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NASA’s Space Launch System, Whenever It Comes, Marks a New Era

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After a scrub Monday from the maiden flight of its massive Space Launch System rocket, NASA will regroup and try to do something it last accomplished in 1981: inaugurate a rocket built according to its design to take astronauts to space. to transport.

And then NASA may never do it again.

SLS itself has more work to do after the planned Artemis I unmanned lunar mission: Artemis IIprojected for 2024, it will take four astronauts around the moon aboard an Orion capsule, followed by Artemis missions that land humans on the moon for the first time since Apollo 17’s journey in December 1972.

But the odds that NASA would ever order a rocket the slow, expensive way it procured SLS — and the space shuttle decades earlier — have fallen to nearly zero as commercial space companies reinvent American spaceflight.

“I really think this is the end point of the traditional approach to space development,” said John M. Logsdon, professor emeritus at the Institute for Space Policy from the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. “The approach that was developed with commercial crews is much more likely the way forward.”

That more likely future is visible just a mile and a half from the Kennedy Space Center’s Artemis 1 launch facility. Path 39B.

Path 39Athe site of almost every Apollo and shuttle launches, is now rented by SpaceX and has served as the launching point of dozens of launches of his Falcon 9 rocket— including with astronauts — and three of its bigger ones Falcon Heavy.

NASA and its convention overseers had a different view in 2011, when the bureau announced the SLS project. They accepted privately developed vehicles that carried cargo to the International Space Station, but astronauts were different.

“NASA was reluctant to turn that over to the private sector,” said Lori Garver, the agency’s deputy administrator from 2009 to 2013. at a conference in Washington in May.

Lawmakers were even less amused by the Obama administration’s suggestion that NASA purchase commercial crew transportation rather than build a new crew-fit deep space rocket. “Congress was outraged,” Garver recalls.

The agency is committed to developing SLS as a successor to the heavy-lift shuttle constructed from shuttle components, such as the earlier constellation projectstarted in 2004 and canceled by Obama in 2010 after years of cost overruns and scheduling errors. Like Constellation’s Ares VSLS uses upgraded versions of the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters tethered next to a core derived from the shuttle’s external tank.

Not only will SLS use the same main engine design as the shuttle, the four-engine first stage will feature rebuilt original shuttle engines on the first four flights. Logsdon’s comments on this recycling-intensive approach: “It really is a salvage effort!”

Unlike the shuttle, Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, none of the SLS is reusable.

Production and tooling improvements were supposed to help SLS avoid the budget and schedule overruns that had doomed Constellation to failure. NASA estimated that SLS and Orion, plus launch pad improvements, would cost $18 billion on the first SLS flight in 2017.

But NASA signed a traditional “cost plus” contract with Boeing to develop SLS, with the agency agreeing to cover higher costs if they arose, but imposing little time frame or cost discipline.

About $23 Billion later, SLS appears ready to fly, though it’s not clear yet when NASA will try again after Monday’s scheduled launch due to a shaky main engine that couldn’t get it to the right super-cold temperature.

“The space industry has a history of being over budget and behind schedule, but it does deliver in the end,” said Laura Forczyk, founder and executive director of the space consultancy. astralytic.

A successful debut would make SLS the most powerful rocket in the world that can lift more than 104 tons payload to low Earth orbit.

That is not as much as the 130 tons that the Saturn V moon rocket into orbit – a “Block 2” SLS with a stronger upper stage will beat that by a 143 tons capacity-but exceeds the 70 tons that Falcon Heavy can put into orbit.

The problem for SLS is that Congress hasn’t budgeted anything for SpaceX to develop Falcon Heavy, which: flew for the first time in 2018. Last July, NASA chose to launch its upcoming Europe Clipper Probe to that icy moon of Jupiter on a Falcon Heavy instead of the originally intended SLSa savings of approximately $1.8 billion.

SpaceX also has the much larger, fully reusable spaceship almost all by itself. And when that launches – which, after its own series of delays, could happen later this year– it will claim the heavy-lift crown with a low-Earth orbit capacity of over 110 tons.

NASA itself has chosen SpaceX to develop a version of Starship’s second stage as the Artemis lunar lander. Under this concept, astronauts will fly to the moon aboard an Orion, then encounter a much larger spaceship to cover the last few hundred miles.

“In a way, Starship is a bet on the newer way of doing things,” Forczyk says.

Starship has yet to fly successfully and more than once. But if SpaceX can continue to build on its proven success, many space program observers don’t expect SLS to last long for this world or others.

“I don’t think it will last 10 years — if Starship works,” says Logsdon. He expects five or six SLS launches.

The Obama appointee in charge of NASA when the SLS project began said the same thing two years ago.

“SLS will disappear,” former administrator Charlie Bolden told Politico in September 2020. “Because at some point, commercial entities will catch up.”

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