The SLS rocket is the worst thing that has happened to NASA, but maybe also the best?
President Eisenhower signed the act establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on July 29, 1958. At the time, the United States had orbited about 30 kg of small satellites. Less than 11 years later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon.
President Obama signed a NASA Authorization Act on October 11, 2010. Among its provisions, the act called for NASA to create the Space Launch System rocket and prepare it for launch in 2016. That seemed reasonable. At the time, NASA had been launching rockets, including very large ones, for half a century. And in a sense, this new SLS rocket was already built.
The most challenging aspect of almost any launcher is its engines. No problem, the SLS rocket would use leftover engines from the Space Shuttle program. Its side thrusters would be slightly larger versions of those that powered the Shuttle for three decades. The newest part of the vehicle would be its large central stage, housing tanks of liquid hydrogen and oxygen to power the rocket’s four main engines. But even this component was derived. The 8.4-meter diameter of the core stage was identical to that of the Space Shuttle’s outer tank, which carried the same propellants for the Shuttle’s main engines.
Alas, the construction was not so easy. NASA’s SLS rocket program has been a hot mess almost from the start. It has been effective in one thing only, distributing jobs around major aerospace contractors in the states of top congressional committee leaders. For that reason, lawmakers overlooked years of delays, a more than doubling of development costs to more than $20 billion, and the availability of much cheaper, reusable privately-built rockets.
So here we are, almost a dozen years after the signing of this deed of authorization, and NASA is finally ready to launch the SLS rocket. It took the agency 11 years to go from nothing to the moon. It took 12 years to go from all the building blocks of a rocket to having it on the launch pad, ready for an uncrewed test flight.
I definitely have mixed emotions.
With just days to go, I’m incredibly happy for the folks at NASA and space companies who worked hard, cut through the bureaucracy, handled thousands of requirements, and got this rocket built. And I can’t wait to see it fly. Who doesn’t want to see a huge Brobdingnagian rocket consume millions of kilograms of fuel and break the snarling bonds of Earth’s gravity?
On the less happy side, it remains difficult to celebrate a rocket that, in many ways, is responsible for a lost decade of American space exploration. The financial costs of the program have been enormous. Between the rocket, its ground systems, and the launch of the Orion spacecraft to the top of the pile, NASA spent tens of billions of dollars. But I would say the opportunity costs are higher. For a decade, Congress has pushed NASA exploration toward an Apollo-like program, with a massive launch vehicle that’s completely burnt out, using 1970s technology in its engines, tanks and boosters.
Indeed, NASA was told to look back when this country’s vibrant commercial space industry was ready to push toward sustainable spaceflight by building big rockets and landing them – or storing propellant in the space or by building reusable tugboats to go back and forth between the Earth and the Moon. It’s as if Congress told NASA to keep printing newspapers in a world with broadband internet.
It shouldn’t be like this. In fact, a handful of visionary space policy leaders have attempted to stop the waste, but have been rebuffed by the defense industry and its allies in Congress.
For me personally, it’s also the end of an era. In many ways, this rocket reflected my career as a journalist and writer covering the space industry. As we approach this momentous launch, I want to tell the story—the real story – where it came from and where it is going. I will argue that the SLS rocket is the worst thing, and possibly the best thing, that has ever happened to NASA.
I believe this story can still have a happy ending.