Will SLS ever fly

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.

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The true cost of getting the US back to manned flight

To date we have seen a lot of talk about the cost of the SLS program, however that isn’t the only cost that has been incurred by the US tax payer since the announcement that the Space Shuttle was to be retired. This article will look at everything that has happened since then and how much has been spent, or remains to be spent based on current budgets before the US has manned flights again.

First we will look at NASA’s progress towards manned flight, then we will look at the Commercial sector.

NASA

In early 2003 President George W. Bush announced the retirement of the Space Shuttle during his Vision for Space Exploration initiative, which also called for the development of a new launch system and manned capsule capable of launching crew to the International Space Station and beyond. The program was known as the Constellation (CxP) program and consisted of two launch vehicles Ares I and Ares V, ohe crewed capsule Orion and a lander Altair. Work on CxP progressed to the point where an Ares I rocket was launched in Oct 2009, however shortly after President Barack Obama took office the program was cancelled and instead NASA was refocused on the Space Launch System.

Total cost of CxP: $9 billion estimated in 2010

In 2010 President Barack Obama cancelled the Constellation program and launched the Space Launch System (SLS) plan that called for a single launcher with different capacities from 70mt to 130mt and a human rated capsule which would allow 2-6 crew members to be travel to space.  With this new goal set NASA began working on the SLS and just this week passed the KDP-C  which takes the SLS from design phase to manufacture.  However first flight is still targeted to be somewhere between 12/2017 and 11/2018 depending if everything is ready, with only a 70% confidence of meeting that target.

We also need to take into account the cost of building the crew vehicle that will be launched on SLS, this is a key part of the goal.  There have been a number of tests performed so far on different versions of the Orion module with the first test flight using a Delta IV heavy currently scheduled for later this year 12/2014.

And finally we cannot forget that to launch this massive new rocket the ground support systems will also need to be upgraded, the VAB hasn’t been used for such a large vehicle since the last Saturn 5 launch, in addition the launch pad needs to be upgraded to handle the larger rocket.

Estimated cost of SLS: $7 billion by launch in 11/2018
Estimated cost of Orion: $10 billion
Estimated cost of Ground Systems: $3 billion

Commercial Providers

Due to NASA focus on the a large capacity system that would most likely to too costly and too late for International Space Station crew missions NASA was also tasked with out-sourcing ISS Cargo and Crew missions to commercial companies.  This has been successfully completed with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences providing multiple missions already and contracted for many more.  For crew the process is still on-going with three companies currently working under CCiCap agreements, this will soon be narrowed down to one or two companies under the new CCtCap agreements which is due to be announced any time.

Total cost of Commercial Cargo Dev for NASA: $800 million

Total allocated fund for Commercial Crew Dev (so far) for NASA: $1.2 billion based on budget requests thru 2013 budget. *

* For Commercial Crew the money is only paid out upon reaching pre-defined milestones so while this amount has been allocated not all has been paid out yet.

Summary

So in summary NASA has spent $800m helping bring Commercial cargo availability back to the US, that doesn’t include the $3.4b it has on contract with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences for actual cargo which isn’t relevant for this article.

They have so far spent $1.2b helping bring Commercial crew availability back to the US and assuming there are not any significant issues with whoever is selected to move forward in CCtCap should have the capacity to launch crew in the next two years.

And finally they will have spent an estimated $16b on the Rocket, $10b on Orion and $3b on upgrades to the ground system to have there own launch capability back.  If the first SLS does finally launch in late 2017 or sometime in 2018 then NASA would have launched just three rockets in 12 or 13 years (one a commercial rocket carrying the first test Orion), at a cost of $9.6b each.  This cost doesn’t actually include the first crewed flight with SLS as we currently don’t have enough data to truly calculate the total, however some have estimated that the total cost by first crewed flight could be anywhere from $32-37b.

While we understand developing a new rocket isn’t a cheap project, it is also clear based on the numbers above the both SpaceX and Orbital were able to bring new rockets to the table Falcon 9 and Antares for far less and in much shorter time-frames.

We also have three viable Commercial Crew vehicles in development each of which has a larger crew capacity and at least two of which could be flying most likely before the first SLS ever leaves the ground.  **

The other factor that we need to consider is the 2016 Presidential Election, we already know that there will be a new president starting in 2017 and it is quite possible that whoever is elected will look at the amount of money spent on SLS and want changes made anywhere from cancelling the whole program to re-purposing it which could cause costly delays.

** Based on two being awarded CCtCap contracts, although SpaceX has already stated that they would try to continue development of Dragon V2 even if they don’t get an award as it is key to their long term goals of sending people to Mars.

The opinions in this article are my own, the information on costs is 
publicly available from multiple sources on the internet.

 

SLS Launch Date slips but not really

Today NASA announced they had completed the Key Decision Point C (KDP-C) review of the new Space Launch System their heavy launch rocket.  With this milestone meet they can now proceed with the manufacturing of the actual flight hardware, while also performing reviews of the Ground Support systems and the Orion payload.

As a result of the review NASA also announced that the likely launch date for SLS would be no later than November 2018 a slip of almost nine months from the last announced date of December 2017, however during the conference call by NASA they stated that this really wasn’t a slip!!!  They also stated that they were only 70% confident of making that date or meeting the $7 billion budget that was announced.  Later in the call they stated that they may still make the December 2017 date.

During the Q&A afterwards a number of questions were asked specifically about the future of SLS after the currently manifested flights, there were no real details available beyond the EM-1 and EM-2 flights.  They did say that they would like to continue the cadence of one flight every two years.

Below is the official release from NASA on the KDP-C milestone and what happens next

NASA officials Wednesday announced they have completed a rigorous review of the Space Launch System (SLS) — the heavy-lift, exploration class rocket under development to take humans beyond Earth orbit and to Mars — and approved the program’s progression from formulation to development, something no other exploration class vehicle has achieved since the agency built the space shuttle.

“We are on a journey of scientific and human exploration that leads to Mars,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “And we’re firmly committed to building the launch vehicle and other supporting systems that will take us on that journey.”

For its first flight test, SLS will be configured for a 70-metric-ton (77-ton) lift capacity and carry an uncrewed Orion spacecraft beyond low-Earth orbit. In its most powerful configuration, SLS will provide an unprecedented lift capability of 130 metric tons (143 tons), which will enable missions even farther into our solar system, including such destinations as an asteroid and Mars.

This decision comes after a thorough review known as Key Decision Point C (KDP-C), which provides a development cost baseline for the 70-metric ton version of the SLS of $7.021 billion from February 2014 through the first launch and a launch readiness schedule based on an initial SLS flight no later than November 2018.

Conservative cost and schedule commitments outlined in the KDP-C align the SLS program with program management best practices that account for potential technical risks and budgetary uncertainty beyond the program’s control.

“Our nation is embarked on an ambitious space exploration program, and we owe it to the American taxpayers to get it right,” said Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, who oversaw the review process. “After rigorous review, we’re committing today to a funding level and readiness date that will keep us on track to sending humans to Mars in the 2030s – and we’re going to stand behind that commitment.”

“The Space Launch System Program has done exemplary work during the past three years to get us to this point,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Explorations and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

“We will keep the teams working toward a more ambitious readiness date, but will be ready no later than November 2018.”
The SLS, Orion, and Ground Systems Development and Operations programs each conduct a design review prior to each program’s respective KDP-C, and each program will establish cost and schedule commitments that account for its individual technical requirements.

“We are keeping each part of the program — the rocket, ground systems, and Orion — moving at its best possible speed toward the first integrated test launch,” said Bill Hill, director Exploration Systems Development at NASA. “We are on a solid path toward an integrated mission and making progress in all three programs every day.”

“Engineers have made significant technical progress on the rocket and have produced hardware for all elements of the SLS program,” said SLS program manager Todd May. “The team members deserve an enormous amount of credit for their dedication to building this national asset.”

The program delivered in April the first piece of flight hardware for Orion’s maiden flight, Exploration Flight Test-1 targeted for December. This stage adapter is of the same design that will be used on SLS’s first flight, Exploration Mission-1.

Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans has all major tools installed and is producing hardware, including the first pieces of flight hardware for SLS. Sixteen RS-25 engines, enough for four flights, currently are in inventory at Stennis Space Center, in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, where an engine is already installed and ready for testing this fall. NASA contractor ATK has conducted successful test firings of the five-segment solid rocket boosters and is preparing for the first qualification motor test.

SLS will be the world’s most capable rocket. In addition to opening new frontiers for explorers traveling aboard the Orion capsule, the SLS may also offer benefits for science missions that require its use and can’t be flown on commercial rockets.

The next phase of development for SLS is the Critical Design Review, a programmatic gate that reaffirms the agency’s confidence in the program planning and technical risk posture.

For more information about SLS, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/sls