Following on from my previous article I wanted to explore the possibility that the Space Launch System (SLS) may never actually fly.
While progress has been made on the SLS it will not be ready to fly when President Barack Obama leaves office and given that he cancelled the Constellation Program (CxP) when he came to office it is quite likely that whoever takes office in 2017 could look at how much has been spent on SLS and decide to cancel it too. Thankfully we believe that the Commercial Crew program will be far enough along that it won’t be cancelled but there is no guarantee.
So what happens if SLS is cancelled?
1) The US would have spent close to $25 billion on CxP and SLS by the time it is cancelled (including Orion and Ground support work). While elements of the work could be used on a new program it is likely that some of the money would have been wasted.
2) Depending what direction the new President decided the new launcher for NASA could be many years away.
3) NASA would be dependent on Commercial Crew or Russia to launch people to orbit, while that would be the case for International Space Station (ISS) anyway this would also apply to any other missions before an alternate is available.
What do we hope happens?
1) That SLS is cancelled, despite how much has been “invested” in the program we feel that the system is just too expensive to ever fly. We have heard estimates that each flight could cost $2-3b but at present there just isn’t enough data to know for certain.
2) That any new direction decided would make use of the Commercial partners that are already providing services to NASA. SpaceX have plans for Falcon Heavy which would have the largest payload capacity of any rocket currently available and they are already working on engines for a successor to that. The three competitors in the Commercial Crew Program Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX all have vehicles that can carry as many as seven passengers to orbit. SpaceX’s long term goals are to travel to Mars which means they will have vehicles in the future that can make the journey.
3) That whatever plan is decided on by the President is based on feedback from the citizen’s of the US, either via a Survey or by putting together a team of non government experts who could layout a course that benefits everyone, a decadal survey for manned space flight.
4) Whatever plan is adopted needs to at least have started flying within a single Presidential term so that it is much harder to cancel when the next President takes office.
The views in this article are our own, we would love to hear your feedback on this.