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What future for the Space Launch System?

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credit: SpaceNews Travel Illustrations

NASA’s Space Launch System has been overjoyed with its first successful test flight from November 16, 2022. Nearly a month later, after multiple distant orbits of Earth’s moon, the Orion capsule returned to her December 11 safe landing and recovery.

Does a successful maiden flight mean that SLS will finally return astronauts to Earth’s moon more than 50 years after their last visit? Can you capture the future of SLS in a fleet of rockets?

Spoiler: The answer to both questions is probably yes. This has serious implications for the future of U.S. spaceflight.

The SLS is a Saturn 5-class rocket designed to return humans to Earth’s moon with a launch architecture that requires minimal on-orbit assembly and refueling. We are carefully avoiding all the experiences and lessons learned in building, refueling, and maintaining the International Space Station in orbit. Called Artemis and loosely modeled after his 1960s Apollo program that launched the then-Soviet Union to the moon, the architecture uses space shuttle hardware and personnel wherever possible. Now his second test with astronauts, Artemis 2, is scheduled for his 2024 as early as possible. Based on the program’s history to date, no one can expect that date to be met.

Artemis 1 was successfully tested, but continued reliability problems delayed its first flight by several months. Operational delays, caused largely by the severe limitations of the traditional hardware the SLS was built on, further delayed flight by shortening the launch window and time on the pad. Even though the project was designed around existing technology and components, it was all after a highly problematic development history.

SpaceX Falcon Heavy can lift two-thirds of an SLS payload at a fraction of the cost. credit: SpaceX photo via Flickr

Its history must not obscure two important facts. For now, and for the foreseeable future, no other nation can use human-related hardware like Artemis-1 to carry out Sith Luna missions.

With Artemis 1 safely put to sleep, NASA can seriously plan for the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972 that US astronauts will visit Earth’s moon. The Artemis 3 mission to the moon will rely on a variant of his SpaceX Starship rocket suitable for landing. As of this writing, Starship is not yet on track. A first orbital attempt may be imminent, but nevertheless, 2025 is the earliest opportunity for Artemis 3 at this point, likely after 2027. When Congress refused sufficient funding to develop multiple designs, NASA was forced to choose Starship as the first Artemis lander, and unlike other bidders, SpaceX won a significant portion of the cost. said it would cover parts (Blue Origin funded it, but after losing out to SpaceX). Since then, NASA has requested tenders for additional landers.

Not surprisingly, Artemis 1 generated a lot of excitement within the space community. Nonetheless, it’s worth asking: Should this project continue even if it did some of the final successful landings?

The $4 billion+ annual cost of maintaining the SLS, the Orion capsule, and their infrastructure is unlikely to decrease significantly when the rocket becomes operational. Its infrastructure will allow for two to three launches per year, although much less is expected initially. Estimated costs per flight range from $700 million to over $4 billion, depending on how much infrastructure and development costs are involved, but early versions are far more powerful than existing rockets. not.

Block 1 SLS can lift 95,000 kg into low earth orbit (LEO), while future Block 2 is planned to lift 130,000 kg into the same orbit. The equivalent figures for the Delta 4 Heavy and Falcon Heavy are just under 26,000 kg and over 63,000 kg respectively. Falcon Heavy costs well under $200 million per launch. This price includes development and infrastructure amortization. While exact numbers cannot be effectively calculated, the estimated cost per kilogram of payload carried into orbit by SLS is literally astronomical compared to what is available on the commercial market.

Proponents talk about finding other markets for SLS. However, SLS currently has no market outside of NASA and at that price is unlikely. Lori Gerber, who served as her NASA deputy administrator under President Obama, fought the development of the SLS as an unruly distraction from commercial cargo and crews she felt had a future. In her book, Escaping Gravity, she reports that she asked the Pentagon and intelligence agencies if they needed her SLS. She was clearly told no.

Even within NASA, payloads not explicitly designed to require SLS or politically mandated to use rockets evade the program. This includes the Gateway Orbital Space Station and Lunar Landers in lunar orbit, relegating the SLS to launching crews into lunar orbit. If Orion were launched separately from the upper stage and fuel and docked in orbit, this is a job a much cheaper rocket could handle. A similar procedure was demonstrated as early as Apollo when the Command and Service Modules were unlocked from the Saturn 5’s S-IVB stage, rotated 180 degrees, docked with the lunar orbiter module, and pulled away from the spent upper stage. rice field. All this took place deep in translunar space after leaving Earth orbit.

credit: SpaceNews Travel Illustrations

Even if the first few SLS flights go off without a hitch, supporters are likely to be disappointed unless the program can lower prices enough to attract non-NASA customers. The program is increasing long-term costs by building additional ground infrastructure that must be maintained. As NASA sees it, NASA is focused on planning the transition from SLS design and development to a continuously operated system that is intended to last into 2050 and beyond.

What can the US do with $3-4 billion of SLS? Will Orion continue to consume 2-3 flights per year at most? In financial terms, what is the opportunity cost lost in continuing to fund SLS?

First, NASA was able to fly two-thirds of the SLS payload on the Falcon Heavy for well under $200 million and at regular and frequent tempos. Even though the SLS costs only $700 million to fly, NASA says he can launch three Falcon Heavy and lift more than twice the weight of one of his SLS. I have greatly underestimated the actual cost of launching SLS and overestimated the cost of Falcon Heavy in order to be as generous with SLS as possible.

middle way

Other medium-sized rockets are under development and operational that can handle lunar missions at no cost to NASA. In a “decentralized” architecture, modular payloads are launched into orbit and then assembled into complete spacecraft of arbitrary size and mass. There, it can be fueled and delivered using proven technology in building and maintaining the International Space Station. Parts of the ISS were launched and assembled using Russian Proton medium rockets. It will be fueled using cargo planes launched on relatively low-cost Soyuz rockets, comparable to SpaceX Falcon 9s and United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rockets. The ISS is powered using Northrop Grumman Antares rockets and Falcon 9s. There’s no reason why big lunar and planetary spacecraft can’t be built the same way.

The main advantage of a “distributed” architecture with multiple users using multiple rockets is that it has non-NASA customers. Fixed infrastructure costs and rocket maintenance can be spread across the space industry. NASA does not have to pay the full amount.

how about the workforce? Most outside observers believe that employment is the real reason for SLS’ inexplicably strong political support.

credit: SpaceNews Travel Illustrations

If NASA’s lunar exploration program used medium-sized rockets, the increased launch speed would reduce costs through economies of scale. Frequent launches also improve reliability. Lower launch costs could stimulate more commercial space industry, which in turn expands the launch business. More directly, the money and engineers freed from SLS development and operations can be used to design and build lunar infrastructure, deep space probes, and new technology high-energy propulsion. These are things NASA cannot afford to invest in while SLS consumes about a third of NASA’s human spaceflight budget.

Someone would need to build all those intermediate rockets.

NASA’s contracts to deliver commercial crews and cargo to the ISS show that the highly competitive paid services environment leaves room for multiple providers, even in a relatively small market. This saves you money and provides a backup. More importantly, it offers variety. Multiple providers with different fleets offer more and a wider range of services than a single design could provide.

The good news is that while NASA is using the politically necessary but increasingly obvious fiction that SLS is “needed” to step onto Artemis’ “critical path,” NASA is increasingly We are moving beyond the Apollo model. Distributors use some form of competitive bidding or commercial funding for most additional major Artemis components.

US “political realities” don’t seem overly concerned with tough economic choices. With respect to SLS, the United States chose the most expensive, least capable, and least operationally flexible option imaginable, based largely on past technology and architecture. The project and its contractors have learned nothing useful in building a space station, pretending that today’s geopolitical, financial and economic realities do not exist. SLS is yesterday’s rocket for yesterday’s world.

SLS and its enormous cost of lost opportunity are unlikely to go away anytime soon. Maintaining traditional jobs in an otherwise struggling district is too important politically.

In the modern US miracle, there appears to be genuine bipartisan support for sufficient funding to sustain both Artemis and the ISS. At the same time, there may be enough left over to evolve commercial cargo, crew and other programs into a more diverse and economically efficient fleet of spacecraft. Constellations of specialized modules built into deep space probes of many different designs and destinations may enable dynamic and exciting expansion into the inner solar system.

Its financial support is subject to change at any time. Enlightened space proponents are developing backup plans to return to Earth’s moon by more modern and affordable routes.

Donrad F. Robertson is a former space industry journalist and technical writer based in San Francisco.

This article originally appeared in the January 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

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