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.