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 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.

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

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