Lightfoot Tries a SLS Hail Mary Pass

Acting NASA Administrator Lightfoot Memo: Agency Update - Feb. 15, 2017

"Related to that, I have asked Bill Gerstenmaier to initiate a study to assess the feasibility of adding a crew to Exploration Mission-1, the first integrated flight of SLS and Orion. I know the challenges associated with such a proposition, like reviewing the technical feasibility, additional resources needed, and clearly the extra work would require a different launch date. That said, I also want to hear about the opportunities it could present to accelerate the effort of the first crewed flight and what it would take to accomplish that first step of pushing humans farther into space. The SLS and ORION missions, coupled with those promised from record levels of private investment in space, will help put NASA and America in a position to unlock those mysteries and to ensure this nation's world preeminence in exploring the cosmos.

There has been a lot of speculation in the public discourse about NASA being pulled in two directions - what has come before and what we want to do now. At NASA, this is an "and" proposition, not an "or." To get where we want to go, we need to work with the companies represented at the SLS and ORION suppliers conference AND those industry partners that work with us in other areas across the country - all of whom have the long-term view on this work. We must work with everyone to secure our leadership in space - and we will."

Keith's note: Lots of implications from this sudden announcement - these come to mind.

1. Show me the money. NASA has been slipping SLS launches to right faster than the calendar itself moves. In so doing it is gobbling up financial resources that were already inadequate. To make this crew on EM-1 fantasy happen would require a pile of money that the SLS itself would have problems launching.

2. ASAP and other advisory panels are already on record questioning whether SLS's Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) can/should be human-rated since it is only going to be used once. Add in chronic SLS software verification problems at MSFC and there are already serious doubts that the very first SLS rocket will be launched on time without humans on board. Add in the complexity of humans and a system that is already struggling is going to become more bogged down. And there is no way that the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) would be ready to support EM-1.

3. Lightfoot is being rather dismissive - and misleading - when he tries to gloss over the very real divisions within the Trump Administration with regard to NASA's direction. They are very real. One faction led by Newt Gingrich and Bob Walker is pushing strongly for a commercial-centric expansion of commerce from LEO to cis-lunar space, the lunar surface, and beyond. The other faction - headquartered in Alabama - is surgically welded to he SLS/Orion, big government spending status quo. Right now, where you stand depends on where you sit - and what you stand to gain - or lose.

4. Expected NASA Administrator nominee Bridenstine, a staunch commercial space advocate, has seen his nomination stalled by a variety of things - most notably a White House staffer who used to work for Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL). Its the Alabama cabal - the pro SLS/Orion team at work trying to gum up the works. The longer Brindenstine's nomination is delayed, the stronger the hold Robert Lightfoot, a card carrying member of the Alabama SLS/Orion cabal, has on staying in the top job - or possibly as Deputy as a consolation to the Alabama cabal. Trump Administration Beach Head members are already being pulled into one camp or the other - and the leaks of internal differences on policy are making their way to the media.

5. Last week the Commercial Spaceflight Federation's chair unexpectedly announced that the CSF was suddenly dropping its long-standing objections to the government-built SLS, a direct inhibitor of / competitor to the commercial sector heavy lift market. Many members are upset at this sudden reversal and expect that these words of support will soon evaporate in the reality of hearings and budget stances. Moving humans onto the first SLS launch is a direct threat to commercial crew providers. By flying humans sooner this takes a lot of the wind out of the sails of commercial crew program. Given the less than enthusiastic support commercial crew had had, this could make it even harder to gain the funding needed to make commercial crew work the way that it is planned to work.

6. Whenever a NASA program - especially a big one like SLS and Orion - gets in trouble someone comes up with a Hail Mary pass to make it harder to kill. When I was at Space Station Freedom and Congress had its carving knives out we came up with something I heard called "Flag on orbit" - a node with a PV array and an antenna. The thought being that once hardware was actually in orbit it would be harder for Congress to kill the program. Look at the FGB/Node configuration that did nothing for several years and you will see how this thinking continued.

7. If flying a crew on the first mission of SLS was a wise, prudent, strategically important thing to do then the program would have baselined it in the first place. I am not certain if I have ever seen a plan for SLS (Or Ares V) where this was planned. To move this rather important milestone up now in the midst of dueling and ever-shifting policy directions - for no clearly articulated reason other than politics - starts to smell like launch fever to me - the worst kind of launch fever.

8. Cuts to discretionary spending for agencies such as NASA seem to be forthcoming. If NASA budgets will be operating under a CR to be followed by flat levels and possible cuts, the money to pay to speed up human missions on SLS will need to come from somewhere within NASA's budget. Toss in the rhetoric about moving NASA earth science research elsewhere and/or decreasing funding for it and you have the makings of a perfect budget storm - one where the entire space community will be pitted against itself. Alas, this intentional chaos would be in synch with the new Administration's mode of operations.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on February 15, 2017 6:24 PM.

More Choir Practice Amongst The Usual Suspects was the previous entry in this blog.

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