Trump administration leaves Biden with a rocket dilemma

in great shape / And the day that ended at NASA’s Stennis Space Center after being fired by the SLS rocket for a Green Run test on January 16, 2021.

Trevor Mahalman

About two years ago, the then Vice President Mike Pence gave the most consequential space policy speech of his term in office. During a National Space Council meeting at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, Pence carried out the Trump administration’s plans to land humans on the moon by 2024.

“We should double our efforts in Huntsville and throughout this program,” Pence said, speaking to engineers of the major development of NASA’s space launch system rocket. “We must accelerate the SLS program to accomplish this objective. But know this: The President has directed NASA and Administrator Jim Bridenstein to meet this goal in any way necessary.”

At the time, NASA engineers on Marshall had told Pence that they were confident that the SLS rocket would make its first flight in 2020, setting a time by 2024 to allow astronauts to return to the moon. Still, Pence said he was committed to no one. Single Rocket or Contractor. The moon was the goal – not the means to reach it.

“If our existing contractors cannot fulfill this objective, we will find that,” said in Huntsville. “If American industries can provide critical commercial services without government development, we will buy them. And if commercial rockets are the only way to get American astronauts to the moon in the next five years, it will be commercial rockets.”

It took two years to come and go. The Vice President’s ambitious 2024 target of landing on the moon has been out of reach. Pence has stepped down. And yes, the SLS rocket did not launch in 2020. Now, it is almost certain not to be launched before 2022. So what will happen next?

any means necessary

The space launch system is one of the biggest space policy to do with rockets, which calls into question the Biden administration – which is yet to name its key leaders – to be faced in the coming months. It is true that NASA has spent a decade of big rockets and is getting close to starting development of about $ 20 billion. However, there is no guarantee as to when SLS will be ready.

From Pence’s speech, it is clear that he spent time learning about NASA issues, was disappointed, and sought to address them. This rocket was originally due to launch in 2016, and was fed up with delays. The nation, Pence felt, could do better. As a senior astronaut, who was not a fan of the Trump administration, told Ars, “He is the first vice president to have given a word about space in 20 years.”

However, the reality is that without extraordinary effort, the White House cannot support a program such as SLS Rocket, which receives widespread support in Congress and supports jobs nationwide. And the Trump administration never did.

When it came to push, the White House was building SLS rockets with big contractors like NASA, Congress and Boeing, spending about $ 2.5 billion each year to keep it running. And while SLS did not launch in 2020, it reached a test stand in Mississippi earlier this month to prepare for a major static fire test. The goal was to ignite the rocket’s four main engines for four to eight minutes, showing its readiness for launch. Unfortunately, the rocket’s main stage was fired for only 67.2 seconds, and now NASA is considering whether the rocket needed to be tested again before shipping its launch pad to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida Yes or No.

Following the trial on January 16, and a news conference to discuss its preliminary results, Ars spoke with NASA administrator Jim Bridendine. He acknowledged that things were not planned, but said the SLS program was moving forward. “We’re close,” he said. “We are extremely close.”

When Pence planned the moon in 2019, it fell to Bridenstein to put together a plan to bring humans to the lunar surface in five years. Within a few days of Pence’s speech, Bridenstein appeared to be doing just that. He appeared before Congress and said that NASA was studying the possibility of using SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket – already flying – to get the job done. But very soon, influential members of Congress asked him to discontinue it. Despite Pence’s talk of finding other contractors, the House and Senate had none of them. For almost the entirety of the rest of his term, Bridenstein only spoke of launching SLS to humans on the moon. The “commercial rocket” rebellion was over.

Only after a large core phase trial this January, and less than four days left in his tenure as NASA Administrator, did Bridenstein wait a bit at the post. “NASA needs to go back and see what the options are on the moon as soon as possible,” he said. “And I think the SLS rocket is going to be that option, if we’re talking about sending humans to the moon.”

opportunity costs

The SLS rocket may be close, but the opportunity cost of flying it is high for NASA. Although the agency requires a large, powerful rocket to send humans and a lot of cargo into deep space, it probably does not need one based on technologies from the Space Shuttle era, which is now almost 50 years old, Because SLS is a booster.

In this way, NASA is recalling the revolution in a launch launched by SpaceX but will soon be pursued by Blue Origin in the United States and other space agencies around the world. As China, Europe, Japan and others look at their next generation rockets, they are all factoring in reuse and the possibility of multiple launches instead of a few.

Jeff Bezos made the remark in 2016 when he talked about why his Blue Origin rocket company has been reused from the start. “Right now, the things you do in space are incredibly important, and because access to space is so expensive if you can do it another way, you will,” Bezos said. “That’s why you get so little launch. Meet. If you can dramatically reduce the cost of access, then this is the change and the only way to do that is reusable. “

By spending the entire last decade developing a large, expensive rocket that could be used once, NASA has largely ignored technologies that could enable a more sustainable space transport system. Until some time ago, the space agency was not investing in reusable space tags to move cargo between Earth and the Moon, harvesting water resources from the Moon and asteroids, and storing and moving propellants into space. These technologies – with low cost launches – are likely to be the breakthroughs that facilitated space travel in the 21st century. Instead, Congress has asked NASA to look backward rather than forward.

After a static static fire test later this month, the future of the SLS rocket is uncertain. No one is sure how the Biden administration will proceed or what the Congress response may be. However, we can make some assumptions.

If the SLS rocket fails horrifically during the testing phase, which is unlikely, or does not succeed at its first test launch in a year or so, the program will become more vulnerable to cancellation. This may seem unfair, but given the linear nature of the design and development program for the SLS rocket, it is not actually going through a “validation” campaign, but rather a “test” campaign.

The other thing that will probably accelerate the end of the SLS rocket will be the successful launch of SpaceX’s starship vehicle on the super heavy rocket. This projection system has higher lift capacity than the SLS, is fully reusable, and can likely be operated at one-tenth of the cost – or much less. This may happen before the end of 2021, but the ambitious starship program must still face significant technical challenges.

The fact that the 2024 moon landing target is no longer about the SLS may be huge in the calculus of the Biden administration. If a large rocket is not required for a 2024 landing soon, what is the harm in waiting for less expensive commercial rockets to arrive? More likely, though, the Biden administration will continue to fund the SLS rocket, but may try to slow or stop funding for the exploration upper stage under development by Boeing – which would cost billions of dollars more.

We should get some answers to these questions in the coming months.

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