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RD-180 engine
Had Congress supported NASA’s revised space exploration plans in 2010, which included funding to develop a new large rocket engine, dependence on the Russian-built RD-180 (above) might be less of a concern today. (credit: NASA)

NASA’s big rocket gives Putin a big advantage


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The Space Launch System (SLS) is an enormous rocket that Congress is mandating NASA develop. SLS is not only slowing US progress in human spaceflight, but also has given leverage to Russian president Vladimir Putin to fight back against US economic sanctions levied against his country because of his aggression against Ukraine. Understanding why this statement is true requires reviewing the circumstances that led to the SLS project.

Part of NASA’s original 2010 plan included “…development of a U.S. first-stage hydrocarbon engine for potential use in future heavy lift (and other) launch systems.”

After the cancellation of Project Constellation and before SLS was proposed by certain powerful members of Congress, NASA planned several new development projects to catapult the US ahead of its international competition in space. Only one of those new projects survived, the Commercial Crew development program, which is funding vehicles from private companies to transport American astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). Another of those projects was to involve development of in-space filling stations known as propellant depots to allow for affordable deep space flights. Yet another project involved technology development to produce the most powerful launch vehicles in history for missions to Mars. A general description of this plan was outlined in Congressional testimony by NASA on March 24, 2010. Also, the Orion spacecraft was carried over from Project Constellation, but the focus here is on those projects that were new at the time.

The heavy-lift launch technology development was to be done concurrently with Commercial Crew development. American companies ULA and SpaceX gave quotes of $5.5 billion and $2.5 billion, respectively, to use the new tech on a heavy-lift launcher to be developed after Commercial Crew flights to ISS began. Fixed price contracts would insure the cost to develop both of these rockets (neither would include overly expensive Space Shuttle technology) would be far less than producing one rocket under NASA’s usual procedures. Evidence for this contention comes from the fact that a similar strategy has resulted in huge cost savings for NASA in its highly successful Commercial Cargo development program. For instance, a joint Air Force/NASA study showed if the SpaceX Falcon 9 launcher had been developed using NASA’s usual procedures of cost-plus contracts under Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR), it would have cost up to eight times more to develop than what it actually did.

The lack of development of that engine due to SLS has put both our military and NASA more at the mercy of the Russians than we would have been otherwise.

Both the heavy-lift and depot development projects were scrapped because certain politicians wanted a Shuttle-derived vehicle under more expensive cost-plus style contracts that would keep billions of NASA dollars flowing to their constituencies. The only way to finance their hyper-expensive rocket was to redirect money intended for those new projects for their pet rocket. Knowing that the Obama Administration considered Commercial Crew the most important of those projects, the politicians (of both parties) essentially issued the ultimatum, “SLS or no Commercial Crew.” This devil’s bargain recently led former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver to proclaim, “…Congress forced our hand on SLS. They could make us do it, but can’t make me believe we should.”

How did all of this Congressional conniving give Vladimir Putin more clout he can use against the US? Part of NASA’s original 2010 plan included “…development of a U.S. first-stage hydrocarbon engine for potential use in future heavy lift (and other) launch systems.” As Space News noted in an article last year, “In 2010, the Obama administration said it wanted to make development of a 1 million pound-thrust, closed-loop kerosene-fueled engine a national priority. However, Congress preferred a new rocket based on shuttle-derived systems, and the White House had to compromise.” That engine would have essentially reproduced the technology of the Russian RD-180 rocket engine now used in ULA’s Atlas V rocket. In other words, Atlas V was one of those “(and other) launch systems” mentioned in the Congressional testimony.

The Atlas V is used to launch critical military payloads for the Department of Defense and various NASA deep space probes, and is also slated to launch American astronauts to ISS on Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser spaceplane and Boeing’s CST-100 space capsule. Had Congress allowed NASA to pursue the alternative engine instead of SLS, it is probable development of that engine would be near completion by now. Thus, the lack of development of that engine due to SLS has put both our military and NASA more at the mercy of the Russians than we would have been otherwise.

But SLS gives even more benefits to Russia. The first American Commercial Crew flight to ISS has been pushed back from 2015 to 2017 because, year after year, the program received less money than NASA has requested. By contrast, Congress gave SLS more funding than NASA requested during each of those years. That’s two extra years of American taxpayer money going to the Russians that did not have to happen. NASA’s own Inspector General says that underfunding of Commercial Crew could delay its first flight to ISS as late as 2020; thus, adding yet another three years of American dollars to the Russians—five extra years total. That report further states that Russia will reap a total of $1.7 billion from this deal.

Moreover, the report accompanying the House’s 2015 appropriations bill that funds NASA includes language that would require NASA to cut the number of spacecraft participating in the Commercial Crew program from three to one. This idea disregards the fact that the lack of a backup vehicle for the Space Shuttle meant that there was no American crewed spacecraft flying for almost three years after the Challenger accident and for more than two years after the Columbia disaster. Following the latter accident, the Russians hauled American astronauts to the ISS, just as they are doing now and ever since the shuttle program was canceled. This irresponsible proposal could place NASA at the mercy of Russia again in the future if the single chosen vehicle is ever grounded. After all, no vehicle designed by people can ever perfectly safe. Also, the lack of competition between companies could ultimately lead to NASA paying higher prices for crewed space vehicles. Not surprisingly, some members supporting this idea are ardent supporters of SLS and believe their constituents will benefit from the big rocket.

As long as some politicians feel immune to the consequences of their actions, the glacially slow train wreck that is the SLS will continue with ever worsening effects.

Worse, it seems that the SLS would not be a practical system to take Americans back to the Moon on a continuous basis, or to near Earth asteroids, Mars, and other destinations, as its proponents claim, because of missions costs as high as $5 billion (see “Revisiting SLS/Orion launch costs”, The Space Review, July 15, 2013). A more optimistic cost estimate by SLS supporters of $500 million per launch includes only flight costs and replacement of rocket equipment that is lost on each successful launch. Those lowball estimates don’t amortize development costs over each launch, don’t include the annual costs for operating expenses, and don’t include the annual cost of maintaining launch facilities used by the rocket. The original alternatively proposed systems could have been very effective at accomplishing US deep space missions with much less funding. For instance, the SpaceX alternative heavy lift launch vehicle’s estimated launch costs were $300 million per launch, a maximum cost guaranteed by SpaceX.

In short, SLS is not only delaying exciting American manned missions to destinations in deep space, it has increased a precarious reliance on Russian space technology that weakens our country’s diplomatic bargaining power when dealing with Putin’s excesses. As long as some politicians feel immune to the consequences of their actions, the glacially slow train wreck that is the SLS will continue with ever worsening effects. The politicians will enjoy that immunity only as long as the major media do not delve deeply into what they have been doing and leave the general public in the dark about this pork barrel project that should be axed from our space program.


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