I admit it, I’m a space geek from way back, and I've got the space-shuttle patches, the telescope, and the science fiction collection to prove it. So it was with a little charge of excitement that I read the announcement of NASA's new platform for unmanned spaceflight, the Space Launch System. It's a smart concept, based on a modular design that leverages usable elements from the scuttled Constellation program, including the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, as well as RS-25D/E engines from the Space Shuttle for the core stage and the J-2X engine from the Saturn V rockets for the upper stage.
The focus seems to be on repurposing the existing technology and supply chain in a way that keeps the design as nimble as possible. I worked on a NASA project back in the day, and an amazing amount of time goes by between the final critical design review and the launch of the final product. Anything that can be used to tighten that is a good thing.
At the same time, the project is nothing if not ambitious. The plan is for an initial lift capacity of 70 metric tons (I find it vaguely unsettling that the weight is also given in terms of SUVs—do you think that's traceable to SI units?) Speaking of ambitious, the current schedule calls for the first developmental flight to take place at the end of 2017.
Of course, to get that far, we have to pay for it. The press conference had barely ended before controversy began to arise. The official cost estimate for the program from the administration is in the neighborhood of $57 billion. Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) promptly issued a press release calling the figure "wildly inflated" and suggesting that the figure NASA and independent consultant Booz Allen Hamilton established was a bit over half that number. I don't know what they say but, four words: James Webb Space Telescope (JW ST), with a current price tag in the neighborhood of $8.5 billion, compared to the roughly $1.6 billion originally estimated. The science community is still fighting for its survival to launch, which continues to be pushed back. The same thing happened with the National Ignition Facility and the Airborne Laser; the NIF survived, the ABL got the demoted to test bed.
All right, I can hear everybody beginning to rattle pitchforks and run my way. Don't misunderstand me, I'm not against the project. I am a believer in the importance of space exploration and I think big science is essential and worth investing in. But the reality is that, assuming the SLS survives, the final cost of the project will be many times over the current highest estimate. I say if because all of this is taking place against the backdrop of acrimonious deficit battles and a budget subjected the tightest scrutiny in years. Every step in the contentious fiscal dialogue, if you can call it a dialogue, both sides throw around deficit projections stretching out over the next decade. That's a decade that will represent just the start of the SLS’s development. I think it's an essential program from a scientific perspective, but the program will be fighting for survival every single day. Moreover, its survival amid the kind of draconian fiscal measures that seem inevitable will only come at the cost of multiple other, smaller scientific programs.
Do you think that we will get more science per dollar out of smaller programs that out of the splashy manned spaceflight program? Do you think the SLS will survive long enough to carry astronauts to Mars? And just how big do you think the cost overruns and schedule slips will be?