SLS, Shuttle, and The Danger of the “No Payloads” Argument

I’m not a particularly big fan of NASA’s SLS1. Anyone paying attention with even a shred of self-honesty can tell that two of the primary reasons why Congress forced NASA to build SLS were to preserve and enlarge payrolls at NASA centers in their districts and to line the pockets (on an uncompeted basis) of politically connected contractors. In frustration with this situation, many of SLS’s critics in industry (yours truly included) have argued against SLS funding by saying that NASA is rushing to build a rocket without building payloads for it. I’m starting to wonder if this is a wise line of argument.

It’s not that the argument isn’t sound–rushing to build a rocket when it sucks so much air out of the room that you can’t start funding useful missions for the rocket until after the rocket is complete is stupid. It’s a guaranteed way to have to pay the maintenance cost of said rocket for many years after it is built just to keep it around till payloads are ready, which will keep sucking a lot of the air out of the room for development of said payloads. Of course, NASA would fly the vehicle on a certain cadence even if it didn’t have the support hardware to do useful missions…and that’s where my concern kicks in.

One of the things we saw with the Space Shuttle was the constant desire to find ways to make work for it by forcing payloads to fly on it:

  • Initially they tried to shut down all commercial and DoD launch vehicles and fly everything on Shuttle.
  • After Challenger, that foolish policy was abandoned, yet many other massive projects were funded primarily as means to keep Shuttle busy. Many science missions were designed with Shuttle launch in mind (even if it wasn’t really necessary). These politically favored payloads got lots of money and sucked the air out of the room for smaller missions.
  • The ISS program was started, with all modules designed so that only Shuttle could launch them. Shuttle had some nice features, but the key ones (being able to deliver the module without it having to have its own propulsion and keep alive capabilities) could’ve been replicated much cheaper without shuttle. Lockheed’s Jupiter/Exoliner system (or other similar tug concepts) aren’t really proposing to do much that couldn’t have been done with mid 90s technology. When the Columbia accident happened, ISS construction had to stand down for over a year because NASA had intentionally designed all of its ISS hardware and cargo/crew support to be 100% dependent on the Shuttle. Once the Shuttle was flying again, a bunch of missions were required to replenish supplies before construction could continue. A large chunk of the ISS’s development costs, and a large chunk of the delays in getting ISS flying were entirely due to the decision to make ISS construction and logistics on the US-side 100% tied to shuttle.

My concern is that we’re going to see something similar with SLS, and that in fact we’re already starting to see this. Rep. Culberson is pushing a Europe mission using SLS as the booster. Europa is a fascinating target, and I do believe Culberson is legitimately interested in seeing missions to Europa. But the reasons for using SLS are contrived at best. Basically, the mission will be no more capable than one launched on an existing commercial vehicle, but it can go directly to Jupiter, cutting 5 years out of the mission. This will supposedly save tens of $M on operations costs over that 5 year period (that would’ve been spent doing Venus and Earth slingshot maneuvers). The thing is, that in order to do this, Culberson is recommending cutting $250M from commercial crew, which will stretch that program out long enough that we’ll have to spend another $500M on buying more Soyuz seats from the Russians. All so we can spend more on SLS to get it ready for a payload that doesn’t really need to fly on SLS.

NASA will make missions and payloads for SLS. It will corrupt good missions that could be done cheaper without SLS (like ARM or Europa Clipper). These big missions, particularly SMD missions like Europa Clipper are going to be big, strongly politically protected (ie hard to kill if they start bloating beyond recognition), and will prevent many other worthwhile missions from being funded because they take up the bulk of their respective budget wedge. Everything will be done through the lens of “what makes best use of SLS” not what’s the most effective way of doing things. If Congress gets its druthers it’ll have NASA start on an SLS-based lunar mission once Obama’s gone. The whole thing will be designed in a way that can only fly on SLS, and where making it cost effective doesn’t matter.

I could go on, but I think you get my point. Arguing against SLS by pointing to the lack of payloads may get Congress to answer that complaint in a way that we space policy enthusiasts really don’t want.

We don’t want payloads for SLS per se. We want NASA to focus on exploration and expanding humanity’s economic sphere beyond GEO. Those two things are not synonymous.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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16 Responses to SLS, Shuttle, and The Danger of the “No Payloads” Argument

  1. ken anthony says:

    I do think the Europa mission is an example of things to come. The difference in cost between SLS and FH should be embarrassing, but they’re having none of that. Until SpaceX has an even bigger LV they will simply claim, “as much as they like SpaceX we need SLS because of greater payload.”

  2. Paul Wren says:

    For science PIs, their team, and anyone who studies Europa, getting the data five years sooner is no small thing.

  3. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    The faster trip has some value, but large associated opportunity cost. My guess is that planetary scientist will end up rueing EC as much as many astrophysicists rúe JWST today.


  4. Congress supported the development of a heavy lift vehicle because:

    1. They had supported the development of a heavy lift vehicle since the Bush administration (Ares V)

    2. The Obama administration claimed to also support the development of a heavy lift vehicle, but wanted to delay its full funding for about five years while spending over $500 million a year studying the issue (over $2.5 billion over five years). But Congress didn’t see the logic in the delay.

    3. Boeing Aerospace strongly urged Congress to support the development of a heavy lift vehicle which they, of course, ended up mostly designing and building.

    4. Practically everyone agrees that you need heavy lift capability if you’re going to ever deploy the massive infrastructure into orbit needed to get to Mars. That’s why even Elon Musk wants to develop a super heavy lift vehicle in order to get to Mars.

    5. Congress clearly understood that without the SLS, NASA would have no human beyond LEO program in the near future which would have targeted the agency for deep cuts by many in Congress during the great recession– with little resistance from the Obama administration since Obama had already said that it thought some NASA funds should actually go to social programs. And had also show great hostility towards any human return to the lunar surface.


  5. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    I actually agree with many of your points (that doesn’t happen often, does it?). I do have a few comments though:
    1- Agreed. Congress has been wanting a big program follow-on to the Space Shuttle that keeps the gravy flowing to as many of the same contractors and Congressional districts and NASA centers as possible.
    2- I pointed out the logic of that delay in this blog post and a few others. On one hand, we wouldn’t want to cut off all funding for HLV tech, because if it turns out you do need that capacity, getting it back would be much harder than developing in the first time (in a world with an EPA that you can’t dodge via grandfathering arguments). On the other hand, you don’t want to tie up all your near-term resources in developing an HLV before it is actually needed (like Congress forced NASA to do with SLS). If they had put the $500M/yr for five years into HLV tech development like they had planned (large, high-efficiency LOX/HC engines, some reusability tech, advanced fabrication technologies, advanced upper stage technologies, etc.), we would’ve been a lot better off today. We would’ve had a replacement engine for RD-180 already developed and ready to go by now, so we could have two competitive domestic launch providers. We would probably be close to a depot demonstration by now that would answer the question of how much of an HLV do we really need, and if we did decide we wanted to keep an HLV, we would be able to build one more efficiently using engines that were also being used by industry, so NASA wouldn’t have to share the full cost of supporting a unique industrial infrastructure. I think it’s pretty clear that while Obama argued poorly for why his HLV technology first plan made sense (I doubt he really understood it–the idea probably came from an advisor not him), that he was fundamentally right, and we’re paying the price for a Congress stuck in the 70s.
    3- Definitely agree that Boeing lobbying played a huge role. And why not? Who wouldn’t want guaranteed multi-billion dollar, multi-decade revenue streams that you didn’t actually have to compete for? SLS was a great deal for Boeing. They were doing the upper stage for Ares I, and talked Congress into forcing NASA to turn that into an SLS vehicle contract, and now an uncompeted upper stage contract. All for a bit of lobbying and palm greasing. I totally agree that this was a large part of why Congress backed SLS, and why they insisted on novating existing contracts instead of holding a fair and open competition as they should have. This is a bug, not a feature.
    4- I also agree that the conventional wisdom is that you need HLVs to go to Mars. I happen to think this conventional wisdom is wrong–depots, aerocapture, ISRU, and possibly high-powered SEP are all more critical than HLVs for a Mars architecture. If we had refueling capabilities in LEO, the Mars Surface, and Mars orbit, and if we had aerocapture tech, we could do Mars missions with nothing bigger than could be launched on commercial vehicles. And by doing so we’d have more money to actually do the missions, and we’d be making our launch industry more competitive. But I’ll definitely concede being in the minority with that position.
    5- Here’s where I disagree with you. SLS is actually delaying useful human BEO exploration. We won’t have money to do real missions with SLS (fly around the Moon and play astronaut missions don’t count in my book) for at least another decade to a decade and a half. We could’ve gotten to a competitive human BEO program faster by doing competed, PI-driven exploration or tech demo missions much as are done in the Science Mission Directorate. If NASA had competitions every other year for new BEO human exploration missions (say in the $2B class, or twice the size of a New Frontiers mission in SMD), I bet you would’ve found plenty of great ideas proposed leveraging existing launch vehicles. Some of those would be getting close to flying before the end of the decade. By insisting on doing an Apollo redux, and with Congress’s hostility to ARM, they’ve basically guaranteed that no non-stunt BEO human expedition will occur before the late 2020s to early 2030s. But this wouldn’t be the first time that Congressional fears moved them to do something that achieved the exact opposite of what they intended in the first place.


  6. DougSpace says:

    The United States hasn’t had a docking failure in over 40 years. So, how much of the capability of the SLS could be achieved with docking multiple FH payloads?

    Likewise, hardware and supplies don’t necessarily need chemical rockets to go beyond LEO. Humans do. But couldn’t humans be sent to an L-point using chemical engines not requiring a HLV bigger than a FH?

    I’m open to the idea that we may need an HLV to do crewed missions to the surface of Mars when we’re ready to do that. But how much of everything else we’d like to do can we do with FHs?

  7. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Most, if not all of what we want to do could and should be done with existing or near-term future commercial launch vehicles. F9R and FH are great, but so are some of ULA’s existing and planned vehicles. If NASA hadn’t gone the SLS route, we’d likely have 2-3 healthy providers, much lower cost, and much nearer-term human exploration and settlement.


  8. Egad says:

    > I think it’s pretty clear that while Obama argued poorly for why his HLV technology first plan made sense (I doubt he really understood it–the idea probably came from an advisor not him), that he was fundamentally right…

    Yes on all points. I absolutely agreed at the time and still agree that there are several serious technological shortfalls standing in the way of serious human missions out into the solar system. All of those, as far as I can tell, are of a sort that that could remedied by competently executed RDT&E programs over the course of 1 to 2 decades without busting NASA’s budget. That said, I had, and have, some doubts about that “competently executed” part, as semi-long-term RDT&E has not been a feature the gummint has shone on for a while. I.e., I thought “technology first” was the right way to go, but wasn’t convinced it would be done effectively over the long haul.

    To finish on an upbeat note, the current SEP progress looks like it’s headed in the right direction.

  9. I agree with you that propellant depots will be necessary for humans missions to Mars. But I view propellant depots and heavy lift vehicles as complimentary systems.

    I don’t agree that NASA’s~ $8 billion a year human spaceflight related budget is insufficient funding for a heavy lift vehicle based beyond LEO architecture.

    Four launches of the SLS per year– without a payload– would probably cost less than $3 billion a year. NASA has estimated that it may be less than $2.5 billion a year. So that would leave plenty of funding for payloads and new vehicle development.

    NASA’s beyond LEO program only has– insufficient funding– if its still running an expensive $3 billion a year ISS LEO program. That’s the real NASA pork program that refuses to die!


  10. jimjxr says:

    I don’t think there is a danger:
    1. Culberson’s stupid move is making the case for us, some rational supporters of SLS finds it appalling that commercial crew is cut and we had to pay more to the Russians, it makes zero economical sense, only SLS fanatics would agree with this move.
    2. In order to force payload on SLS, the payload has to be big and thus expensive. Given the current NASA budget situation, they couldn’t do many of these even if they want to. The Europe mission is basically a flagship planetary mission, those takes time and doesn’t happen often. JWST is already booked on Ariane 5, the next big telescope won’t happen for 10 years. As for lunar lander, if they go with something like Altair it would take another 10 years at least even if they have the funding (which they don’t).
    3. The commercial companies are moving into HLV territory, they move much faster than SLS supporters can fund SLS payloads, once a fully reusable commercial HLV flies, SLS is dead meat.

  11. George Turner says:

    If there was a do-over on remaking a Saturn V, I’d go with an RP-1 first stage using 45 up-rated Merlin 1D engines (readily available), the equivalent of 5 Falcon 9’s. I’d stick with the 8.4 meter diameter SLS core, which conveniently has 5.15 times the cross sectional area of the Falcon 9 and thus could hold 5.15 times as much fuel as a Falcon 9 with the same stack height. That gives you the 7.5 million lb thrust first stage, which would of course be reusable because SpaceX is already close to landing a Falcon 9R. Then use the expensive RS-28D’s and RS-28E’s on the Shuttle derived second stage.

  12. ken anthony says:

    getting the data five years sooner is no small thing

    On one mission. What’s the cost of getting data 50 years later on multiple missions or not at all?

  13. gbaikie says:

    Marcel Williams says:
    “4. Practically everyone agrees that you need heavy lift capability if you’re going to ever deploy the massive infrastructure into orbit needed to get to Mars. That’s why even Elon Musk wants to develop a super heavy lift vehicle in order to get to Mars. ”

    Musk wants to go to Mars, but it seems the plan of Falcon Heavy is to lower launch costs.
    Or the plan is it will half the cost per kg of Falcon 9.
    And Musk plan to get to Mars is to lower launch costs.
    The Falcon Heavy also gives SpaceX a wider range payloads. Or SpaceX will be able to launch a wider variety of payload than any other launch company or any other nation.
    So launch anything to orbit, do it safer than anyone, and cheaper, which should attract a lot of customers.

  14. Egad says:

    There was an interesting little tidbit on this morning:

    U.S. House gives funding boost to SLS rocket
    By Paul Gattis
    on June 03, 2015 at 9:00 PM, updated June 03, 2015 at 11:50 PM

    The Space Launch System, NASA’s deep-space rocket under development at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, got a funding boost Wednesday from the U.S. House of Representatives.

    U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Huntsville, announced the increase of $150 million in funding over 2015 for the rocket.


    According to Brooks, many payloads expected to be launched on SLS require a large, or “enhanced,” upper stage that will add to the SLS’s capabilities. The appropriations bill includes $50 million for continued Enhanced Upper Stage (EUS) development, which is designed and tested in North Alabama.

    I wonder if Mr Brooks would be willing to provide a list of those payloads and the programs/missions they’re meant to support.

  15. Paul451 says:

    As always, you fail to understand the difference between a heavy-lift launcher and an affordable heavy-left launcher.

  16. Paul451 says:

    “heavy-left launcher”


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