Some thoughts on the potential SLS/Orion moon mission in 2019

As someone who unfortunately had to assist in the reviews of what the negative impacts would be to both programs of record and the space industrial base when Project Constellation was cancelled, it was a hopeful sign when I read some articles stating that NASA was directed to review the possibility of adding astronauts to the EM-1 flight in 2018, which would push it to 2019. What is interesting about it to me, is how this program (Orion spacecraft and the SLS booster) has been moving along at a snails pace, despite narrowly escaping death at the hands of the Obama Administration thanks to a Democrat Congress, ironically (with Republican support). With hardware being bent and shaped, tested and prepared for this test mission, many articles once again are being put out there with little solid understanding behind them.

One that caught my eye was from the typically useless website Quartz.

NASA’s Trump-inspired moon mission is still looking for a reason to exist

This article, like many before it, push numerous narratives that are irritating to the space professional but also to some who actually want to see America do something great in space instead of orbiting the Earth ad nasueum. As the title suggests, the author believes that the idea of going to the moon does not have a legitimate reason to exist. They are totally for the “commercial sector” leading the way and other articles out there are cheering on a “space race” between “commercial space” and government programs to the moon or, like this one, believe that the moon is a total waste of time. Some articles, unlike this one are supportive of an “Apollo 8” for the 21st Century where astronauts are put on a new rocket and sent to the moon. There are so many things wrong with this and other articles, but I wanted to make some things clear and correct a few

  1. The Apollo 8 analogy isn’t really the best analogy as that crew were not riding on a rocket or in a spacecraft that had never flown with crew before. Saturn V had flown several times before in “all-up testing” configurations and the Apollo spacecraft had flown unmanned before and once on Apollo 7 crewed earlier that year. A better analogy, might be STS-1 where the two person crew flew on a spacecraft that had never flown in space before, but had gone through years of extensive testing. NASA isn’t one for not testing things extensively, and recently (decades) they have been very risk averse. The design of the Orion/SLS is one example of this risk aversion mentality. We went from an orbital spaceplane that lands on a runway for reuse, back to a mostly expendable ballistic capsule design with escape tower. I am not saying that’s bad, its just not an advance from STS in my view. Inside the spacecraft are some great advances but the overall system concept is not that new. If NASA were to be directed to make it happen, send a crew to the moon on the first manned Orion EM flight, that would be a bold move one that many, including myself would welcome IF, big IF…they could demonstrate that the systems of SLS and Orion when tested have proven reliable to warrant the safety margins necessary to at least allow for crew escape and aborts. I don’t think this is out of the realm of the possible as NASA wouldn’t let their astronauts fly with too many unknowns and the President wouldn’t do that either. I don’t see that being a decision that would make sense based on what I know (which isn’t much) of the man in the Oval Office.
  2. The whole “space race” thing between “commercial” and government is stupid. If you ask NASA astronauts or employees, most of them (I know because I have asked) will say that there is no race and they wouldn’t want one anyway. They prefer partnerships or would like to see more space activity than less. Things have been kind of dry for astronauts, a lot of them going where the action could be, but haven’t yet materialized in the so called commercial space transportation industry. I say so called because much of the contracts and design work being done are for NASA anyway or under NASA grants, Space Act agreements, etc. and not for purely commercial business purposes. Either way, commercialization of cis-lunar space is and should be a goal and I wouldn’t be surprised given who has been on the NASA landing teams, to see a real plan. However, realize this: EVERYTHING that has been put out there is NOT POLICY YET. Its just speculation on discussions being had or investigations being pursued for possible actions by our national space program. We really need to get away from the whole idea of competition within our own national space infrastructure and look to competing with other nations, if its competition we want, because whether people believe it or not, there is a competition.
  3. Faster, Cheaper, Reusable argument still yet to be proven. The author of this article linked above stated, “With commercial rocket firms including United Launch Alliance, SpaceX and Blue Origin promising to put nearly-as-powerful but significantly cheaper products [than SLS and Orion]on the market in the years ahead, many wonder if NASA should be putting so much of its resources into projects they may be quickly outmoded” This argument is so tiring and repetitive I had talking about it again but I must. Falcon Heavy has not flown. Crew Dragon has not flown. No people have flown on any other vehicles than government vehicles at this point. Orion has flown and did well, albeit with a stripped down interior and no crew. SLS is in final testing but hasn’t flown. However, all of the hardware (most of it) is derived from flight proven and human rated equipment. If I had to make a decision as to which rocket to put people on (if they both hadn’t flown) I would chose SLS at this point because the rockets used have been proven reliable over decades of use and testing results. It was designed from the beginning to be human rated, unlike many of the ULA and SpaceX vehicles. Also, I would add-again-that just because something is promised to be something (cheaper, reusable) does not mean it will be. We are still waiting for SpaceX to reuse a rocket and more importantly, demonstrate cost savings due to the downstages being flown back and landing. I love watching them land and think its amazing they can do that, but I want to see the results in the business plan and long range strategy prove itself, otherwise, they are expensive stunts.

So we shall see what happens and if the Trump Administration decides to send astronauts (presumably test pilots) to the moon in 2019. I think it would be great, pending all those things mentioned above and I hope that SpaceX can do some good things too. As well as Blue Origin, ULA and anyone else that can prove man-rating, sufficient safety and abort profiles and reliability of their vehicles to create a cis-lunar architecture like those being promoted by ULA and others. If we can get away from this new space vs. old space craziness and unify our efforts or at least synchronize the independent efforts, we might make some solid space exploration, defense and commercialization progress. If not, we are going nowhere soon.

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