Charlie Bolden says the quieter part out loud: SLS rocket will run

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden speaks in front of the Falcon 9 rocket in 2016.


Four-four astronaut Charlie Bolden served as NASA’s administrator since mid-2009 in early 2017. During that time, he supervised the construction and initial development of the agency’s large space launch system rocket.

Although some NASA officials such as then deputy director Lori Gavner were wary of the rocket’s costs – nearly $ 20 billion has now been poured into developing a launch vehicle based on current technology – Bolden remains the savior of the big rocket, calling it the lynchpin Huh. The agency’s plan to send humans beyond low-Earth orbit, perhaps to the Moon or Mars. He also rejected the efforts of commercial space companies such as SpaceX to manufacture comparable technology.

When I sat down with Bolden for an interview at the Johnson Space Center in 2014, I asked why NASA was investing so much in the SLS rocket, when SpaceX raised its own fund to develop the low-cost Falcon Heavy rocket. Was using His response at the time: “Let’s be very honest. We do not have commercially available heavy vehicles. Falcon 9 Heavy can come about someday. It is currently on the drawing board. SLS is real. ”

Two years later, in 2016, Bolden said he still did not believe commercial companies were ready for the task. “If you talk about launch vehicles, we believe that our responsibility to the nation is to take care of things that ordinary people cannot, or do not want to do like big launch vehicles,” Bolden he said. “I’m not a big fan of commercial investment in big launch vehicles yet.”

Since that time, a lot has changed. In February 2018, SpaceX launched the Falcon Heavy Rocket for the first time. Since then it has successfully flown two more times, and will play a role in NASA’s future exploration plans. Meanwhile, the SLS rocket, originally launched in 2017, is now delayed until at least the end of 2021.

As a result, Bolden has changed his mind. In an interview with Political trickster Published Friday morning in the publication’s Space Newsletter, Bolden was asked what could happen during the next four years.

“SLS will go away,” he said. This could go away during a Biden administration or the next Trump administration… because at some point commercial entities are going to catch up. They are actually going to manufacture a heavy lift launch vehicle vehicle like the SLS that they will be able to fly for a much cheaper price than NASA. It does just that. ”

Bolden remains a popular and influential voice in the space community, but he no longer has a direct say in US space policy. Perhaps because he no longer needs to respond to Congress for NASA’s budget, he is free to speak his mind. In any case, his comment reflects the general sentiment in the space community – at least outside traditional contractors like Boeing and Northrop Grumman who directly benefit from SLS development – that SLS rockets will eventually go away.

View of SLS outside the bubble

The Falcon is not as capable as a heavy SLS rocket, but its success has clearly demonstrated that private companies can build large, powerful rockets. In addition, it is not only SpaceX, but also Blue Origin with its new Glenn Booster, which wants to build a heavy lift rocket with private money. And although they are rivals, SpaceX’s Elon Musk and Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos both agree that the rocket needs to be able to be reused to be viable. It would cost about $ 2 billion to launch the SLS and then fall into the ocean.

If you are wondering what commercial space proponents really think about the SLS rocket, then because of its cost and spending capacity, this is what comes from a senior officer of a new space company:

“If Santa Claus arrived, and said, ‘I have good news. It works now and you can launch tomorrow. Everything is done. You’re going to launch one tomorrow.’ … it’s still not getting us to the moon. Even if they achieve everything they aim for, it still doesn’t get people from the moon. It certainly doesn’t get a base on the moon. And humans don’t get it at all. Towards Mars. “

When Congress conceived the space launch system rocket in 2010 and instructed NASA to build it, they were placing two bets. At first, he made a bet that new space companies like SpaceX would fail. This was a reasonable bet then, as SpaceX lost most of the rockets it tried to launch into space. Second, they bet that traditional companies like Boeing would be better at building large rockets.

Congressional legislators who created SLS — it began with Florida Senator Bill Nelson and Texas Senator Kaye Bailey Hutchison, and they were soon joined by Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama — lost both of those bets. So now, NASA is building a large, spendable rocket, costing taxpayers tens of billions of dollars. The Congress is committed, as always, to the budget and public statements of support. However, the more new rockets fly, the more difficult it will be to maintain this support.

Ironically, the major contractor Boeing of NASA and SLS is no longer competing with Falcon Heavy. SpaceX defeated him 2.5 years ago. Rather NASA is competing with SpaceX ahead Rocket, the super heavy booster that will take the starship into orbit. SpaceX has not built a single segment of its Super Heavy Rocket – which is larger than the SLS, more powerful, much cheaper, and reusable – but it is possible that the vehicle would have launched an orbital ahead of the decade-old SLS in 2021 is.