Russian launch failure proves why we need NASA’s Space Launch System

A NASA Inspector General report released last week gave a less than glowing assessment of NASA’s management of the Space Launch System (SLS) core stage development contract. Despite this necessary criticism, a recent launch failure demonstrates clearly that the country needs the SLS in its stable of launch vehicles. 

The Soyuz launch abort on October 11 that put a NASA astronaut at risk left the world in an unusual situation. For the first time since the 1960s, no nation on Earth currently has the capability of putting a human into space.

{mosads}This is a direct consequence of the decisions arising from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s recommendations in 2003 that NASA terminate the Shuttle Program after completing the International Space Station. Compounding the problem was the Obama administration’s decision to cancel the Constellation program in 2010 and the failure to fully fund the commercial crew program.

Thankfully, since the SLS is being designed to send humans into space, America has another option on the table. Ending the program now would result in the country depending too heavily on commercial providers who have yet to prove their large-scale technologies.

Critics of the SLS point to the project being behind schedule and over budget. These detractors seem to condemn SLS as a white elephant and point to SpaceX or Blue Origin’s promises that their up-and-coming launch vehicles could be delivered at a fraction of the cost of the SLS. However, the critics conveniently forget that cost and schedule overruns, as well as difficult technical challenges, plague the commercial launch providers as much as they do NASA. 

For example, SpaceX grabbed headlines with its Falcon Heavy rocket in February this year — five years after Musk initially intended to launch it. Promises of using the Falcon Heavy to send astronauts into trans-lunar space evaporated last year when SpaceX essentially declared the Heavy as dead-end technology before it had even flown, saying they would not be certifying it for manned spaceflight. Indeed, Musk said last September that his end game is to phase out all of his launch vehicles except the BFR.

While SpaceX and Boeing appear to be poised to meet their goal of launching crews to the ISS sometime next year, one has to think about the worst case scenario and wonder what would happen if there were to be a launch accident or some technical issue that causes delays in the test schedule. If one of the contractors were to lose a crew on launch, what would happen to America’s space program if a company decided that the business is too risky and ceased work? There were widely-circulated rumors that Richard Branson came close to canceling Virgin Galactic’s passenger program after a 2014 accident claimed the life of a test pilot. As it is, it has taken Virgin four years to recover.

The Space Shuttle Challenger accident in 1986 was a wake-up call to the country about the risks of relying totally on one provider to get us into space. We were dangerously close to being completely dependent on Shuttle as the sole launch vehicle for commercial and military payloads. Cancelling SLS at its current advanced state of development could potentially put us in the same predicament, especially since the proposed alternatives are still only in the “promised” phase.

Beyond the need for competition, the SLS is the only launch vehicle currently being fabricated that can meet the needs of deep space programs such as the Europa Clipper and the follow-on lander mission. True, SLS production is behind schedule, but it is moving forward.

The NASA IG’s report this month was a wake-up call for the agency to tighten its oversight of SLS development. That is a good thing. Too much is at stake to let the project languish.

I also see it as a call to the administration and Congress to put money where it’s needed to accelerate the development of the SLS. It’s a truism of project management that the longer you let a program languish, the more it will cost in the long run. If we’re serious about the SLS — and we should be — then let’s give it the money it needs rather than letting it remain essentially an under-funded mandate. 

In NASA’s 60th year, let’s hope that the vice president’s and the National Space Council can further clarify an inspiring vision for space exploration. And while we’re at it, let’s finally have a Congress that is willing to give NASA the small, sustained boost in funding it needs to keep America at the forefront of space technology. There’s plenty of room for both government and private industry to play significant roles in this important endeavor.

Jonathan H. Ward is a space historian. His recent book “Bringing Columbia Home: The Untold Story of a Lost Space Shuttle and Her Crew,” which he co-authored with former Space Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach.

Tags International Space Station Jonathan H. Ward NASA Space exploration Space Shuttle program

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