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Big questions about big rockets

NASA file

An artist's conception from 1971 shows how an orbital fuel depot could boost deep-space trips. Critics of NASA's Space Launch System say fuel depots could eliminate the need for super-rockets.

NASA, the White House and congressional leaders say they're happy about a big new rocket design for going beyond Earth orbit, but many observers of the commercial space industry are already wondering whether this $35 billion trip is necessary.

They worry that the newly announced Space Launch System, or SLS, will soak up too much of NASA’s budget and preclude the development of next-generation technologies such as on-orbit refueling stations for outbound spacecraft. A different approach might not require the decade-long development of a super-rocket, and still open the way for journeys to Mars well before the 2030-2040 time frame laid out in NASA's current plan for future spaceflight.

These critics say the program satisfies the mandates and timetables specified by jobs-conscious members of Congress, but may not satisfy America's long-term aspirations in outer space. They fear that a lengthy, expensive development program could be canceled by a future administration, just as NASA's Constellation back-to-the-moon program was canceled by the Obama White House.

"This has got to be stopped," said Charles Lurio, an independent space consultant who publishes The Lurio Report. "This is insanity."

Lurio is one of the more caustic critics of the big-rocket approach to human spaceflight. He has joked that the SLS and its crew-carrying Orion capsule, also known as the Multipurpose Crew Vehicle or MPCV, should be renamed the "Senate Launch System" and the “Missing-purpose Crew Vehicle.” But he's not alone. Here are some of the questions being raised about the road ahead:

  • RLV and Space Transport News' Clark Lindsey says NASA should have gone through "a competitive process for determining the best options for a deep-space exploration program. ... If after a competitive process, NASA was nevertheless forced to go with a sub-optimal architecture because of congressional directives, this at least would have been obvious to everyone."
  • Behind the Black's Robert Zimmerman lists five previous NASA spaceflight initiatives that ended up going nowhere, at a cost of billions upon billions of dollars. "To be really blunt, this new rocket, like all its predecessors, will never fly either," he writes. "It costs too much, will take too long to build, and will certainly be canceled by a future administration before it is finished."
  • Eleven Point Two's Paul Wren notes that the SLS is projected to be ready to launch 70-metric-ton payloads by 2017, at an estimated cost of $18 billion. (Billions more would be spent to prepare for manned flights starting in 2021 or so.) Meanwhile, SpaceX is projected to be ready to launch 53-ton payloads on its Falcon Heavy rocket by 2012, with each launch expected to cost between $80 million and $125 million. "So why are we gutting the rest of NASA's dwindling budget to fund the SLS?" Wren asks.
  • Popular Mechanics contributor Rand Simberg doesn't think SLS will face smooth sailing through Congress, particularly if SpaceX comes through with its Falcon Heavy and the fuel-depot concept gains traction. "Without a course correction, SLS could already be on the way to cancellation, like Constellation before it," he writes.
  • SpaceRef's Keith Cowing says that "what is still lacking in this whole story is exactly what NASA will do with this big rocket. Missions to asteroids, Mars, etc., are often tossed out by NASA representatives — but no timeline whatsoever has yet to be presented, not even a 'notional' one."

If there is a debate over the go/no-go decision on the SLS, it will probably fall along these lines: Could commercial space providers such as SpaceX, or the Boeing Co., or Lockheed Martin, come up with cheaper, faster, more innovative ways to send astronauts into deep space? Or is the SLS plan, which relies on updated versions of components from past space programs, the surer way to go?

"It's not fair to say this is really a rocket built from shuttle parts," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for human exploration and operations. "This is really these components used in a new and novel way."

NASA's big-rocket plan is likely to get high-profile endorsements next week during a House committee hearing featuring the first and last man to walk on the moon (Apollo 11's Neil Armstrong and Apollo 17's Gene Cernan) as well as former NASA chief Mike Griffin. It sounds as if NASA officials, White House budgeteers and congressional leaders are all on board. Is this the most realistic plan for going beyond Earth orbit? Realistic or not, is it a fait accompli? What do you think?

More about future spaceflight:

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