President Eisenhower signed the law establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on July 29, 1958. At that time, the United States had put about 30 kg of small satellites into orbit. Less than 11 years later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon.
President Obama signed a NASA Authorization Act on October 11, 2010. Among its provisions, the law required NASA to build the Space Launch System rocket and have it ready for launch in 2016 It seemed reasonable. At that time, NASA had been launching rockets for half a century, including very large ones. And in a sense, this new SLS rocket was already built.
The most challenging aspect of almost any launch vehicle is its engines. No problem: The SLS rocket would use engines left over from the Space Shuttle program. Its side thrusters would be slightly larger versions of those that powered the shuttle for three decades. The newest part of the vehicle would be its large center stage, which will house tanks of liquid hydrogen and oxygen to power the rocket’s four main engines. But even this component was derivative. The 8.4 meter diameter center stage was identical to the space shuttle’s external tank, which carried the same propellants for the shuttle’s main engines.
Unfortunately, the construction was not so easy. NASA’s SLS rocket program has been a hot mess almost from the start. He has been efficient at precisely one thing, handing out jobs to major aerospace contractors in the states of key congressional committee leaders. Because of this, lawmakers have overlooked years of delays, development costs that have more than doubled above $20 billion, and the availability of much cheaper, reusable rockets built by the private sector.
So here we are, almost a dozen years after that authorization act was signed, and NASA is finally ready to launch the SLS rocket. It took the agency 11 years to go from nothing to the Moon. It took 12 years to go from having all the basic elements of a rocket to having it on the launch pad, ready for an unmanned test flight.
I have decidedly mixed emotions.
With launch just days away, I’m incredibly happy for the people at NASA and the space companies who have worked hard, cut through red tape, managed thousands of requirements, and gotten this rocket built. And I can’t wait to see it fly. Who doesn’t want to see a huge Brobdingnagian rocket consume millions of pounds of fuel and break the bonds of Earth’s gravity?
On the less happy side, it remains difficult to celebrate a rocket that is, in many ways, responsible for a lost decade of American space exploration. The financial costs of the program have been enormous. Between the rocket, its ground systems, and the Orion spacecraft that launches at the top of the pile, NASA has spent tens of billions of dollars. But I would say the opportunity costs are higher. For a decade, Congress pushed NASA’s exploration focus toward an Apollo-like program, with a massive launch vehicle that burns itself out, using 1970s technology in its engines, tanks and propellants.
Indeed, NASA was told to look back when this country’s vibrant commercial space industry was ready to drive sustainable spaceflight by building large rockets and landing them, or storing propellant in space, or building reusable tugs to back and forth between the Earth and the Moon. It’s like Congress telling NASA to keep printing newspapers in a world with broadband internet.
It wasn’t meant to be. Indeed, a handful of visionary space policy leaders tried to stop the waste, but were rebuffed by the defense industry and its allies in Congress.
For me personally, this is also the end of an era. In many ways, this rocket has mirrored my career as a journalist and writer covering the space industry. So as we approach this momentous launch, I want to tell the story: the real history: where does this come from and where is it going. I’ll make the case that the SLS rocket is the worst, and perhaps the best, thing to happen to NASA.
I think this story can still have a happy ending.
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