Jason DavisMar 09, 2018

If you come at the Space Launch System, you best not miss

USA Today published an op-ed last week declaring NASA should get out of the rocket business and embrace the private sector for its transportation needs. Specifically, the article calls the Space Launch System a rocket "only bureaucracy and Big Government could love," and recommends it be scrapped in favor of cheaper solutions like SpaceX's Falcon Heavy. Attacks like this have followed SLS around since its creation, but I expect to see a lot more now that the Falcon Heavy has flown successfully.

Whether or not SLS and Orion should exist is worth debating! SLS alone will cost NASA more than $2 billion per year through at least 2023 and fly perhaps twice, whereas SpaceX's Falcon Heavy has a list price of $90 million per flight. NASA and the Air Force actually pay more than that due to oversight and mission assurance, but even if a single flight costs Big Government $160 million, such a staggering price difference cannot be ignored.

Nevertheless, many of these SLS takedowns follow a particular formula that, at best, renders them incomplete, and at worst, poisons the discussion. The formula goes something like this: First, they wrap up the cost and reusability arguments, which are the easy part of the problem. Then, they decry Big Government for keeping the rocket alive, but don't explore any notion of how to realistically end the program, which is the hard part of the problem. Finally, they throw in a vague implication that NASA is somehow adrift, and ta-da! You get an op-ed that ultimately doesn't serve much of a purpose other than sowing discontent.

Falcon Heavy liftoff
Falcon Heavy liftoff SpaceX's Falcon Heavy lifts off from Kennedy Space Center pad 39A on its inaugural test flight.Image: Jason Davis / The Planetary Society

First of all, NASA as a whole is hardly adrift. Does a rudderless space agency operate Mars rovers, staff a laboratory in Earth orbit, and build a gold-plated space telescope? Secondly, while the USA Today piece credits NASA for its wisdom to outsource ISS flights to the private sector, it neglects to mention it was NASA itself that helped enable the most prominent of these companies, SpaceX, to exist. (Recall that SpaceX was on the verge of bankruptcy in late 2008 before landing a $1.6 billion contract for ISS cargo flights.) NASA must be doing something right!

The USA Today story also says SLS has not justified its existence, and that it "fails to answer the overarching, existential question: Why?" This is posed as a rhetorical question, but there's actually a simple answer! It exists because it can lift large, heavy things.

The Space Launch System's roots can be traced back to 2005, when then-NASA administrator Michael Griffin commissioned an internal report called the Exploration Systems Architecture Study. The study concluded "as many as nine" Atlas or Delta launches would be required for a single lunar mission, whereas a heavy lift rocket could get the job done more efficiently. That led to Ares V, which was canceled and reborn as SLS. The heavy lift concept intuitively makes sense—think of how many rocket launches, shuttle flights and spacewalks it took to build the International Space Station, which has a total price tag of up to $150 billion, depending on who you ask.

When Congress wrote SLS into law in October 2010, SpaceX had only flown the Falcon 9 once. Prior to that, the company went two-for-five on Falcon 1 flights. At that point, politicians were busy debating whether private companies could even be trusted to supply the International Space Station after the shuttle retired. They certainly weren't going to let NASA outsource heavy lift rocket construction!

Eight years later, it's clear that the private sector model can work—just look at SpaceX, which launched its fiftieth Falcon 9 this week, or Blue Origin, which is flying reusable, suborbital rockets while gearing up for orbital flights from Florida. So a better question for USA Today might have been: Why does SLS exist today, now that we have Falcon Heavy? NASA's technical justification is that its deep space plans currently require a payload mass and volume capacity only SLS can provide. The upcoming Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, a small, Moon-orbiting space station, has modules that must be co-launched with Orion, which will be used to insert them into the correct lunar orbit.

Could you tweak the LOP-G design to make it compatible with slightly less powerful rockets, like Falcon Heavy? Of course. This is the stuff space enthusiasts love to debate. It's fun to fall down the rabbit hole and talk about fairing sizes, upper stage specific impulses, and the mass capabilities of current and future commercial vehicles. Again, this is the easy problem! The hard problem is politics.

The central premise of the USA Today piece—Get NASA out of the rocket business—was attempted in 2010, when the Obama administration tried to trade in Constellation for commercial rockets and technology development programs. But there was no coalition outside the White House to defend the changes, Congress was resentful over the rollout, and the void left by Constellation mixed badly with anxiety over the end of the shuttle program—particularly at southern U.S. NASA centers.

As Omar Little says in The Wire, You come at the king, you best not miss. The Obama administration missed, and Constellation became the Space Launch System and Orion. So here's a more interesting angle future SLS pieces could explore: How would an administration come at SLS and not miss?

Space Launch System
Space Launch System The Space Launch System, with its version 3 paint job.Image: NASA

I'd recommend starting by considering exactly what's at stake: a lot of money and jobs. According to a Marshall Space Flight Center 2015 economic impact statement, the SLS program supports 13,000 Alabama jobs, generates $2.4 billion yearly in economic output, and accounts for more than $55 million in state and local taxes. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi and the Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana also lean heavily on SLS and pump millions into their local economies. Johnson Space Center in Texas gets $1.2 billion of its $4.4 billion budget from Orion, and Florida's Kennedy Space Center depends on SLS and Orion for ground systems funding. Even facilities outside of the South contribute, such as the Glenn Research Center and Langley Research Center.

In fact, SLS and Orion have suppliers in every state! Vice President Pence just tweeted this yesterday:

Any proposal shifting funding from these NASA centers to, say, California's 43rd congressional district, where SpaceX is headquartered, would be a political non-starter. At least some funding would have to stay with former SLS and Orion centers in the short-term. Perhaps a few could transition to technology development and building deep space hardware, similar to what the Obama administration proposed in 2010. But unlike the Obama administration, you'd need to be very specific about your plans. You'd also have to convince places like Marshall Space Flight Center to change their very identities. Marshall has been building rockets for NASA since Wernher Von Braun roamed the campus, and they aren't going to give up that distinction without a fight, just because SpaceX got the Falcon Heavy up and running. To ease the transition, perhaps Big Government could also incentivize more private companies to set up shop in some of these NASA districts. Blue Origin already plans to start building rocket engines in Huntsville, Alabama—a savvy political move.

I view the Space Launch System's year-to-year chances of survival as a function of two inputs: the success of the big rocket itself, and the success of commercial alternatives. If the SLS program stays on schedule, flies successful missions, and finds a way to lower costs, the chances of survival go up. When SpaceX and Blue Origin's new rockets come online (the BFR and New Glenn, respectively), as well as United Launch Alliance's ACES upper stage, the chances of survival go down.

Scott Pace, the executive secretary of the National Space Council, views SLS as a critical piece of national infrastructure akin to aircraft carriers. He believes the U.S. should have guaranteed heavy lift capability, and until there are at least a couple solid commercial alternatives regularly flying, people who agree with him probably aren't going to budge on SLS.

Eventually, there may be a tipping point where SLS is no longer politically defensible, which will cause the program to collapse. It could happen a couple years from now, or a couple decades from now. Nobody knows! But the point is, if you're going to talk seriously about getting NASA out of the rocket business, you need to consider a lot more than just the easy part of the problem. 

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