Yesterday, NASA announced that they'd reached a milestone in the development of America's next major space transportation system, the SLS (Space Launch System). They'd reached Key Decision Point C, which is a crucial review and approval point. The SLS looks promising, but NASA isn't talking about some important things.
Before I go on, I want to make absolutely clear that I am a huge proponent of manned space travel. I think manned exploration and the eventual expansion of humans to other worlds is crucial to our long-term survival. I think NASA's new direction of exploration while leaving the routine to-and-from Earth orbit work to private companies is a great idea. And while on the surface this report from NASA is very exciting, there's some crucial things left unsaid that remind us how NASA still needs our support and how tenuous all grand plans like these are.
The general description of the rocket that forms the core of the SLS is quite impressive. Partially derived from the technologies developed for the Shuttle, the baseline launcher is by far the most powerful rocket NASA has ever designed: it can lift up to 77 tons to orbit (and beyond with the Exploration stage), and a heavy lift version can hurl a massive 130 tons into the sky.
Compare that with NASA's most famous heavy-lift rocket, the Saturn V, which could launch about 60 tons into Earth orbit. This new rocket looks to be something that can really get the US back out of the low-earth orbit backyard and out into deep space. In fact, NASA's own article mentions an exciting-sounding asteroid encounter mission and the big prize, a manned Mars mission by 2030.
But there's the issue. At this moment, there's no funding or formal planning at all for these missions. A brutally realistic — and perhaps slightly pessimistic — article on SpaceRef breaks down the fundamental problems with depressing candor:
When asked to identify the missions that had been approved and for which funding had been clearly identified, NASA could only point to EFT (the Orion test later this year on a non-SLS rocket); EM-1 the first flight of a SLS with an uncrewed Orion; and EM-2 the first test of SLS with Orion and humans which may or may not do the Asteroid Retrieval thing that Congress is against doing. NASA claims to have all the money needed to do these two test missions with SLS. That's it folks. This is like being in the mid 1970s and announcing progress for the Space Shuttle Program and all of the marvelous things it will do but only having plans in place for STS-1, -2, and -3. Wait. That is more or less what NASA did to sell the Shuttle: promise everything to everyone.
On the subject of Mars funding, the article continues:
But NASA wants everyone to be thinking about Mars. But no actual Mars missions were mentioned. No timeline was offered. No budget to do the whole Mars thing was available. NASA has been so desperate to show that the SLS has value that they have been running around the planetary and space science communities asking them to come up with things that SLS could do for them. Alas, at no point has NASA identified a single penny that might be used to pay for such missions.
They're basically right — NASA's announcement is, if you look at the available approved budget to actually do anything, pretty optimistic. Pretty very optimistic. I'm not sure I share all of SpaceRef's cynicism, but I do understand where it's coming from. It's not likely NASA will launch the first SLS test flight in 2018, and 2019/2020 is more likely.
I think the big take-away from all this is another reminder of just how tenuous financial support for NASA really is. NASA's grand plans have been cut back consistently because of lack of interest and funding. The Apollo moon missions, for example, were supposed to be the start of what would have been a much more sustainable and long-term presence on the moon, leading to a permanent lunar base. We all know that didn't happen.
In fact, it so didn't happen that the last planned Apollo lunar landing, Apollo 18, didn't even happen. Public interest started to wane, and the money pump got cut off pretty damn fast.
I don't blame NASA for writing checks their butts can't currently cash. Dreaming big is really what they're supposed to be doing, anyway. If they released a report saying they've developed this incredible new rocket, and they have plans for, oh, a couple or three test flights and that's it, we'd probably start wondering why the hell we bother with any of this.
They can't do that. NASA has to tell us how we'll capture and asteroid and get humans to Mars. They need to get us excited, because, eventually, that excitement can turn into money. And, for the very long-term survival and prospering of our entire species, we'd better get excited and open up our wallets.