Yesterday NASA announced its long awaited plan to develop a Heavy Lift Vehicle (HLV) for its Space Launch System (SLS). Based on NASA’s history and most recent experience in developing the Constellation program I think it’s fair to ask the question, will NASA’s HLV ever fly?
The HLV as announced is an impressive rocket and builds on past programs, most notably the Shuttle program. In fact the HLV will use three Shuttle derived Main Engines and will feature an 8.4 meter core stage which is the same as the Shuttles external tank system thus allowing it to be developed using legacy tools. The first HLV’s built will also use the Shuttles solid rocket strap-on boosters developed by ATK. However going forward the strap-ons will be upgraded as part of the evolution SLS. The upgraded strap-ons will be competed commercially. The upper stage will use the Saturn derived and upgraded J2X engine under development by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne. The first variant of the HLV will allow for 70 metric tons (mt) to be launched into low earth orbit (LEO) while a future, larger variant, will be able to launch 130 mt.
The artist concept that NASA released evokes memories of the 60’s era Saturn V and that’s by design. The color scheme is almost identical to the Saturn V. In other words, remember the glory years of days gone by as we try to capture them again.
Unfortunately the reality is that the HLV is not a rocket NASA asked to build. It is a congress mandated program. The cost of the initial stage of the program is pegged at $18 billion over the next six years, or roughly $3 billion per year and uses existing funds within NASA’s budget.
The announcement yesterday was not an announcement orchestrated by NASA. The venue was not at NASA headquarters, it was at the Senate Dirksen Building in Washington. And it wasn’t NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden that came out first to announce the SLS decision, it was Senator Bill Nelson. In fact this appeared as a Senate announcement of a congress mandated program. And the two Senators who led the effort? Senator Bill Nelson is a Democrat from Florida and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison is a Republican from Texas, coincidentally both from states who’ve experienced job losses in the space program.
“This launch system will create good-paying American jobs, ensure continued U.S. leadership in space, and inspire millions around the world,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. This was the first quote as part of NASA’s press release. So this announcement is more about jobs in states where the Senators are from than anything else.
While the SLS has bipartisan support it did not have support from the White House, that is until recently when it basically caved in on the issue.
The SLS is similar in many respects to the defunct Constellation program that the Obama administration killed last year when it basically stopped funding it. The Constellation program would have seen NASA develop a small and heavy lift launcher, a lander and crewed spacecraft. The new SLS will see NASA build a heavy lift launcher and build on the Constellation’s crewed vehicle Orion, now renamed the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. This all sounds familiar, doesn’t it. How much money was spent on Constellation? NASA was already committed to spending $10 billion according to the Government Accountability Office in a 2009 report. So between Constellation and the new SLS taxpayers will have paid at least $28 billion.
So what will NASA do with this new rocket? Well with the first variant, not much actually. After all NASA already has commercial companies working on cargo and crew programs to service the International Space Station and at a fraction of the cost of SLS. So it makes no sense to develop SLS for the International Space Station. That leaves SLS for future missions beyond LEO which is what it was designed for. However those missions have not been defined, nor funded. And until the second variant, the 130 mt HLV is developed there’ll be no missions to asteroids, the moon or Mars. In fact the initial funding will only be enough to build the first variant of the HLV with a first launch of the 70 mt variant in 2017.
There are two variables going forward that will weigh heavily on the development of the HLV. The first is politics. This was a mandated program by Congress. Come election time in 2012 who knows what will happen. Will the new congress still have the same proponents who support this program? Who will be President? These factors along with NASA’s history bring into question whether the HLV will ever fly. And the wildcard in all of this? The commercial sector. SpaceX has already announced, and is working on the Falcon Heavy. The Falcon Heavy can deliver 53 mt to LEO. And the first launch of the Falcon Heavy is slated for early 2013, four years before NASA’s HLV might get off the ground. And SpaceX has made no secret of its desire to build even bigger rockets. And the best part of their development? Their doing the Falcon Heavy on their own dime. Not a penny of taxpayer money. And their creating jobs as well, in California, Texas and Florida.
At this point NASA is embracing the development of the HLV. They have no choice. Work will no doubt begin soon and jobs otherwise lost will be saved. But post 2012 election all bets are off. Will the HLV ever fly? We’ll know in the years to come.
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