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Monday, March 31, 2014

Dennis Tito’s ‘Spaceship to Everywhere’: a Dead-end for NASA



By R.D. Boozer

Dennis Tito, the multimillionaire who was the first space tourist to visit the International Space Station, recently wrote an article for The Huffington Post called “The Spaceship to Everywhere” that was prompted by published criticisms of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket (SLS) and Orion spacecraft.  One such critical article that got widespread attention was my last op-ed for Space.com titled “Will SpaceX Super Rocket Kill NASA’s ‘Rocket to Nowhere’?

In his written piece, Mr. Tito states, “Short-sighted critics like to call it [SLS] the "rocket to nowhere," an incredibly uninformed reference that sells short the accomplishments of NASA and industry over a relatively short period of time, and which carelessly dismisses the significant investment and progress already made in "SLS/Orion."  In the article, he refers to the combination of the SLS launcher and Orion spacecraft as “The Spaceship to Everywhere”.

Contrary to Mr. Tito's claim, there are in fact many people who are extremely well informed about SLS/Orion who make very strong arguments that it is an enormous waste of money.  And those people exist both within NASA and outside of it.  They say it is a waste that NASA can ill afford during a period when its budget is falling and is unlikely to increase anytime soon.  Just a few of those many substantiated arguments follow …

According to a study that NASA itself commissioned Booz-Allen-Hamilton to do, SLS will probably only stay on schedule within its assigned budget for the first 3 to 5 years of development.   This situation would result from SLS being restricted to an annual budget of a size that Congress will actually appropriate.  It renders meaningless the claim that SLS’s meeting of its current development schedule is an indicator that the rocket is viable, since the total development time to date is still within the five year window specified in the BAH report.  In fact, the report says that after the window period, it is likely the amount of time between the accomplishment of the developmental goals will get stretched further and further apart.

Thus, it is possible a flight of the least powerful Block 1 version of SLS may occur on schedule in 2017 (within the 3 to 5 year period), but milestone test flights afterward are likely to be pushed indefinitely into the future.   Indeed, the continual delays between developmental goals may mean that the completion of the most powerful Block 2 version of SLS could be perpetually pushed into the future, never to actually fly.  Furthermore, studies from NASA itself, industry, academia and renowned veteran Apollo engineers indicate that using either SLS or a similar shuttle-derived vehicle is the least economically practical way to do significant spaceflight to the Moon and beyond and would not be the fastest nor safest way.  Given these points, a primary argument of Mr. Tito’s defense of SLS (saying it shouldn’t be canceled because of the work that has already been done on it) is just another example of the classic “Sunk Cost Fallacy”.

The Augustine Committee reported that if a large Shuttle-derived heavy lift rocket (such as SLS) were actually built, it would be so expensive to operate on a regular basis that NASA could not afford to use it. Oft touted figures of $400 million to $500 million per flight by SLS proponents either don’t count all of the total moneys spent when figuring per flight expense and/or assume unrealistic flight frequencies.

Mr. Tito is particularly gung-ho on using SLS with the Orion spacecraft to execute his Inspiration Mars plan to do a manned flyby of Mars by 2021.  Along with discounting the drawbacks of SLS, this idea unrealistically ignores certain facts about the Orion spacecraft.

Orion was originally designed for sending astronauts to the Moon, as such, it was decided that the heat shield (called a Thermal Protection System or TPS) used on the spacecraft would be made of AVCOAT; essentially the same heat shield material used on the Apollo spacecraft in the 1960’s.   This fact poses a problem using Orion on a Mars expedition.  Reentry speeds from Mars are much higher than those for a return from the Moon; thus, the spacecraft will experience much higher temperatures during atmospheric reentry than it is designed to withstand.   Lockheed-Martin (the primary contractor for Orion) is not even sure it is capable of handling reentry temperatures generated from a near Earth asteroid return.   This uncertainty stems from the situation where even though these asteroids’ relative closeness to Earth would involve a slower return than from Mars, the spacecraft’s reentry speed would still be much faster than a return from the Moon.    The truth of this statement is bolstered by the following statement in relevant documentation called Plymouth Rock: an Early Human Asteroid Mission Using Orion where they state on page 17:
Reentry velocities are 11.05 to 11.25 km/s for asteroid missions, vs 11.0 km/s for lunar return. TPS enhancement may be required depending on the ultimate capability of Orion lunar TPS.

Even the relatively modest enhancement of the TPS for a near Earth asteroid mission would probably require a hefty budget increase that Congress would not likely approve, implying the much more radical TPS alteration needed for a super-fast Mars return would almost certainly be a nonstarter.

In this op-ed, I have only touched on a few of the technical and fiscal pitfalls of SLS/Orion as there are too many of them to cover in a short article.  However, there is one point on which Dennis Tito and I both totally agree, when he states in The Huffington Post article that SLS/Orion is, “being built for NASA by the most experienced and skilled space manufacturing workforce in the world”.  Mr. Tito apparently doesn’t realize that the technology and contracting methods used for this endeavor were chosen for political reasons rather than what was most efficacious.  Those “most experienced and skilled” personnel should be working on something more worthy of their immense talents.  Instead of advancing NASA forward in the best way possible, SLS/Orion is retarding it from reaching ambitious spaceflight goals.  As I stated earlier, those goals could all be accomplished using alternate methods without increasing NASA’s budget and would allow America’s space agency to eclipse its Project Apollo glory days.

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For a more in-depth examination of the SLS/Orion controversy, read the book The Plundering of NASA.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Interview about launcher reusability and related article in The Space Review

I was interviewed for this late-breaking article from Fox News about the next SpaceX launch scheduled for March 16: http://www.foxnews.com/science/2014/03/12/spacex-to-launch-amazing-rocket-that-lands-on-legs/

Also here is an article by me in The Space Review about the same subject: http://thespacereview.com/article/2466/1

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

On Spacevidcast: Discussion of the Congressional hearing on a Mars flyby and more

For those interested, view this video interview of me on Spacevidcast, which contains (among other topics) a discussion of the ludicrous Mars flyby proposal presented to Congress: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=pSGn19OM_nA

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Review on Zetetic Forum of The Plundering of NASA

Allen G. Taylor has written a review of my book The Plundering of NASA: an Exposé, on the Zetetic Forum blog.

Mr. Taylor also had a comment about my latest op-ed on Space.com called Will SpaceX Super Rocket Kill NASA's 'Rocket to Nowhere'.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Article on the ultimate fate of the so-called Space Launch System

Space.com has published my latest op-ed called: "Will SpaceX Super Rocket Kill NASA's 'Rocket to Nowhere'?
Go here to read it:http://www.space.com/24628-will-spacex-kill-nasa-sls.html

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

My latest appearance on The Space Show, also preserving valuable astronomical data

On Monday, January 27th, I was again Dr. David Livingston's guest on The Space Show.  The main discussion concerns the furor my book The Plundering of NASA is causing in the space community and my role as a member of the Space Development Steering Committee.

In the last few minutes of the program, I mentioned important work that is going on to digitally archive over a century's worth of astronomical photographic plates from various research programs.  For those who wish to know more about this effort and who may possibly wish to donate to its funding, go here: http://www.pari.edu/apda

Friday, January 17, 2014

Robots for Interplanetary Research

Science fiction writer and host of Mars Pirate Radio, Doug Turnbull, has an interesting article about the future of robotic space exploration on Space.com.  He makes some strong arguments that the perceived conflict between robotic and human space exploration does not have to exist because the two can compliment each other.  He also makes some points about how the SLS boondoggle negatively impacts such efforts.  Check it out here: Why Robots May Be the Future of Interplanetary Research