The Inevitable Question About Biden and SLS
Reading through Metro’s article, “Why NASA’s moonshot, Boeing, Bezos and Musk have a lot riding on U.S. election,” I happened upon a question asked on other sites, mainly space blogs, as well. In the end, the author voices some uncertainty about NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) with the possible election of Joe Biden, and highlights it with a quote from Doug Loverro:
“Whether a Biden space policy would be more friendly to SLS or to newer commercial alternatives from “new space” players will be heavily influenced by his choice for NASA administrator, a role the campaign wants to be filled by a woman, two people said.
NASA views SLS as its only human-rated ride to the moon in the near term, said Doug Loverro, the former NASA head of human spaceflight.
“But is that the long-term direction to continue to pursue?” Loverro asked.”
To be very clear, while NASA views SLS as its ride to the Moon, NASA’s imaginary ride doesn’t exist yet. And a few key individuals are indicating that perhaps SLS isn’t all that critical.
For example, it’s been over a year and a half since NASA’s chief administrator, Jim Bridenstine, suggested that maybe, just perhaps, another commercial launch vehicle could launch the Orion capsule instead of SLS. It was a rational if bed-wetting and rage-inducing comment for primary SLS contractor Boeing, who is, according to various government reports, underperforming, underdelivering, but overpaid.
Specifically, the report, published a year after Bridenstine’s comment in March 2020, observed:
We reported in October 2018 that Core Stage production is the primary factor contributing to overall SLS launch delays due to its position on the critical path and corresponding management, technical, and infrastructure issues driven mostly by Boeing’s poor performance.
While NASA pulling the plug on SLS is something the space administration needs to do, it would be rational for any president, sitting or new, to at least float Bridenstine’s idea again--if Orion is so precious for NASA’s future. Would Biden (should he become president) go further and decide to cancel the program instead of committing the public to another four years of ineffectual and increasing spending?
A Good Role Model?
But maybe history can guide us in some of Biden’s possible future decision-making factors. After all, Joe Biden is not unfamiliar with fruitless NASA space programs. When he was Vice President, his boss provided an excellent example of how to deal with, specifically, Constellation: cancel it. While many blame President Obama for the Constellation program’s demise, the grounds for him canceling it were long inherent to the program itself (from a National Geographic article):
“U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to scrap the program is based on Constellation being "over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation due to a failure to invest in critical new technologies," according to a statement posted on the White House Office of Management and Budget Web site.”
If those reasons for canceling Constellation sound familiar, it’s because the same criticisms can be, and have been, leveled against SLS--with ample grounds. At the time Obama decided to cancel Constellation, NASA had already spent about $9 billion on it. SLS and its Orion capsule have both sucked away many tens of billions of dollars, at least $46 billion, since Congress emplaced them to replace Constellation. Since the whole thing was supposed to have launched by 2018 and still hasn’t launched since then, the program is obviously behind schedule.
Even the innovation angle doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Using solid rocket motors seems to tie in very much with the retired Space Shuttle. Reused liquid-propelled shuttle engines are literally a tie back to the Space Shuttle program. The innovation with those engines appears to be that NASA will treat them as disposable instead of reusable engines. New space companies are producing engines that are much more innovative than the refurbished 40+-year-old engines on SLS. Of course, those engines didn’t exist when SLS came into existence.
If anything, fear of losing SLS funding caused Boeing and politicians to stifle other innovations that would have made the U.S. presence in space stronger. That’s right--SLS caused folks to suppress innovation. As I noted regarding those fears in “SpaceX, Propellant Depots, and Rocket Markets:”
Nearly ten years ago, a minor elected official and a company decided the United States didn’t need more space capability. They were both driven by short-term gains (although saying SLS is short-term is being too generous). If the U.S. space launch service industry were truly commercial, healthy, and thriving, with multiple competitors, would the idea of a propellant transfer depot have been squelched as easily? Sowers might have easily transferred over to another company interested in gaining a leg up on its competitors.
Perhaps the innovation is in the budgetary flexibility displayed by NASA’s program managers as they partnered with Boeing?
As noted, the three primary reasons Obama provided as grounds for canceling Constellation are very much in play with SLS. Biden wouldn’t be wrong to use those same reasons to follow his mentor’s lead. Although, he probably should address other, more pressing challenges first--and maybe second. Space can wait. SLS will clearly still be around for a while.
Effective NASA Programs
If Biden decided to herd SLS and Orion around the barn’s side, he might be able to push his decision into reality. Especially if Democrats buy-in and offer him a possible full-court Congressional press (the party is likely to maintain control of the House). The money allocated to both could be re-apportioned to other programs within NASA--maybe even bolster science. It could be used to encourage, as Biden’s ex-boss did in the past, commercial alternatives.
Those alternatives represent a considerable difference and new reality in the space sector from Obama’s time and now. Commercial cargo and crew aren’t just ideas and concepts (as they were when Constellation was canceled)--they are proven (even if the secondary alternatives, such as Boeing, aren’t working out so well).
When combining SpaceX’s cargo mission contract with that company’s and Boeing’s Commercial Crew contract, NASA’s investment comes to slightly over $5 billion. For the money, NASA potentially has TWO ways for astronauts to get to the ISS from U.S. soil. These programs are saving NASA money. A quote from Phil McAlister articulating the savings from those programs was in an Ars Technica article:
“Speaking earlier this month at a committee meeting of NASA’s Advisory Council, McAlister said of these savings, “That is significant. That is money that we have been able to plow into our deep space mission.”
In contrast, U.S.taxpayers can’t afford the $2 billion SLS launch bill alone (that’s $2 billion per launch). NASA can’t afford it. To launch SLS as often as SpaceX launches its Falcon rockets in a single year (18 so far in 2020) would take a great majority of NASA’s annual budget--$36 billion. Whatever savings gained from its commercial programs would be overwhelmed just by launching SLS. Which is another reason why SLS won't be launched but maybe twice per year, at most. Which leads to a few risk normalization challenges.
Based on launch costs alone, to believe SLS represents the future of U.S. space activity, even beyond the Moon, is ridiculous. It’s evident that despite whatever the official and vetted NASA line is for justifying SLS today, its eventual launch (if it happens successfully) fittingly highlights one of the program’s notorious characteristics--wasteful spending. However, it will not represent the best that U.S. science, engineering, and innovation brings to bear.