SLS and Orion: February 2017 Archives

If you think NASA is frustrated with SpaceX, you're probably right, Ars Technica

"A more blunt assessment was offered by Mary Lynne Dittmar, who is familiar with the thinking of NASA's human spaceflight program managers. "I find it extraordinary that these sorts of announcements are being made when SpaceX has yet to get crew from the ground to low-Earth orbit," she told The New York Times. Dittmar serves as executive director of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, the organization formed by the principal contractors behind NASA's SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft. These are the old-guard aerospace firms, including Boeing and Lockheed Martin, whose government contracts are threatened by SpaceX. Orion, in particular, appears to be particularly vulnerable if SpaceX can show that Dragon is capable of performing the same kind of deep space missions and high velocity returns from the Moon. With his latest proposal, Elon Musk is playing a dangerous, but potentially winning, game with his lower-cost alternatives to NASA's existing programs. He recognizes that NASA has nurtured his company, and on Monday night, he remained publicly appreciative of the space agency. However by talking about Mars and now the Moon, he not only indicates that his company isn't entirely focused on its most important contract - commercial crew- but also is making a play for NASA's future deep space exploration plans."

Keith's note: FYI The Coalition for Deep Space Exploration is not an "organization". It is not incorporated anywhere. Dittmar is paid with funds that come directly from these aerospace companies. It is hypocritical in the extreme for her to criticize SpaceX for having not done things when in fact SLS has never flown and a stripped-down Orion test article flew just once on a rocket that it will never fly on again.

Meanwhile, Dragons launched on Falcon 9 rockets have made multiple visits to ISS and Falcon Heavy, composed of three of those Falcon 9's, has a significant flight record and is slated to launch this year - years ahead of SLS. SLS will fly only once every several years until the middle of the next decade - and only once or twice a year after that. Meanwhile Falcon 9s will soon be flying monthly. NASA studies looking at moving a crew onto EM-1 will soon show just how expensive and inflexible SLS/Orion actually is while the Falcon/Dragon product line continues to expand its capability without the ever-increasing costs that plague SLS/Orion.

No one is going to get (back) to the Moon fueled with alternative facts and snake oil.

Keith's update: NASA held a hastily-arranged 30 minute media briefing this afternoon on the surprise plan to put a crew on the very first SLS mission.This plan was semi-officially announced last week.

NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate Bill Gerstenmaier said that NASA had been contacted by the Trump transition Team before and after the Inauguration about EM-1 options. He said that he has been asked by Acting Administrator Lightfoot to do a feasibility study of putting a crew on EM-1.

NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development Bill Hill said that they were not going to let the study affect current EM-1 and EM-2 plans. Gerstenmaier said that the White House had offered them some schedule flexibility on EM-1 if the decision to fly a crew was made. The extent of that flexibility was not detailed.

The basic idea is to send 2 crew on an 8-9 day flight around the Moon. Both Hill and Gerstenmaier said that they have no opinion one way or the other about whether this is a good idea and reiterated that they are just doing a study. When asked what the risk and loss of crew numbers were Gerstenmaier did not have an answer but said that they' do studies, etc. No firm answer was given when asked about the advisability of flying humans on a new launch vehicle for the first time.

I asked Bill Gerstenmaier if the White House specifically asked or directed NASA to put a crew on EM-1; whether the White House explained the specific reasons why they wanted a crew on EM-1, and whether the White House promised NASA the funding required to make this happen. Gerstenmaier punted on my question and said (again) that this was a feasibility study and that no mention of budgets was made when they talked to the White House.

When asked what the astronaut office thought of putting a crew on EM-1 Gerstenmaier said he did not know and would not presume to guess what they thought. When asked if there was an astronaut on the team he said there was one and that the astronaut office would pick others to help out but he declined to name the astronaut that has already been chosen to be on the team.

At no point did Gerstenmaier or Hill ever say what the rationale for flying a crew on EM-1 was. Gerstenmaier seemed to be suggesting that they had been thinking about this already.

In summary: The White House asked NASA to look at putting crew on EM-1 and they are studying it - but no one knows - or will say why they are studying it.

Lightfoot Tries a SLS Hail Mary Pass, earlier post

NASA to Hold Media Teleconference Today on Study to Add Crew to First Orion, Space Launch System Mission

"NASA will discuss plans for an ongoing study to assess the feasibility of adding a crew to Exploration Mission-1, the first integrated flight of NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft, during a media teleconference at 1 p.m. EST today, Friday, Feb. 24. The call will stream live on NASA's website."

Lightfoot Tries a SLS Hail Mary Pass, earlier post

"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."

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.

Leading Commercial Space Group Embraces NASA's Biggest Rocket, Wall Street Journal

"Before his speech outlining the revised stance on the Space Launch System, Mr. Stern said his primary goal is "taking this off the table" as a divisive issue while White House aides formulate new NASA priorities. Looking ahead, he said, "there is plenty of market share to go around" to support a wide range of commercial and government launch systems."

Here's why a commercial space group endorsed NASA's SLS rocket, Ars Technica

"Theoretically, then, the United States could have three heavy lift rockets at its disposal in 2020. If the reusable Falcon Heavy costs $200 million per flight, and the reusable New Glenn costs $200 million, while an expendable SLS rocket costs $1.5 billion, the agency - and by extension Congress and the White House - will have an easy choice to make. One could argue at that time that NASA should never have spent in excess of $10 billion developing the SLS. But the bottom line is that, six years ago, Congress did not believe in the capacity of SpaceX to build a heavy lift rocket, and Blue Origin's intentions were not known at that time. So Congress bet on NASA and its traditional contractor Boeing, and the agency kept its large base of employees intact."

NASA's future deep space rocket gets critical endorsement from commercial space group, The Verge

"Alan Stern, the chairman of the board of directors for the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), publicly announced the organization's support for the rocket at a conference in DC. ... However, Stern says that the extra capability of SLS will enable missions and partnerships with the private sector that cannot be achieved on commercial heavy-lift vehicles that are currently in development. Because of this, he wanted to get this perception "off the table" that the Commercial Spaceflight Federation is strongly against the vehicle when the organization is actually in favor of it. Stern sees the potential of the SLS being used to put something like a commercial lunar outpost on the surface of the Moon (that is if NASA sets its sights on returning to the Moon again)."

Keith's note: Nonsense. This is not what I am hearing from CSF member companies. A number of them are not confortable with this decision and feel that they were pushed into it. SLS is a government-funded, congressionally-mandated rocket with no chance of ever recouping the billions spent to develop it. It can never compete in a true commercial sense unless the government decides to fix prices to make it fit. Saying that the private sector is not interested in developing heavy lift launch systems is utterly inaccurate and flies in the face of plans announced by CSF members SpaceX and Blue Origin. Stern may think he has "taken the issue off of the table" but it will jump back onto on the table in Congress as soon as the hearings start.


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This page is an archive of entries in the SLS and Orion category from February 2017.

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