back to article NASA admin: What if we switched one delayed SLS for two commercial launchers?

Fresh from a budget that has deferred the future of NASA's mega-rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), the agency's own administrator has hinted that the present is looking iffy as well. In a hearing yesterday, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine admitted the agency had realised last week what many observers have suspected for …

  1. Sorry that handle is already taken. Silver badge
    Stop

    Just stop

    When the SLS program began in 2010, Falcon 9 had flown once and the plans for Falcon Heavy weren't yet public.

    SLS of course being little more than a continuation of parts of the Constellation program, which itself began in 2005. Between them, Constellation and SLS contained no new engine technologies, substantially re-using parts from the Shuttle, Delta and even Apollo programs. The annual cost of those programs isn't far off SpaceX's accumulated R&D expenditure.

    The SLS launch tower cost about twice as much as the entire Falcon Heavy R&D program and was likely to be used only once. Now it might not even make it that far.

    SLS seems to survive only because there are a lot of people in congress whose survival depends on the gravy train not stopping.

    1. Martijn Otto

      Re: Just stop

      Well, it's not called the "Senator Launch System" for nothing, you know!

      It's just a job-machine used by senators to gather votes.

      1. Anonymous Custard Silver badge
        Joke

        Re: Just stop

        "Senator (free) L a unch System"

        FTFY...

        A nice expensive pork dish of course, fresh from the barrel.

      2. bombastic bob Silver badge
        Devil

        Re: Just stop

        I hadn't heard that... 'Senator Launch System'.

        I like the idea of multiple launches with rendezvous in space. If various rocket makers can already dock with the ISS, shouldn't be too much of a problem. If they had to, maybe they could dock ALL of the parts with the ISS and assemble it all there... (although it might require a new specialized ISS module to do it).

        "Inflatable hangar module". Sounds good to me. Not sure why it makes me think of blow-up sex dolls, though...

      3. zuckzuckgo
        Windows

        Re: Just stop

        >"Senator Launch System"

        Glad to see NASA finally putting money to good use. So when is the scheduled launch of all the senators?

  2. paulll Bronze badge

    "Bridenstine insisted: "We need to stick to our commitment." If NASA says it is going to launch in June 2020, then it jolly well will."

    Pretty terrifying that he thinks that's a good attitude, in this day and age.

    1. Ken 16 Silver badge
      Trollface

      May insisted we need to stick to our commitment. If the UK says it's going to leave the EU in March 2019 then it jolly well will.

      1. phuzz Silver badge
        Mushroom

        I think we'll have to wait until April for a definitive answer on that one, right now nobody has a fucking clue what's going to happen.

      2. Ken 16 Silver badge

        I regard the balanced thumbs up and thumbs down to mean no-one is sure whether I'm serious or taking the piss - just like Brexit.

    2. Tikimon Silver badge
      Facepalm

      What was good enough for Challenger...

      Hey, what's the harm in launching in spite of problems to stay on the announced schedule? More important to be timely than safe!

      I hadn't considered until now what a huge advantage Space-X has in this way. Being self-funded, directed (mainly) by a single leader with a vision, and not beholden to government funding lets them delay anything they want for as long as they want. The SLS seems doomed to "Make it fly anyway, tomorrow or sooner, but spending less than planned." Good way to go BOOOOOOOOOM.

      I've watched two Space Shuttles and crew destroyed on live TV. Don't want to see that again, thank you.

      1. paulll Bronze badge

        Re: What was good enough for Challenger...

        That's what I was driving at; history's littered with engineering projects that have failed because a priority was made of a vanity political deadline. It's just hard to think of them what with the massive elephant in the room. The massive black-and-white elephant. With the word,"Challenger," emblazoned across its arse.

        I guess it's possible my downvoter isn't familiar with the particulars but if Mr Bridenstein isn't familiar with it, that's a problem in-and-of itself. Because it's Challenger that makes his attitude seem so utterly mind-bendingly out-of-touch, insensitive, and hubristic.

        1. Spherical Cow

          Re: What was good enough for Challenger...

          I wonder if the managers would have the same attitude if they were the ones sitting on top of thousands of tons of explosives?

        2. Kernel

          Re: What was good enough for Challenger...

          "I guess it's possible my downvoter isn't familiar with the particulars but if Mr Bridenstein isn't familiar with it, that's a problem in-and-of itself. Because it's Challenger that makes his attitude seem so utterly mind-bendingly out-of-touch, insensitive, and hubristic."

          No, my guess is that your downvoter had spotted that you didn't fully comprehend the article - to quote

          " We need to consider all options to meet the Exploration Mission-1 target launch date of June 2020, including launching on commercial rockets. pic.twitter.com/fR5b2NzPtg

          — Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) March 13, 2019"

          What he is saying here is that they need to consider whether they should look at buying space on commercial services that are currently flying in order to achieve this particular goal, rather than just blindly continue with their own project which has yet to leave the ground and miss the target.

          There's nothing in there where he says they should deliberately risk lives with an unproven launch platform just to meet an arbitrary timeline.

          It seems a fairly enlightened and pragmatic approach from what is a (presumably) very clever but still none-the-less civil servant - maybe if you were to consider it in terms of your next holiday - should you book seats on a commercial airline operating an aircraft they've bought from Boeing or Airbus, or would now be a good time to start designing your own plane and learning how to fly it?

          1. paulll Bronze badge

            Re: What was good enough for Challenger...

            "No, my guess is that your downvoter had spotted that you didn't fully comprehend the article - to quote

            " We need to consider all options to meet the Exploration Mission-1 target launch date of June 2020, including launching on commercial rockets. pic.twitter.com/fR5b2NzPtg"

            So? The bit of Challenger that made it go boom was also outsourced and to make a distinction in the circumstances would be splitting hairs. It's not that I didn't comprehend it, it's that it's not relevant.

            "There's nothing in there where he says they should deliberately risk lives with an unproven launch platform just to meet an arbitrary timeline."

            No there isn't. But,"Bridenstine insisted: "We need to stick to our commitment." If NASA says it is going to launch in June 2020, then it jolly well will," is troublesomely suggestive.

            1. Sorry that handle is already taken. Silver badge

              Re: What was good enough for Challenger...

              The "If NASA says it is going to launch in June 2020, then it jolly well will" part was added by The Register.

          2. rfrovarp

            Re: What was good enough for Challenger...

            "There's nothing in there where he says they should deliberately risk lives with an unproven launch platform just to meet an arbitrary timeline."

            That's because the article left a sentence out. He's committing to making EM-2 launch on SLS. EM-2 is still slated to be a crewed flight. So the very first launch of SLS is now scheduled to carry humans. They're requiring the SpaceX have 7 flights on the block 5. Even if EM-1 was on SLS, EM-2 falls on the second mission. 2 and 1 are both less than 7.

        3. bombastic bob Silver badge
          Devil

          Re: What was good enough for Challenger...

          "history's littered with engineering projects that have failed because a priority was made of a vanity political deadline"

          Or in the case of the 2nd shuttle disaster, chunks of insulation that came off during launch because of ENVIRONMENTALLY "FRIENDLY" ADHESIVE (or something like that). Yeah, they went with 'politically motivated' materials, which led to a disaster. Oops.

          But still the 'politically motivated' aspect is a REAL one. So good point.

          1. zuckzuckgo

            Re: What was good enough for Challenger...

            I'm sure there are plenty of ENVIRONMENTALLY "UNFRIENDLY" ADHESIVE they could have chosen to doom the shuttle. And let's not forget all that environmentally friendly oxygen that doomed the Apollo 1.

          2. Sorry that handle is already taken. Silver badge
            WTF?

            Re: What was good enough for Challenger...

            Never miss an opportunity to go off on a misguided rant, eh?

    3. eldakka Silver badge

      "Bridenstine insisted: "We need to stick to our commitment." If NASA says it is going to launch in June 2020, then it jolly well will."

      Pretty terrifying that he thinks that's a good attitude, in this day and age.

      It certainly won't get him very far in the civil service or politics with an attitude like that!

  3. Chris G Silver badge

    Of course

    NASA should leak plans for golf courses and heavily controlled immigration laws for Mars and the Moon. Then see if funds are forthcoming.

    1. paulll Bronze badge

      Re: Of course

      I think the obverse would be more effective; if they,"accidentally," let slip that they intend to populate the moon with Mexicans, Muslims and generally brown people, I'd bet they'd be Uncle Sam's single biggest cost-centre in pretty short order.

    2. bombastic bob Silver badge
      Devil

      Re: Of course

      the 'Alan Shephard' Golf course. Heh.

  4. jmch Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    "plans for golf courses ... for Mars and the Moon"

    I'm sure any golf-loving senators will be delighted that on Mars they will be able to drive 300 yards and probably like half a mile on the Moon. Will do wonders for their ego :)

    1. Chris G Silver badge

      Plus of course the chief executive will have a drive that's yooge!

      1. bombastic bob Silver badge
        Trollface

        Trump might actually build a hotel there, some day (after his 8 years in the white house). [I wonder if someone will try to change that to 'big house' - ah well I thought of it first, nya nya nya]

        troll icon, because, obvious.

  5. DontFeedTheTrolls
    Coat

    "NASA has a rich history in missing launch dates"

    Given the Space subject cue the obligatory Douglas Adams quote: I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by"

  6. Hopalong

    Delta IV via FH

    Well, the Delta IV production line is being run down, and according to ULA, it takes about 3 years from order to delivery, so unless the USAF or NRO are open to giving up on a couple of their Delta IV heavies (Can't see that happening).......

    This leaves only the Falcon Heavy, even then it would take two launches to put the the Orion + service module + boost stage into orbit.

  7. Someone else entirely

    Not sure NASA thinks the SLS is actually required.

    The article quotes Bridenstine saying this:

    "Bridenstine was clear that SLS would be used for EM-2, describing the monster booster as "a critical piece of what the USA needs to build" in order to put the large objects into space."

    I've not found official NASA statements on what it's going to do with Orion, but there's this:

    https://www.nasa.gov/feature/nasa-s-lunar-outpost-will-extend-human-presence-in-deep-space

    which says things like:

    "NASA plans to launch elements of the Gateway on the agency’s Space Launch System or commercial rockets for assembly in space." and "NASA plans to resupply the Gateway through commercial cargo missions" and "NASA will leverage capabilities and plans of commercial satellite companies to build the next generation of all electric spacecraft."

    All through the main body of the statement, NASA refers to commercial rocket launches, commercial space craft development, and so on - even though the "update" at the top states: "Together with the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion, the Gateway is central to advancing and sustaining human space exploration goals"

    The funny thing is, that update is dated after the main body of the statement. It looks like after the original statement was released (which heavily emphasises NASA's commitment to using commercial space technology), someone decided that NASA had to make it LOOK like it really, really wanted the SLS - even though NASA's actual plans are rather ambivalent on what heavy launch vehicles it might actually end up using.

    1. bombastic bob Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: Not sure NASA thinks the SLS is actually required.

      "someone decided that NASA had to make it LOOK like it really, really wanted the SLS"

      Good point.

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