Inspiration to Exasperation
Millions of people watched the Apollo landings on television like I did. In my case, this experience started a life-long obsession with space travel that led me to the USAF, and then NASA.
I Am Invested In Our Nations Space Program.
I was in Mission Control when we realized something had gone terribly wrong with the Challenger, and was working on upgrades to shuttle systems when Columbia was lost. I was part of the team that planned the assembly of the Space Station in orbit. I was part of the Constellation Program Engineering team up until the program was cancelled. I continue to work on military and civil space programs today.
I believe in the power and imperative of human space exploration. However, it seems clear that our Human Space Exploration program has become ineffective, unfocused and lethargic —too focused on politics, money, and jobs. We continue to make stirring speeches, set new objectives for NASA, and keep roughly the same number of billions flowing to a few companies — only to see the master plan changed before we can get anywhere.
NASA’s latest “Big Rocket” program is a great example. Many may not realize it, but the “Space Launch System”, or SLS, is the latest in a series of “Big Rocket” programs that NASA has started, spent billions on — and stopped — without a single launch. Prior to SLS, NASA called it Ares IV — which was the bigger of two rockets that were planned to support the Constellation program’s return to the moon.
Constellation was the program that was to transition Shuttle program budgets, personnel and assets to the next big program. In other words, it was supposed to keep the money flowing, and redirect the standing army of thousands to a new pursuit. The Obama administration, as all administrations, did not seem too keen on carrying forward someone else’s initiative, and shut down Constellation. Every President wants to be John Kennedy.
Whatever new direction NASA would take, it was clear that this would include the need for a new “Big Rocket”. After all, that is what Marshall Spaceflight Center has done since the days of Wernher von Braun.
Sure enough, along came SLS.
Times have changed but NASA hasn’t
You may ask. if we used a Big Rocket to get us to the Moon before, then don’t we need a new one to get us back, or to go to Mars?
Inspite of NASA’s obsession with building another big rocket, it really does not make sense to approach it that way in the twenty-first century. A friend recently introduced me to the masterpiece on you-tube called “I Want To Do Apollo Again”.
This brilliant video captures in a few minutes the intransigence of NASA personnel, so thoroughly entrenched in their Big Rocket mindset. It represents the sound arguments made by many experienced and knowledgeable experts against the “Big NASA Rocket” approach, and illustrates how NASA has responded to those arguments.
Plenty of Experts Disagree with the “Big Rocket” approach
Chris Kraft is a legend in the Space industry. He was the first NASA Flight Director, and Director of the Manned Spacecraft Center (later Johnson Space Center). In an August 2013 interview with the Houston Chronicle, Chris Kraft took issue with NASA’s plans to build the latest version of NASA’s “Big Rocket”. He made several excellent points.
It’s Too Big And Expensive!
SLS is so big that makes it very expensive to design, develop, and operate. He said that these costs will eat NASA alive. Very true. NASA has spent over $ 15 B so far on the SLS over the past decade (Jonathan O’Callaghan, Science Magazine, April 2019). And that figure does not count the billions spent on the Ares IV rocket planned for the Constellation program. From the time John Glenn made our first manned orbital flight to the end of the Apollo program in 1972, eleven years elapsed. Fifteen years after I sat in Ares IV design reviews at NASA we still have not flown our “New Big Rocket”.
Kraft also noted that when you spend all the money on the rocket — you have none left over for the things that go on top of it(!). To be fair, NASA does have a capsule that they will put on top of the SLS — it also has been in development for over 15 years at over a billion dollars per year. But because several billion dollars are tied up annually in the rocket and capsule programs we don’t have all the other things we need to make these explorations really practical and safe.
Putting aside how we get the stuff into orbit to make the journey, what we need to get to the Moon or Mars is an Earth departure stage, a way to get down to and back up from the surface, lots of propellant, and the surface systems needed to sustain life (shelter, power, water, air). We would also like to have equipment to actually do things while on the surface(!). By committing the bulk of NASA’s exploration funds to the Rocket and Capsule — we don’t have the funds necessary to design and build these other things. NASA doesn't need a huge budget boost for exploration — they need to stop pouring most of the money into the rocket and capsule.
One of my soap box speeches (I can’t resist) is the need to restart the nuclear thermal propulsion programs cancelled decades ago — after working prototypes were tested. Nuclear thermal propulsion for the transfer from Earth Orbit to Mars dramatically changes the problem by slashing the transit times to Mars through a dangerous radiation environment, and dramatically cutting the mass required for propellant, food, water, and air. This one thing is a game changer. But, there isn’t money for this, because NASA is so intent on building a big rocket. And this is one thing that NASA SHOULD be investing in, since there is no commercial market for it yet.
There are other issues with the “Big Rocket” approach.
The SLS will not be used often because of its cost and the low frequency of exploration missions. However, SLS will require major infrastructure in facilities, equipment and thousands of people to maintain and operate the program — the fixed costs will dominate the cost equation as it did on Shuttle. Once committed to SLS, we are stuck with a massively expensive supply chain.
As an Engineer, I am concerned that since SLS will not fly very often, it will not be as reliable as smaller rockets are in frequent use. New rockets are, by definition, less reliable. It takes time to work out the kinks. One study estimated that 30% of all new rocket first launches fail. The numbers vary based on the type of rocket, but more complex rockets with multiple stages and newer technology (like SLS) are more prone to failure. Putting a large chunk of the cargo and systems necessary for a mission to Mars on one rocket represents an increased risk. One failure would have a devastating effect on the exploration program.
Rockets are Dangerous!
Rockets expend well over 90% of their mass in minutes to get a small payload into orbit. This rapid conversion of fuel and oxidizer into energy is basically a controlled explosion. Successful vehicles like ULA’s Atlas series and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 make it look easy. It is not. Atlas has flown so many times, that their supplier base is solid, the design is well understood, and their manufacturing and integration capability is robust.
Well, What Is the Alternative?
Mr Kraft pointed out that there are plenty of rockets already in use that can be used to assemble an exploration mission in orbit. This was true in 2013 and it is even more true today. ULA has several rockets, SpaceX has several rockets, and Blue Origin has several rockets. SpaceX and Blue even have BIG rockets! There are other American and even Russian, European and Japanese alternatives. Even the Indians and Chinese have rockets — although I don’t think we want to fly on them….. Rockets, Rockets everywhere — but none are good enough for NASA?
When asked if it really was better to fly on smaller rockets more frequently and assemble mission components in space, Chris replied, “What’s so magic about this being able to lift 120 tons? Why can’t you use what you’ve got and put your vehicles into space in pieces?…Eventually you’ll get to the point where, even with a really big rocket, you can’t put everything on there you need to go where you want to go. Whether you want to go to the moon or Mars, you’re going to have to do something in Earth orbit, or maybe lunar orbit, with an assembly capability, a fuel depot capability and the capability to have people operating there sort of as a Cape Canaveral in the sky.”
I Am In Awe of Apollo, But Lets Not Do It Again
I am still in awe of the accomplishment of the Apollo program, especially given the technology and experience of the time. However, times have changed. We have commercial launch infrastructure in place. And we don’t have an open check book as Apollo did. Let’s mirror the innovative and dedicated approach that was used on Apollo — not the hardware. Lets reach beyond government directed development and make use of what is out there already — instead of tying up budgets on recreating infrastructure that already exists. And lets explore the other technologies needed to make human exploration safer and more effective. Lets be sure we have the assets needed to to something once we land on the Moon or Mars. And lets not lock ourselves into a massive fixed cost supply chain.
The real problem here is breaking a political stranglehold on space exploration, and the machine that has been built to keep the dollars flowing to major NASA centers and into jobs in the “right” districts so that the election war chests of influential politicians remain full.
Let’s break the mold, do the right things, and find a 21st century approach to human space exploration.