NASA is committing suicide

And I can only stand around and watch. If you’re up on the space industry, the Space Launch System (SLS) is the latest debacle that Congress has served up to NASA.

The SLS is a very large rocket intended to replace the retired shuttle fleet. Before we get too nostalgic about the Shuttle, let me say that it was canceled by the Bush administration for good reasons. It was expensive, unsafe, and mission limited.

The SLS is bigger and even more expensive (marginal cost per flight expected to be at least a BILLION dollars) and so large, there’s nothing to do with it. If we get what Obama wants, a few asteroid missions, the SLS might launch a few times. But without a sustained need for such a large rocket (read no budget and no direction from NASA management) the project is doomed to economic failure. At least the shuttle had the space station to build.

So why would NASA propose such a silly design? They really didn’t. Congress defines NASA’s budget, even micromanaging the main programs to fit their goals – more money and jobs in their states. It’s no surprise the SLS uses shuttle derived parts. It’s certainly not because this is cheaper (the failed Orion V, the original successor to shuttle and similar to the SLS proved the shuttle derived cost saving fallacy). It’s simply to keep the standing army of engineers and technicians with a salary, spinning their well tuned wheels developing a rocket that everyone (NASA management, engineers and congress) knows will never fly more than a handful of times, if that. Methods proposed to reduce cost through commercial partnership, suggested by SLS prime contractor big-Boeing, are laughably preposterous.

The most likely scenario is actually for the plan to go off without a hitch. People remain employed, the rocket is successful, some missions are flying every few years, and congress is happy. If this happens, it’s clear that NASA has truly changed to a welfare for engineers agency and will start to attract the not-so-best-and-brightest. A smart combination of commercial crew, upgrading of the existing expendable launch vehicles, and coherent long term planning from NASA is one way out of this mess.

However, this requires NASA management to drink a cup of cement and harden the fuck up (a kiwi expression?).

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