Heavy Lifting

by wjw on September 16, 2011

“Today, NASA revealed its plans for the new heavy-lift launch system intended to carry large payloads—including, perhaps, missions to send humans beyond Earth orbit.

“The NASA authorization bill that Congress passed nearly a year ago demanded not only that NASA build a new heavy-lift rocket, but also that the new system use space shuttle components. The new program, called the Space Launch System, didn’t disappoint in that regard. Its first stage and boosters will be similar to the shuttle propulsion system, at least initially, and it will use the new five-segment variants of the solid rocket boosters that were originally planned for the canceled Ares I and Ares V.

“SLS will use a new expendable (and presumably cheaper) version of the liquid-oxygen/liquid-hydrogen Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME), designated RS-25D/E. Its upper stage will also use oxygen and hydrogen—and include a throwback to the Apollo era: a modern version of the venerable J-2 upper-stage engine from the 1960s Saturn V, fittingly called J-2X. The diameter of the first and second stages will be the same as the shuttle external tank (about 27 feet), and probably built with the same tooling in Michoud, La. In its initial form, SLS will be able to deliver at least 70 metric tons to low-Earth orbit, as the legislation specifies, and could grow to 130 metric tons. That would make it the biggest rocket ever built, surpassing the Apollo Saturn V.

“Ostensibly, the reason for using this legacy hardware is to save money by minimizing new development. But recent analysis by Booz-Allen Hamilton indicates that it will actually cost much more than using new systems, partly because the SLS will employ expensive legacy workforces who worked on the shuttle. In fact, NASA administrator Charles Bolden laid out the real reason for the demand to use shuttle parts in his remarks today: “This launch system will create good-paying American jobs,” he said, as well as “ensure continued U.S. leadership in space and inspire millions around the world.”

Which suggests that Congress continues to view NASA and the space program as welfare for aerospace companies.  (I, for one, am still waiting for my highly overpromised National Aero-Space Plane.  You’d think we could at least ask for our money back on something that was never actually built.)

Other than that, there’s nothing wrong with the SLS, except that there’s no mission, no funding, a lot of the tech is a re-use of gear developed in the 60s and 70s—-  and of course there’s competition with the Falcon 9 from SpaceX, which supposedly will do the same job for a lot less money.   (If, of course, they are to be believed.)

DensityDuck September 17, 2011 at 5:13 am

I guarantee that no actual engineer was involved in the SLS proposal. It was done by some Beltway Bandit that Congress hired, and the NASA sticker was put on it to make the whole thing look legit.

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