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With SpaceX success, what happens to NASA’s Space Launch System?


The recent flight of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy has astonished the world. It has also caused something of a conundrum. The heavy-lift rocket can send 64 metric tons of payload into low Earth orbit, making it the most powerful launch vehicle in the world. The company’s CEO, Elon Musk, a consummate showman, used the Falcon Heavy to launch a used Tesla Roadster electric sports car, with a space-suited mannequin dubbed “Starman,” into interplanetary space. The video of Starman at the wheel of the space car with the Earth receding in the background is the iconic image of 2018, if not of the entire decade. 

Moreover, Musk is already proceeding with work on an even bigger spacecraft, the Big Falcon Rocket (BRF). The BFR will be a reusable launch vehicle capable of taking 150 metric tons to low Earth orbit. The heavy-lift rocket is central to Musk’s dreams of founding a Mars colony and of returning to the moon. Hop tests of the BFR are scheduled to start at the SpaceX space port next year, with orbital flights in two to three years, and a moon mission soon after that. Few doubt that Musk is capable of doing what he proposes to do, since he has already accomplished so much. 

{mosads}The conundrum that the Falcon Heavy, as well as the upcoming BFR, present concerns what to do with the Space Launch System. That is the heavy-lift rocket that NASA has been developing since soon after President Barack Obama canceled the Bush-era Constellation deep space exploration program. The SLS has taken billions of dollars to develop, will cost a billion per launch, and can be launched only once a year. If cheaper heavy-lift rockets are available from SpaceX as well as Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, what does NASA need the Space Launch System for?

Congress mandated building the Space Launch System as part of the Obama-era Journey to Mars program and as a way to force NASA to build tangible hardware to accomplish the mission. The legislative branch even mandated that legacy technology from the shuttle and Apollo programs be used to build the big rocket, the better to deny NASA any wiggle room to delay building it. The mandate caused a lot of the SLS’s expense, but in the wake of the death of Constellation program, Congress did not trust NASA to perform unless it was micromanaged.

Critics of the Space Launch System claimed that it was space pork, designed more to preserve jobs in key congressional districts than to do anything useful. The point had some validity, but the critics did not have any other alternative for going back to the moon or Mars. Now Musk has provided the United States with that alternative.

How does one convince the congressional guardians of the Space Launch System that they have to give up their big rocket in order to make development money available for the new, cheaper, commercial alternatives? Appeals to their patriotism and sense of what is best for the goal of exploring deep space will not be enough. 

The time will have arrived for the art of the space deal. The Falcon Heavy, the BFR, and Blue Origin’s upcoming New Glenn will have to be built, refurbished, and operated somewhere. Why not in the same congressional districts that are now benefiting from the development of the Space Launch System? The argument can be successfully made that since the new, commercial rockets will launch far more frequently than once a year, they will create more jobs and generate more money that the SLS could ever hope for. The deal, adroitly presented and executed, practically negotiates itself.

On the other hand, if the Congress insists on keeping the Space Launch System, perhaps it could be redesigned and repurposed for heavy military payloads. An article in The Space Review suggested that its lift capacity would be useful for platforms that could be hardened against anti-satellite weapons now being developed in Russia and China. Then the cost of building and operating the heavy lift rocket could be lifted from NASA and transferred to the military, freeing the space agency to lead America back to the moon, to Mars, and beyond.

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.  He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.

Tags Barack Obama Elon Musk Mark Whittington NASA rockets Space Space exploration SpaceX

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