Monday, December 08, 2014

Orion and SLS - Space Shuttle II?

Phil Plait looks at the Orion capsule and NASA's Space Launch System, SLS, and finds them a bad idea. They have the potential to be spectacular monuments to crapitude like the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle.

I won’t go into the necessity of space exploration; I have argued for it over and again, and in my mind the case is made. We need to break the bonds of Earth.

The question is, how are we going to do it?

NASA wants to use Orion, and they want to launch it on the SLS. I have some problems with this.

The problem is that these monsters always draw congressional pork barreling like flies to ... They wind up over budget and behind schedule, and compromises are made that sap the program. Worse, they wind up sucking up all of NASA's science money to make up the shortfalls. Private industry is quite busy developing launch vehicles, and they are very likely to do a much better job of it than the government. NASA should concentrate on the scientific and technological frontier. Phil has details.

Right now, for example, SpaceX is doing pretty well with its Falcon 9 rocket. The F9 is capable of getting a decent payload to orbit, and has already had several successful missions to resupply the International Space Station using the SpaceX Dragon space capsule. Elon Musk has revealed plans for the next generation Dragon V2, which is much larger and can carry more astronauts and supplies. SpaceX is also well on its way to building the Falcon Heavy, the next step up from the F9. It will have more lift capability than any rocket currently existing, though to be fair, less than what is proposed for SLS.

That last part seems important. If you want to go to Mars, won’t you need a much more powerful rocket—that is, the SLS? You do if you want to send up huge chunks of hardware all at once. But if you can subdivide, you can send up that same equipment over multiple flights. That sounds like it’s more expensive … except that a Falcon Heavy launch will cost a fraction of what the SLS will. You can launch several Falcon Heavys for the price of one SLS. And Musk has said that SpaceX can build a super heavy launcher that will exceed the payload capability of SLS as well, yet still cost far less.

And that’s just SpaceX. There are other companies at various degrees of development with an eye towards this capability. SpaceX is simply the current leader.