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SLS and Moon
NASA is finally near the first flight of the Space Launch System, the rocket the agency says it needs to return humans to the Moon, but its development suggests NASA may be better off handing launch operations over to the private sector. (credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky)

The rebirth of NASA

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NASA is amid a rebirth: a return to the agency’s origins as a research and development agency rather than as an operator of systems. This change positions NASA to have a continuing impact on US and, by extension, global space programs. Two ongoing events herald this impending change: the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the Space Launch System (SLS), both are at critical stages in the arc of their development and operation. Both struggled with delays and funding issues created by the slowness of progress toward operational status.

JWST represents a situation where the agency can take bows for performance in the end, although the end came much later than most thought in the beginning.

Why these two programs signal change is found in programs’ trajectory. JWST has, after a lengthy developmental process, reached its desired location and received first light. The first images it produced open new vistas for exploration, expanding human understanding of the universe. One could argue that all will be forgiven as JWST moves into its role as the best view humans have of the cosmic past. In a sense, JWST will enjoy the prestige and stature of the Hubble Space Telescope, which had to survive the debacle of an improperly ground mirror: myopic given the expectations before launch. Fortunately, a repair flight in 1993 corrected the error. The rest, as they say, is history: a series of trailblazing images from across the universe, such as the Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula.

JWST, to this point, has not encountered any equivalent trouble after launch, which is fortunate since it is located beyond the present capability of being reached for repair or simply refueling. What is occurring is another NASA opportunity to reach out beyond the usual suspects who support the space program and the agency. The holy grail of NASA is to recapture the public support it thought supported the agency through Apollo—a situation more complicated than simple adoration as much of the public was supportive in the abstract and more skeptical when asked to rank space as a priority against other national needs. Regardless, JWST represents a situation where the agency can take bows for performance in the end, although the end came much later than most thought in the beginning. The technical challenges were overcome, and the plan of operations was ultimately executed despite some hiccups in terms of schedule and cost. This ultimate success is contrasted with the continuing struggles of the SLS to gain traction and get to orbit.

SLS is on a slow torturous run up to its first test flight, hopefully followed by crewed missions both as test flights and future missions to the lunar surface. Like the space shuttle, SLS will be declared operational shortly after a few flights rather than a rigorous multiple flight program. The reason is the same in both cases: cost and time. SLS is extremely expensive (like JWST) and behind schedule, but the reality is that its cost means its usage will be limited to possibly two flights a year. Ironically, the Saturn V, which worked, was deemed too expensive, so the space shuttle was built. The shuttle proved too expensive and fragile, so it was cancelled in the hope that the Constellation program would produce a shuttle successor. Instead, the Ares I was cancelled and replaced by the SLS and, more importantly, the vehicles developed under NASA’s commercial cargo and crew programs.

NASA wants control over its future but its fixation on operating launch systems is a road to irrelevance over the long haul.

The arrival of the commercial vehicles was critical to getting the United States back to servicing the ISS without total dependence on Russia or other foreign partners. That same approach was applied to crew movement to the ISS and back through the Commercial Crew Program. Through SpaceX initially, and Boeing possibly soon, the United States now provides complete service to the ISS for NASA missions. This has become a central pillar in the establishment of what is termed a “low Earth orbit economy.” Commercial options are being relied on to develop future human landing systems for arriving on the lunar surface. What is occurring is a dramatic change in the composition of the American human spaceflight program: commercial options are appearing in the exploration matrix in increasing numbers and locations.

SLS clearly lags in terms of development, with the possibility of becoming irrelevant in terms of future US human space exploration. Several commercial firms, notably SpaceX and Blue Origin, are pursuing development of heavy-lift vehicles that could, in principle, replace the SLS as the workhorses for US human space exploration efforts. Unless the SLS becomes operational in a reasonable timeframe, it becomes a failed option, especially if the difficulties in development persist into the operational phase of its activities. The most recent public display of SLS performance was testing of the vehicle on the launch pad. A first set of tests in April was cut short while the second in June was incomplete, but the announcement was things are right on schedule.

Why this is important is that it reinforces the idea that NASA should stop being the one doing operational systems such as launch vehicles. That should be given to the commercial sector while the agency works on science and technology development. NASA started the move away from the operational end of spaceflight in the 1990s with the X-33 program, which was cancelled in 2001. That ultimately led the agency back into the thicket of being developer and operator of operational systems, a task that consumes resources, especially human resources that are scarce if you want top-flight talent to work for the agency. NASA wants control over its future but its fixation on operating launch systems is a road to irrelevance over the long haul. The commercial sector is replacing NASA in LEO as was expected and desired once the shuttle program terminated in 2011. The SLS became the last gasp of the old order (which grew out of the Apollo era with its comparatively larger budgets) and it is failing the test of relevance. Artemis I will likely fly but if other options become available, the vehicle may find itself in a cul-de-sac with no future. High cost and apparent fragility make the SLS ultimately unattractive for a robust exploration effort.

NASA is confronting a moment of truth in that science and technology development (both space and aerospace) will become its future, one which builds on the talents and expertise of its workforce. Human exploration can continue to be a core mission of the agency, but the technology for getting there will become more private sector than government program. Providing incentives for developing new transportation technologies for moving out into the solar system becomes the wave of the future. The US Space Force lurks on the sidelines for now, but it will become a partner for some of those missions, resurrecting the expeditionary model that explored the North American continent in the early days of the republic. For NASA, the choice may not be the agency’s but rather one imposed from outside, just like the agency was imposed on the US military in 1958 despite their expectations that space would be dominated and led by the military.

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