Why NASA’s space launch system is indispensable

Why NASA’s space launch system is indispensable
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If the 1986 Challenger disaster taught us anything it was: Don’t put all your Space Launch eggs in one basket. After that accident and the other ones that grounded all of America’s older space launch vehicles for about two years, NASA and the Air Force decided to build two sets of rockets under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. 

The EELV program has been a success. Both Atlas V and the various Delta rockets, especially Delta Heavy, have been putting America’s important science and military payloads into space for roughly a quarter of a century.

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Things change, and now there is competition from Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launchers which are not as costly and thanks to both reusability and to the way SpaceX follows commercial practices, more user friendly. This situation has made life easier and less expensive for those in the government that want to put ‘stuff’ into space.

Now we are in a race to develop a new class of super heavy launch vehicles, China is working on the Long March 9 which will, in theory, put 130,000 kilos into Low Earth Orbit. More than the old Saturn V moon rocket. SpaceX has begun work on the massive Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) to carry the Big Falcon Spaceship (BFS) and has announced that it will first fly short hops in late 2019 and to Mars in 2022, and cost about $5 billion to build. Jeff Bezos in pouring billions into the Blue Origins New Glen and its reusable follow-ons.

NASA’s Space Launch System has been in the works since 2010 after the heavy lift Ares V was canceled along with the rest of the Bush-era Constellation Moon Mars program. At that time Congress decided that the U.S. could not afford to depend entirely on billionaires like Musk and Bezos for America’s large-scale space launch requirements and ordered NASA to begin work on the SLS with a goal of putting more than a hundred tons of payload into LEO, enough to support a future mission to Mars.

The SLS program has maintained the U.S. government’s expertise in launch vehicle development. This has not been cheap, but this expense is necessary and critical and if acquisition and contracting reform can reduce the cost then that should be implemented across the space and defense business.

If and when it is fully developed and is flying at least twice a year, the SLS will give NASA the capability to launch, the long-awaited back to the Moon missions and ultimately manned trips to Mars. SpaceX is also working on trips to the Moon and Mars, which is great news. In the next decades we could have multiple ways of sending people to the Moon and Mars.

If NASA is tasked with sending very large and persistent Flagship class missions to the giant planets of the outer solar system, SLS may be the ideal launch vehicle. For the military SLS could launch huge clusters of small satellites for communications, navigation, reconnaissance and missile defense purposes.

By launching very large numbers of satellites all at once the military could not only present our potential foes with a difficult targeting problem but would also create an instant networked system in orbit. Today for commercial or military purposes, it takes years and multiple launches to put a constellation such as GPS into operation. With SLS this could be done with a single lift off.

As with any very large-scale engineering project there will be setbacks and delays. In 1973, Robert Heinlein postulated “Cheops Law: Nothing ever gets built on schedule or within budget.” We should keep in mind that this applies to Musk’s BFR, Bezos’s New Glenn to China’s Long March 9 as well as to SLS.

NASA’s big new rocket is not just a new tool of national power but is an essential insurance policy. America is lucky that we have people like Musk and Bezos who are willing and able to fund their visions of a spacefaring civilization, but we cannot and should not put all our space eggs in the billionaire basket. 

Peter Huessy is the director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies of the Air Force Association, which receives industry donations. He has been a guest professor on Nuclear Policy and Congressional Relations at the U.S. Naval Academy since 2011. Previously, Huessy was a senior defense fellow at American Foreign Policy Council.