President Eisenhower signed the Act 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 bill on October 11, 2010. One of the stipulations was that the law called for NASA to make the Space Launch System rocket and get it ready for launch in 2016. It seemed reasonable. At that time, NASA had been launching rockets, including very large ones, for half a century. And in a sense, this new SLS rocket was already built.
The most challenging aspect of almost any launcher is the engines. No problem: The SLS rocket would use engines left over from the space shuttle program. The side-mounted boosters would be slightly larger versions of those that propelled the shuttle for three decades. The newest part of the vehicle would be its large nuclear staircase, which houses liquid hydrogen and oxygen tanks to power the rocket’s four main engines. But even this part was distracted. The 8.4-meter diameter core stage was identical to the space shuttle’s external tank, which carried the same propellants for the shuttle’s main engines.
Unfortunately, the build was not that simple. NASA’s SLS rocket program has been a hot mess almost from the start. It’s been efficient at exactly one thing: distributing jobs to major aerospace contractors in the states of key congressional committee leaders. Because of this, lawmakers have overlooked years of delay, more than doubling development costs to more than $20 billion, and the availability of much cheaper and reusable rockets built by the private sector.
So here we are, almost a dozen years after that authorization bill was signed, and NASA is finally ready to launch the SLS rocket. It took the agency 11 years to go to the moon from nothing. It took 12 years to go from having all the building blocks for a rocket to getting it on the launch pad, ready for an unmanned test flight.
I definitely have mixed feelings.
With launch in a few days, I’m incredibly happy for the folks at NASA and the space companies who worked hard, cut through the bureaucracy, managed thousands of requirements, and actually built this rocket. And I can’t wait to see it fly. Who wouldn’t want to watch a huge Brobdingnagian rocket consume millions of pounds of fuel and break the gruff bonds of Earth’s gravity?
On the less fortunate 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 were enormous. Between the rocket, its ground systems and the Orion spacecraft launching atop the stack, NASA has spent tens of billions of dollars. But I would say the opportunity cost is higher. For ten years, Congress has shifted NASA’s exploration focus to an Apollo-esque program, with a massive launch vehicle that has been completely depleted, using 1970s technology in its engines, tanks and boosters.
In fact, NASA was told to look back when this country’s vibrant commercial space industry was ready to push for sustainable spaceflight by building large rockets and landing them — or storing propellant in space or building reusable tugs to to go back and forth between the Earth and the Moon. It’s as if Congress told NASA to keep printing newspapers in a world with broadband internet.
It didn’t have to be. A handful of visionary leaders in space policy tried to stop the waste, but were beaten back 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 reflected my career as a journalist and writer on the space industry. So as we approach this momentous launch, I want to tell the story – the Real story – about where this comes from and where it is going. I will argue that the SLS rocket is the worst, and perhaps the best thing that ever happened to NASA.
I believe this story can still have a happy ending.