX. In the Apollo era, the average age of a NASA employee was 28. Nowadays, it's closer to 50. There are no short communication lines at NASA. And of course, the lobby of the industry is strong. The ties of spaceflight article manufacturers with people in the top brass are an obstacle too.
Same goes for ESA, of course. The new proposed Ariane 6 is not reusable at all. Airbus has this concept idea of a reusable engine compartment which can fly back to base after its work is done but I really doubt ESA will ever take that into the final design of Ariane 6. At least Ii think Ariane 5 will keep flying until its successor has been tested and approved so there won't be a launch gap.


The Venture Star and its linear Aerospike. This is all. No tanks, boosters or other extensions.
[picture from Wikipedia]
In the nineties, NASA already was working on a very innovative successor for the shuttle. In those days, it already was clear the STS was obsolete. It all looked very promising and there already was an almost finished sub-scale demonstrator space plane being built, called X-33 / Venture Star. But the whole program ran into troubles, got beyond their deadlines  and eventually was cancelled. And the nearly finished demonstrator was scrapped. Money thrown away, innovative idea shelved, back to square one.

Conclusions
The launch business had seen changes. In flight numbers but of course, also in politics. And coming back to politics, one could say the actual whole decision making process of going into space almost always lies with people that actually don't really care about it.
My simple layman's conclusion is that space exploration chronically suffers from a lack of vision in politics. The result is that there's a lot of wasted money as projects are prematurely cancelled. Ideally, for this kind of thing, there should be a really long term program. Something that spans over 15 years or more. Of course, it can be subject to adjustment but it would be nice for a change to see a more consistent work flow, without cancellation upon cancellation. But of course, that wont be realised any time soon. 

So I have lots of questions: why doesn’t NASA leave building launchers entirely to the industry? What is (apart from saving jobs) the added value of a giant NASA-designed rocket built for a very specific task, costing an astronomically high amount of dollars, but used just about half a dozen times? Are the projected payloads for SLS really too big or heavy to launch with one of the many already available launchers? Isn’t it much cheaper to just redesign these payloads to be a bit smaller and launch it a couple of already available and proven Delta IV’s Falcon 9’s or even Protons, Angara’s or Arianes? Why did NASA refrain from man-rating launchers like the DeltaIV or Atlas V while the shuttle still was active to prevent a gap in their manned missions to the ISS? And also, why go back to a system like Apollo, which was designed 50 years ago instead of doing it in an innovative way?

Pfff...(are we there yet?)
Yes, nearly there. Just so you know, this rant also is written to be referred to by me in the future when I again am agitated by lack of vision in space exploration. To save time.
Well, then. Lots of questions and complaints. But I am a space enthusiast and I want us to keep on exploring space. it really is this New Ocean. We need to be like Magellan, Columbus, Zheng He, Da Gama, Amundsen, Scott and Cousteau and keep on discovering and exploring space.
We unfortunately live in a world full of ignorant, short-sighted politicians and seemingly inevitable conflicts. I can’t see why, I think everyone is entitled to one's own opinion and that in return they also must have the decency to let others have their own too. And listen to other's opinions to perhaps adjust their own. But perhaps that is just too much to ask. Perhaps there always will be immensely selfish and egoist people that want others to think what they themselves think.

But... could we at least
make an exception just for one or two initiatives and put all these differences aside and all join in in the effort of exploring space together as People Of Planet Earth? It would feel a lot better, and also would cost less per county. What would aliens think when we tell them we’re from a country called the United States? Russia? China? Or, for that matter, the Netherlands? Germany? Liechtenstein? Kuala Lumpur? 
Come on. That is so irrelevant when you are light years away, standing on a space rock, going around a glowing strange sun, shaking the tentacle of a phosphorescent purple four-headed Arcturian with pulsating silver spikes protruding from its belly. Okay, I know that is a bit far fetched, but you get the idea. We are all from planet Earth. Let’s behave like that, at least in space for a start. Perhaps it eventually will even cause peace to happen on this puny little marble. Thank you.
/rant (-:


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