A recent Von Braun Symposium of space industrial leaders featured a discussion of NASA’s heavy lift Space Launch System, the key component of the space agency’s plans to explore space beyond low Earth orbit. According to an October 8, 2013 story at AL.com, the keynote speaking, Wayne Hale, warned the attendees of fiscal and political problems surrounding the SLS. He suggested that the project may become a victim of the chaos in Washington if something is not done.
“’The current plan is fragile in the political and financial maelstrom that is Washington," Hale said. "Planning to fly large rockets once every three or four years does not make a viable program. It is not sustainable.
"’Continuing to develop programs in the same old ways, from my observations, will certainly lead to cancellation as government budgets are stretched thin. It is time to try new strategies.’”
Hale, a former NASA space shuttle program manager and currently the director of human spaceflight at Special Aerospace Services, apparently did not elaborate what those strategies might be. Currently only two SLS launches are manifested, an unmanned mission in 2017 and a manned mission about 2021 in relation to NASA’s plan to snag an asteroid and visit it with a crew of astronauts. Future exploration, especially to Mars in the 2030s, would require some version of the SLS. Opponents of the SLS suggest that Hale was implying that the heavy lift rocket program be cancelled entirely, which would essentially doom hopes for beyond low Earth orbit exploration for another generation.
According to NASASpaceflight.com, industry experts are casting about for other missions for the SLS to increase the flight rate to about two a year. These include planetary missions, such as one shot Mars sample return flights and sprint voyages to the Outer Planets and its moons. Currently missions like Galileo, which went to Jupiter, and Cassini, which went to Saturn, require many years to arrive at their destinations, often having to use multiple gravity assist maneuvers to boost their velocity. The SLS would provide the power to go to the Outer Planets and its moons, like Jupiter’s Europa and Saturn’s Titan, directly.
All of this depends on three things that NASA has lacked recently, those being leadership, direction, and money.