Space Launch System: An Expensive Effort to Relive Apollo Glory?

By Scott Spangler on March 22nd, 2021

The news has been full of stories about the successful test of the Space Launch System’s core of four RS-25 engines at Mississippi’s Stennis Space Center on March 18. But the more I read, the more the tacit central theme of the project seems to be a multibillion-dollar effort of a middle-aged agency to relive its Apollo high school glory days.

Reinforcing this impression is the person nominated as the next NASA administrator. Bill Nelson, a former senator from Florida, was a key player in the in the political effort that directed NASA to undertake the SLS program in the first place. As a low draft number who took photos durng the evacuation that wrote Vietnam’s final chapter, I’m naturally skeptical, not to mention cynical, about any politician’s program because more often than not, they serve some unspoken ulterior motives, especially when such politicians found deferments from more direct participation.

If you doubt that, consider this. SLS will be the most powerful booster NASA has built since Apollo’s Saturn V. Engineers designed and built that heavy-lift rocket to meet the needs of the focused and well-defined goal that preceded it, President Kennedy’s challenge to send humans to the moon and return them safely to earth before the 1960s burned the last page of its calendar.

In 2010, senators wrote the legislation that directed NASA to design and build a rocket that would lift heavy things. They did not include in that legislation any specifics what those heavy things might be. I’m sure the engineers who designed the SLS would have liked to have had that information. Maybe that’s one reason why the program, like most government projects, blow well past their rosy projections of schedule and budget.

It might have been worth it had the SLS debuted some new technology or capabilities. But it is nothing more than the spaceflight equivalent of a midlife crisis muscle car. Like the Saturn V, the SLS will loft heavy things into space and beyond Earth orbit, and like the Saturn, NASA gets one launch per booster, and each liftoff will run $2 billion, give or take.

Since NASA had to build the SLS, it had to find something heavy for it to lift. They started with an asteroid research mission. Eventually, the agency settled on Artemis’s return to the moon and then the fantasy flight to Mars. NASA schedules Artemis’s first flight carrying humans for 2023. We’ll see. Given our political and economic unpredictability, guaranteeing the future realization of any promise made today is pure fantasy.

If there is any hope for our aerospace future it is that the technical and scientific pragmatists displace the politicians striving to relive their high school glory days and hope to bask in the reflected glory of humans who undertake dangerous and expensive journeys into space that would be more effectively, efficiently, and economically made by machines.

Perhaps the Artemis I mission is the culmination of the SLS midlife oxymoron. I’m all for investing in developing new technology that expands our exploration capabilities, but spending more than $2 billion on a test flight to make sure the Orion crew capsule is safe for humans to relive the flight of Apollo 8, which looped around the moon on Christmas Eve in 1968?

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