SLS–Play Out the Line? Or Cut Bait?

Fish or cut bait
This site contains my opinions and ideas only, not the opinions or ideas of any organization I work for. It’s my idea playground, and I’m inviting you in. Welcome!

I happened upon this editorial today:

NASA’s New Rocket Is Huge but so Is Its Budget

It’s an article from “The National Interest,” so approach it with a little skepticism. As with these kinds of writing, there’s some truth and some spin. Relative to nearly everything else government, NASA’s budget is not that big at all. The figure normally batted around is around 1% of annual government spending–if the administration is lucky. So maybe the title is supposed to be link-bait?

The budget for NASA’s Space Launch System, on the other hand, is bonkers. And that’s probably the point the post is trying to make. While NASA’s professed expertise is technology and exploration, with some good reasons, NASA is also extremely expert at spreading out government money to various corporations in many different states. Like Charmeau’s defense of ArianeGroup’s European launch plans, NASA’s raison d’etre is jobs. And even with that, it hasn’t been doing well, based on the latest numbers.

It’s also not doing well at keeping with SLS’ schedule. It’s so bad with maintaining the schedule, other government agencies are pointing out the likelihood of NASA pushing the first scheduled launch even further into the future. But that’s no surprise, is it? Time is money, and the more time it takes, the more money can be spread about.

HOWEVER–right now it is the only game in town, potentially.

Sure, laugh. I’ll wait.

Until, when, and if, commercial companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin test launch their own planned bigger systems, there does at least appear to be progress with SLS, however slow and expensive. And U.S. taxpayers have paid a lot to see this thing launch, as the article notes. By the same token, U.S. taxpayers are right to wonder if they are throwing good money after bad.

The excuse used to justify SLS is that it will be able to lift larger pieces into orbit. Probably true. But there’s this thing called a computer, which does calculations reliably and quickly. Because of these characteristics, something called a program, which is a combination of numbers and commands to get a computer to do certain things, like draw a line on a monitor, is programmed to run on said computer. A particular type of program on a computer aids people in the design of something like a rocket. I think NASA has the type of people who can bend these programs to their will. These computer-aided design programs, with the expert hands of these NASA computer people, can help make large pieces smaller.

Small enough to fit in a Falcon Heavy fairing. And while the pieces need to be smaller, the costs to launch just that many more pieces with a Falcon Heavy would likely still be well below the cost of a single SLS launch (and if one of the Falcon Heavies goes “boom,” then, while it may be a setback, it’s not a loss on the magnitude of an SLS failure). And, as SpaceX has already proven, the Falcon Heavy’s first stages are likely to come back, which is refreshing compared to the planned and typical dropping of SLS stages into the ocean.

But I get the impression SpaceX isn’t interested in its Falcon Heavy being used for these tasks, because of the company’s plans for its Big Falcon Rocket (BFR). As I said previously, the BFR right now is a figment, but it’s one that probably will come to fruition. There are a lot of indicators it will probably be test launched next year. If it happens to come into play before SLS, then I pity NASA, because there will be a lot of very pointed questions, more than when Falcon Heavy was launched.

A lot of them will likely be about the SLS’ big budget.

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