In a Monday story in The Space Review, R.D. Boozer, a frequent critic of NASA and a commercial space advocate, suggested that the Space Launch System, the heavy lift rocket that is envisioned to launch astronauts beyond low Earth orbit, is essentially doomed. He cited a number of reports, including a recent one by the General Accounting Office, which have focused on problems surrounding the rocket. However the actual GAO report is not quite as dire as Boozer suggests.
The article also makes a number of unsupported claims, such as the suggestion that “there are no payloads in development that are large enough to justify a rocket of its size.” In fact the SLS is the only planned launch system that can deliver large payloads such as the Orion spacecraft beyond low Earth orbit. Any other launch vehicle, planned or in existence, would require many multiple launches that would make any space exploration mission problematic,
Essentially the GAO reported that the Space Launch System program is “making solid progress” in the design of the heavy lift rocket. The GAO did find that there is a mismatch between available funding and the requirements to get the SLS ready on time for a planned December, 2017 launch. The launch date may well slip as far as October, 2018 unless a funding shortfall of $400 million is dealt with.
Another problem the GAO found is that NASA has not found any specific missions for the rocket past a planned 2021 flight, which is the second thus far on the SLS’s manifest. This problem was focused on in a recent NASASpaceFlight.com piece that suggested that NASA managers are scrambling to develop other missions for the heavy lifter. A robotic mission to Europa is mentioned as a strong possibility.
Boozer hints that a wiser idea would be to go with SpaceX’s planned Falcon Heavy, a less capable rocket that has in any case has had its first launch delayed by at least two years. Another idea would be to block grant some of the money being spent on the Space Launch System to SpaceX in hopes it can build a comparable rocket at less cost. But the problem may be less about rocket design and more about how the government is approaching space exploration.
Ever since President Obama cancelled the Constellation return to the moon program, NASA’s space exploration program has been in a state of chaos. The president’s preferred mission to an asteroid has been downsized to capturing a tiny asteroid and placing it in lunar orbit to be visited by American astronauts. This approach has been roundly criticized by many outside analysts, including the National Research Council.
This all goes back to the GAO report about there being a lack of missions being manifest. NASA cannot decide where it wants to go beyond low Earth orbit, except eventually to Mars, because there is indecision and dithering beyond the pay grade of the NASA administrator. The matter will likely not be cleared up until after the next president is sworn into office. In the meantime the plan is to proceed with the SLS and the Orion spacecraft so that they might be ready once a solid plan is in place.