back to article NASA's monster rocket inches towards testing while India plots return to the Moon

NASA is making preparations to ship the first core stage of its monstrous Space Launch System (SLS) rocket to a Stennis test stand ahead of firing it up. It has been a long time coming, but engineers have deemed the core stage complete enough to be to rolled over to Building 110 at the agency's Michoud Assembly Facility in New …

  1. Will Godfrey Silver badge
    Unhappy

    Nothing so hard on laurels as resting on them

    NASA seems to be progressively becoming irrelevant from the rocket launch point of view. They seem to be crawling while everyone else in the world is racing (with the possible exception of Russia)

    1. Don Jefe

      Re: Nothing so hard on laurels as resting on them

      Unfortunately a lot of their work now looks more like the Federal lobbying agency for the aerospace industry than the agency for the science and engineering of space exploration. Political appointees are awarded administrative positions and they spend their tenure trying to balance Federal policy with the strategic goals of industry players and pork barrel demands of Congress members.

      Boeing & Friends created a situation where they are driving not only mission selection, but also the technical aspects of those projects and the metrics of success. The biggest impediment to returning NASA’s rocket program to excellence is its role as a political reward. Currently it’s what you give someone when you’re out of military, State Department and agriculture presents to hand out. It’s treated like a toy and it sucks.

  2. W Donelson

    We're still catching up to the NASA of the 1960s in many ways

    The Saturn V rocket could lift 261,000 lbs into low earth orbit. 1960s engineers and technology, almost unlimited budgets.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: We're still catching up to the NASA of the 1960s in many ways

      Right at the very end of "For All Mankind", there's a nice and surprising CGI launch of Sea Dragon. That looked impressive! I suspect it was done for production value, but it seemed the visualisation was done with about 90% of the rocket underwater whereas the original plan was for only about half or so underwater. Either way, I found it as impressive as that first moment when the Empire Star Destroyer flew over the camera vantage point in the original Star Wars back in the day.

      1. ridley

        Re: We're still catching up to the NASA of the 1960s in many ways

        Film or the TV series?

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: We're still catching up to the NASA of the 1960s in many ways

          TV series. It's a post credit scene at the end of the final episode.

          1. phuzz Silver badge
            Facepalm

            Re: We're still catching up to the NASA of the 1960s in many ways

            Huh, I missed that, I'll have to go back and watch right to the end.

            1. phuzz Silver badge

              Re: We're still catching up to the NASA of the 1960s in many ways

              It can be viewed here by the way, and quite the sight.

      2. paulll Bronze badge

        Re: We're still catching up to the NASA of the 1960s in many ways

        "As impressive as the CGI in Star Wars." Not sure I'd take that as a compliment.

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: We're still catching up to the NASA of the 1960s in many ways

          No, I meant the effect of the vehicle just seeming to go on and on, getting bigger and bigger as more is revealed.

        2. Gene Cash Silver badge

          Re: We're still catching up to the NASA of the 1960s in many ways

          >> first moment when the Empire Star Destroyer flew over the camera vantage point in the original Star Wars back in the day.

          > "As impressive as the CGI in Star Wars." Not sure I'd take that as a compliment.

          Pedantic bit... that moment was most definitely not CGI. It was filmed with a large model and some of the first computer-motion-controlled cameras.

    2. bombastic bob Silver badge
      Devil

      Re: We're still catching up to the NASA of the 1960s in many ways

      The main problem nowadays is the LACK of "almost unlimited budgets". So I guess it's the difference between "just doing it" and "doing it well".

      Oh, and landing the rocket on it's tail so it can be re-used again. Gotta admit, that is AWESOME!

      1. Chris G Silver badge

        Re: We're still catching up to the NASA of the 1960s in many ways

        "The main problem nowadays is the LACK of "almost unlimited budgets"."

        That would all change if the Moon or Mars was covered in disgusting bugs, particularly if they had oil.or an equivalently useful resource, the military would take over and the budget would extend as needed.

    3. phuzz Silver badge
      Stop

      Re: We're still catching up to the NASA of the 1960s in many ways

      During Apollo, NASA was given funding with few strings attached, as long as it was going towards the moon.

      These days NASA gets much less funding, and it's tightly constrained in what it's allowed to spend it on. In order to make sure that all that money goes to the home states of the politicians directing that funding.

  3. Mark 85 Silver badge

    SLS....

    Regarding SLS and all the money spent so far... there's 46 engines left. As I understand it, once those engines are gone there won't be any more so SLS will be a dead issue.

    1. fishman

      Re: SLS....

      The SLS uses 4 of those engines. That means they can make 11 flights before they run out. Between Falcon Heavy, Starship, and New Glenn the SLS may never make 11 flights anyway.

      1. Pete4000uk

        Re: SLS....

        At a Billion $ each I should think not!

        1. Rustbucket

          Re: SLS....

          Nah, over 2 billion US$ per launch, not counting development costs.

          https://www.fool.com/investing/2019/11/17/nasas-1-billion-sls-rocket-could-cost-2-billion-or.aspx

      2. Gene Cash Silver badge

        Re: SLS....

        > the SLS may never make 11 flights anyway

        My money is it'll never fly 3 times. I'll be surprised if it flies twice.

        1. Anonymous Custard Silver badge
          Trollface

          Re: SLS....

          I'm sure Jeff Bezos will maybe quietly recover a few of them like he did with the Apollo 11 one, then offer them back to NASA as an Amazon Prime deal?

    2. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      Re: 46 Engines?

      I thought there were only 16 + an order for 6 new ones for only $1.5e9 ($170e6 per engine + $1.16e9 for the factory to build them). NASA has ordered 6 Orions for the first 5 Artemis missions with a threat of buying 6 more. If someone has found another 24 RS-25 engines under the sofa cushions I am sure congress would have provided funding for the extra 6 Orions. They are only $600e6 each.

      1. Pascal Monett Silver badge
        Trollface

        Re: a threat of buying 6 more

        I'll have to remember to threaten my butcher with coming back next time I go buy some meat.

    3. Imhotep

      Re: SLS....

      The plan is to manufacture new engines, but in a step backwards, the new engines will not be designed for reuse since they will not be recovered.

      The article briefly makes reference to that.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: in a step backwards, ...

        ... the new engines will not be designed for reuse since they will not be recovered."

        Although designing for reuse is indeed sensible when they could be reused, it is pretty pointless if there is no intention to reuse them.

        1. Richard 12 Silver badge

          Re: in a step backwards, ...

          But would you want to fly on the "new design" of that engine?

          The entire point of that redesign is to cut back on all the redundancy and margins that made the engine reusable. What's the chances of something being cut back slightly too far?

          And because they're not going to be recovered, it won't be possible for the engineers to check whether their new, single-shot lifetime predictions are accurate for a real mission, only a test stand.

          Test stands don't suffer the G loading, vibration and aerodynamic stresses of an actual launch. Probably other differences too.

          1. Carpet Deal 'em Bronze badge
            Facepalm

            Re: in a step backwards, ...

            Putting reusable engines on an expendable rocket only makes sense if you already have them for other reasons. Otherwise they're just an unnecessary waste of fuel and money; any increase in safety over a single-use design is going to be marginal at best.

            1. Richard 12 Silver badge

              Re: in a step backwards, ...

              Not what I meant.

              If you take an existing design intended for re-use and then try to strip out everything that made it re-usable, you are in reality designing a new engine. But they will claim it's the same as the old Shuttle engine and do there will be a huge pressure to fly it without proper unmanned test flights.

              The redesign is quite likely to go too far somewhere - I see this very often with "value engineering", swapping out an expensive component for a cheaper, similar one without fully understanding why the original was chosen.

              1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

                Re: in a step backwards, ...

                "But they will claim it's the same as the old Shuttle engine and do there will be a huge pressure to fly it without proper unmanned test flights."

                I didn't realise Boeing were in charge of the engine re-design :-)

            2. Wayland Bronze badge

              Re: in a step backwards, ...

              If you want to test the engine first then you're re-using it. Better to design them for re-use then it won't be an untested engine when you use it for a mission.

          2. phuzz Silver badge
            Boffin

            Re: in a step backwards, ...

            It's worth noting that technology and science has moved on quite a lot in the fifty years since the RS-25 was first designed, and it's quite possible that Rocketdyne can make a new version that is both cheaper and safer than the original.

        2. Imhotep

          Re: in a step backwards, ...

          My reference to a step backwards is that the competition is designing their rockets for reuse - and SpaceX is already recovering theirs. It may be that a competitor with a cheaper, recoverable launch alternative is in place before we actually see an SLS launch.

          1. bombastic bob Silver badge
            Devil

            Re: in a step backwards, ...

            yeah, an SLS that lands on its tail would be pretty good.

            Unfortunately for NASA, they haven't been designing too many new rockets lately... so it'd take a bit of effort to play "catch up" to what SpaceX is doing.

            Maybe they could SUB-CONTRACT some of the design work to SpaceX ?

            1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

              Re: in a step backwards, ...

              Blue Origin landed their New Sheppard (non-orbital) rocket backwards in 2015. New Glenn's first flight is currently in 2021 so we will have to wait a bit before we see Blue Origin land the back end of an orbital rocket.

              Rocket Lab cannot buy 3D printers fast enough to support their customers so they will try parachute+helicopter+droneship recovery after a few practice runs with thalassabraking. Even if the tanks and engines are too dented to fly again there are some nice electric motors and lithium batteries on an Electron rocket that are worth getting back.

              Musk's timeline (totally unrelated to everyone else's concept of time) has Starship landing from orbit in the first half of this year. (Starship is single stage to orbit with a payload of about 0kg.)

              ULA have a picture of a plan to blow their Vulcan rocket into two big pieces, attach a hypersonic decelerator and a parachute to the bit with the engines then catch them with a helicopter. It sounds spectacular but do not wait with abated breath. This will be no earlier than 2025.

              The physics of landing the SLS core stage shows the idea is sane. It uses electrical igniters built into the injectors so in theory the engines can re-light. The engines throttle down to 67% so one engine + the tanks has a thrust to weight ratio of 1.4. Even using two engines for symmetry the thrust to weight ratio is lower than popular estimates for a three engine Falcon 9 landing (3.7). Real world cows are not perfect spheres. Reserving about ⅓ of the propellant for landing would prevent it from sending Orion to LOPG which is the only non-pork excuse to have SLS at all.

              I have confidence in Rocket Lab re-using Electrons in a year or two. Blue origin ought to be landing New Glenn's backwards shortly afterwards but gradatim ferociter should perhaps be spelled festina lente. It is quite likely that the next company to land a new rocket backwards will be SpaceX-Starship followed by SpaceX-SuperHeavy. Everyone else but Ariane and ULA will have to put something in orbit before I take their landing plans seriously. Ariane: where's the money? ULA: need to cryogenicly preserve Senator Richard Shelby so they can get funding next century.

              1. Imhotep

                Re: in a step backwards, ...

                Very interesting - thanks for posting.

              2. Brangdon Bronze badge

                Re: Musk's timeline

                Musk's timeline doesn't involve landing from orbit until a bit later. Starship can't make orbit and land again on its own even with no payload. It needs the Superheavy booster, which SpaceX haven't started constructing yet. There's a chance it will happen by end of this year if all goes well, but even Musk doesn't think it will be in the first half of the year.

  4. stiine Silver badge

    Michoud to Stennis...

    Actually, they will only inch their way to the dock down the street, but then they'll be transported via barge, up the Mississippi river, to Stennis Space Center.

  5. JJSmith1950

    "Re-usability" wasn't in NASA's remit.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Damage Control

    And to think they managed it with the tech equivalent of a smartphone stuck on a cardboard and tin foil contraption - some 60+ years ago and somehow we've not been able to go back because we "don't have the tech anymore".

    The world's most overrun overbudget project. Beats any other government project hands down.

    1. Wayland Bronze badge

      Re: Damage Control

      Don't be daft. They had the power of a Sinclair ZX81 if they were lucky.

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