Bridenstine: Commercial Boosters Will Accelerate Moon Plans, Not Replace SLS

Jim Bridenstine (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Editor’s Note: Shout out to Marcia Smith (SpcPlcyOnline) for posting a copy of this message from NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine on Twitter.

A Message to the Workforce on SLS and Orion

Yesterday, I was asked by Congress about the schedule slip of the Space Launch System and plans to get NASA back on track, I mentioned that we are exploring the launching of Orion and the European Service module to low-Earth orbit on an existing heavy-lift rocket, then using a boost from another existing vehicle for Trans Lumar Injection. Our goal would be to test Orion in lunar orbit in 2020 and free up the first SLS for the launch of habitation or other hardware in 2020. This would get us back on schedule for a crewed lunar orbital mission in 2022 with the added bonus of a lunar destination for our astronauts.

We are studying this approach to accelerate our lunar efforts. The review will take no longer than two weeks and the results will be made available. Please know that NASA is committed to building and flying the SLS for the following reasons:

  1. Launching two heavy-lift rockets to get Orion to the Moon is not optimum or sustainable.
  2. Docking crewed vehicles in Earth orbit to get to the Moon adds complexity and risk that is undesirable.
  3. SLS mitigates these challenges and allows crew and payloads to get to the Moon, and eventually to Mars, safer and more efficiently than any temporary solution used to get back on track.

I believe in the strength of our workforce and our ability to utilize every tool available to achieve our objectives. Our goal is to get to the Moon sustainably and on to Mars. With your focused efforts, and unmatched talent, the possibility of achieving this objective is real.

Ad Astra,

Jim Bridenstine

  • duheagle

    Indeed we will. And fairly soon too, if I am correct.

  • duheagle

    There are obviously those who disagree. So both of us can stay here on our home planet and see how things play out, at least for as long as we last.

  • passinglurker

    indeed I look forward to the study if nothing else it should make for good reading.

    Falcon S2 should be capable of this though its a ~110ton(4 tons dry) beast, and as you said those TLI figures are for a single launch with payload not a distributed launch. compared to the hypergol stage you proposed this would have higher isp and potentially more propellant (as the hypergol is capped at 60tons) depending on how much it has to burn bring itself up from staging velocity to orbital velocity and considering this would be an expendable or two core recoverable launch with no payload I think there is reason to be optimistic.

  • duheagle

    I don’t see things playing out that way. The endless hanky-twisting about “safety” by NASA ASAP rings pretty hollow when the only comparand to the two CC vehicles is the rickety, rattletrap, Russkie Soyuz about which they have nary a word to say. The recent multi-pronged effort to jam up SpaceX in general and Elon Musk in particular is the last gasp of the dead-enders in a serially failed agency and their political enablers who fear – correctly – that if Musk and SpaceX succeed in current endeavors, they will be rendered redundant.

    Once SH-Starship is operational, it will be accumulating a lot of mission time fairly rapidly putting up the Starlink phase 2 constellation. That database will quickly exceed in size any that SLS could attain even given a couple entire additional decades in which to do so. At that point, if not before, the “safety” question will have an obvious answer and it won’t be SLS.

  • duheagle

    Perhaps one of the trades investigated was just launching an FH with a stretched S2 and no payload. Falcon S1 and S2 tankage is made on the same tooling and differs mainly in length. That might make it possible to do a stretched S2 fairly quickly and straightforwardly. An FH with a “payload”” of up to 60 extra tons of propellant in a stretched S2 certainly could do the job of getting Orion-SM to the Moon.

  • duheagle

    The general public didn’t choose to shut down NASA and American HSF after either the Challenger or Columbia disasters. Most SH-Starship missions in its first few years of operation aren’t going to carry any people at all, just freight/payload. The manned missions will not, even at the earliest, be carrying 100 people either. Earth orbit and the Moon will be where the early missions will go and most of those will be freighters.

  • passinglurker

    That seems unnecessary the rule of thumb would dictate that payload less upper stage would insert into orbit with its payload capacity’s worth of residual propellant instead. Therefore the stock S2 should be able to insert with roughly 60 tons of propellant, have much better performance than a hypergolic stage of equal tonnage, and be much much easier to adapt into its transferstage role than developing a whole stage from scratch.

  • duheagle

    Quite probably. We have fewer air disasters now than formerly, but a larger percentage are due to pilot error or ATC error or both. The obvious solution is to get rid of both ATC personnel and pilots. These are jobs human beings are not fundamentally suited for. Up until now, we’ve had no choice but to use humans to do them as no alternative was available. That is no longer true. But both pilots and controllers have unions so I expect the transition to be marked by a lot of scorched-earth, both actual and metaphorical.

  • duheagle

    Thus far, he’s lost three Falcon 1’s, “Grasshopper 2.0” and a pair of Falcon 9’s. After each loss, there were crepe-hangers in abundance wailing their dirges. And yet all the graves prematurely dug remain untenanted.

    That ought to tell you something, but I don’t expect it will.

  • duheagle

    If EM-1 actually flies on a pair of commercial rockets in June 2020, I don’t think SLS survives much longer regardless of who is President in 2021. In the very likely event that it’s still DJT, I’d say the odds of SLS surviving through his second term drop to a hard zero.

  • duheagle

    As long as it has after all the previous failures – indefinitely. His backers are not brainless bankers, they’re people who’ve made their own billions and know the ropes.

  • duheagle

    So far as I know, an FH with a standard S2 can’t get something as heavy as Orion-SM to the Moon. But I think a longer S2 carrying more propellant would do the job. How much more propellant would be needed, I don’t know, but I will guarantee you there are people at SpaceX who do. Stretching an otherwise stock S2 is likely the cheapest and quickest way to add the needed delta-V.

    That would also allow most of SpaceX’s likely contribution to this newly architected EM-1 mission be designing and building whatever has to fit on top of that stretched S2 to allow the whole stage to rendezvous and dock with the Orion-SM stack, either at the bottom or the top.

  • duheagle

    That’s all true but it’s also mostly irrelevant. Musk’s backers are overwhelmingly people he’s known and worked with for decades. They know he’s a driven, brilliant, hard-charging, sharp-elbowed SOB who has been successful at pretty much everything he’s ever turned a hand to. They also know he won’t back down from a fight. Musk lacks Teddy Sorensens’s eloquence and John Kennedy’s gift for oratory, but he commands respect and allegiance just the same.

  • duheagle

    Prepare to be impressed. Really impressed. Boeing is not, and has not for quite awhile, been the measure of all things aerospace.

  • passinglurker

    So far as I know, an FH with a standard S2 can’t get something as heavy as Orion-SM to the Moon.

    Again that’s just with a single launch. Rule of thumb if max for TLI in a single launch is 20 tons through TLI and your LEO capacity is 60tons that means you’re inserting that payload, and upper stage into LEO with roughly 40tons of propellant residual before the TLI burn. A separate launch with no payload would be inserting its upper stage into leo with roughly 60tons of useable residual propellant which is then mated to the ~25ton payload on orbit if anything you should have a bit to spare for the docking and endurance kit.

    If the report calls for a stretch then so be it, but I think it should be avoided if possible due to the schedule as if there is only a small shortfall Orion’s own propellants and margins can compensate.

  • duheagle

    Yes. Software is not yet a core competency in many organizations where it long since should have become one. More critically, software is still not accorded respect as a career path in many organizations. But even organizations built entirely on software often have a lot of dysfunctions as well. Maybe in another few decades software will settle into a reasonable equilibrium with other, older technical disciplines. For now, we still seem to be finding our way.

    One thing both software-centric and software-entangled companies would do well to emulate is the military’s habit of setting up “lessons learned” operations to examine what went wrong, what went right and why in each case anent military campaigns. Software would be a lot better if failures were autopsied aggressively instead of being quickly cremated and scattered.

  • duheagle

    SpaceX has the ability to absorb some failures of SH-Starship, but isn’t going to be fatalistic about the possibility and will fight like hell to keep any such from happening. It’s worth noting that both F9 failures were caused by different components of a single particular system – a system which has been deliberately designed out of SH-Starship.

  • duheagle

    That would appear, at least for now, to be the case, yes. Now tell me, does that make you more or less convinced that all the whinging about “safety” anent CC is real or simply a smokescreen for politically motivated slow-rolling?

  • duheagle

    Yes, the upcoming report will, without question, prove to be a riveting read.

  • ThomasLMatula

    The Cameron County Commission has worked out arrangements with SpaceX for closing roads during testing of the Hopper. The will be a three to six notice given to the public, so time to start watching the Brownsville papers for the first firings of the Raptor

    https://www.brownsvilleherald.com/news/local/county-oks-spacex-policy-local-leaders-can-close-road-for/article_042f6afc-46ac-11e9-91ed-c3a6f674a14a.html

    County OKs SpaceX policy; Local leaders can close road for launches

    Posted: Thursday, March 14, 2019 10:00 pm
    By Mark Reagan, Staff Writer

    I expect more and more SpaceX will need to go offshore for the Starship/Super Heavy tests, or up the coast to the old Matagorda airfield.

  • Robert G. Oler

    I know what I make in my job overseas…and there are three very profitable companies in texas…all together its well over 500K

    I dont have a clue what an FO in Ethiopia makes…and I am not sure why his flight time is relevant. I have over 30K hours

    its not an odd comment it is about understanding complex machines…

    and yes aviation safety and in fact all safety is built on dead bodies…fate is the hunter 🙂

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, and he has no fear of government bureacrats. Just look at how he is challenging the SEC on First Amendment grounds over his Telsa Tweets. And he may well win as laws by Congress like the one that gives the SEC authority are of lower authority than the Constitution. It will be an interesting court battle that the SEC may wish it never started.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yep, Elon Musk learns and he uses that learning in his designs. Note how the fins on the Starship allow it to land? He remembers the DC-XA was lost because of one gear failing to deploy.

  • Robert G. Oler

    no

  • Emmet Ford

    I have no doubt that politically motivated slow-rolling is playing a role. How could it not? Pope Francis can’t corral his Curia, and he’s an absolute monarch with God on his side. It’s amazing that a democratic republic can function at all. We are all a bunch of hairless apes, after all.

    It is heartening to see Jim Bridenstine pushing back. And he’s being clever about it, or somebody is. Even if the commercially launched EM1 gambit gets quashed, he may be able to horsetrade it for a commercially launched Europa Clipper, which would be a deft maneuver if there really isn’t enough time to get commercial EM1 done by June 2020 or he’s not really willing to launch astronauts on an untested SLS.

    I must admit, against my better judgement; I like this duke.

  • Emmet Ford

    I must confess, I like your read of the future better than my own.

  • Robert G. Oler

    That is NOT for you to tell ME what level of risk I am comfortable with///

    that is just really wishful thinking

    at BEST it is true for very personal activities financed by you and confined to a situation where they are unlikely to do any damage to anyone else or their property and even then it wont act as a shield for liability if you damage someones property or injure/kill them

    the closest example I can think of is homebuilt airplanes…you can assume any level of risk you want to in the design and building of a homebuilt plane…but very strict restrictions are put on that operation…ie you can carry yourself and passengers who are willing to assume that risk…but the instant you go and crash the plane and do so into my hanger…well you or your heirs are liable for that action…

    there is no such thing as overriding individual risk in rockets due to the danger they can pose to society…there are next to no treaties right now that limit individual exposure to liabilty for a rocket mishap and particularly if one was not part of the “crew”

    you are willing to assume any level of risk you want…but the nation wont do that. nor will really the insurance industry.

    as for “ou ranted about boeing having planes grounded saying that there was
    nothing to worry about .. other countries didn’t seem to agree with you
    on what level of risk they wanted.”

    this is really the problem with the grounding…other countries without the technical data of the incident…or the certification data of the airplane were making that judgement totally on speculation. the President made that judgment with no hard data

    and you might sit back and ponder what affect that will have on space vehicles the first time one “opps” and doesnt land at the pad it was suppose to , but in someones back yard

  • Robert G. Oler

    do you really think that there is any serious likely hood of a permanent “colony” on another solar system body anytime soon?

  • Robert G. Oler

    The general public didn’t choose to shut down NASA and American HSF after either the Challenger or Columbia disasters.

    well they did. Bush 43 ended the shuttle program after Columbia…and it was quite difficult for it to survive Challenger.

  • Robert G. Oler

    Grasshopper was a test vehicle…he was almost finished after the F 1 launches…and the 9’s were clearly not a fatal flaw. ie more quality control then anything else

  • duheagle

    To support the tempo of ops likely to be needed, I agree. The original agreement was about F9 and FH missions from the BC property and limited those to 12 per year. That is now hopelessly outdated by changed plans.

  • duheagle

    Terrific news. Thanks.

  • duheagle

    Yes. The Moon. Working on a paper for The Space Review about the economic basis for that. Mars is a bit more speculative as to the economics, but also much easier as to the physical environment.

  • duheagle

    Given that large space vehicles – with the notable exceptions of those flown by Russia and China – depart from places literally yards from shore and land either in comparable spots or at sea, I don’t think the insurance industry is going to freak out about space launches and landings as any big third-party risk factor.

    Airplanes, on the other hand, pretty much have to overfly a lot of people and property on a frequent basis. So the risk of third-party death and injury is really still much higher for civil and general aviation than it is ever likely to be for space travel.

  • duheagle

    Feel free to purloin it in its entirety then. No royalties.

  • duheagle

    Shuttle survived Challenger quite handily. The DoD bailed – as well they should have – but the program was never in any serious danger of being shut down. Shuttle also survived Columbia and continued to fly for years afterward. Bush 43 began the lengthy process of winding down Shuttle, but, like everything else the government does, the process was leisurely and included an additional “risky” Hubble repair mission.

    So, no, that dog don’t hunt.

  • Do you know for sure that this capability was retained from CEV to MPCV? This isn’t so much a docking interface requirement as it is a CM structural requirement: It would have been awfully tempting to take some mass out of the MPCV nose area if the eyeballs-out acceleration requirements were deprecated.

  • duheagle

    The thing about Musk is that “almost” finished isn’t good enough. You want to stop that guy you have to drive a stake through his heart, cut off his head and burn him to cinders, then put the cinders in a sealed iron casket covered in cabalistic symbols and hemmed about with powerful spells and maybe he’ll stay down. If there’s a thousandth of an inch of daylight showing through anywhere, Musk will find it and plow through.

    The 4th F1 worked because the 3rd one nearly worked and the fix was easy. F1 showed steady progress uphill through its three failures.

    Yes, “Grasshopper 2.0” was a test vehicle, but there were still a lot of people who were certain SpaceX was a goner afterward. Ditto both the F9 losses.

    While CRS-7 was lost due to a sub-spec part, AMOS-6 happened because of an unknown unknown. SH-Starship won’t even have the entire subsystem in which those two failures originated.

    SpaceX is not magically immune to future losses, but you and I seem to have an orders-of-magnitude difference of opinion as to how likely or numerous those might prove to be.

  • duheagle

    I didn’t know anything about that as I have very little personal interest in Tesla, but am glad to hear it. Good for Elon. I hope he wins too.

  • duheagle

    Why did I just know you were going to say that?

  • duheagle

    Me ‘at’s off t’ the d’yuke too.

    I think a lot of the evident cleverness is Bridenstine’s, but there are some non-trivial Trumpian touches as well. There seems little doubt he’s got backing from both Trump and Pence.

  • Robert G. Oler

    see if it works out…

  • Robert G. Oler

    I’ll be curious to read it…I dont think that there is an economic justification for the use of lunar resources…but maybe someone finds it. I’ll bet you they need a lot of federal money

    I think that there is a apolitical justification for a lunar base that tries to use local resources…and from that utilization emerges maybe some commercial product based on selling the surplus and I think that is a proper execution of national power

  • passinglurker

    I would find it unlikely. First because orion’s mass has gone up since the constellation days, and second simply because SLS is a flippant continuation of Ares-V in every way but name therefore they would retain the feature in case they could get away with bringing back the Constellation architecture after Block 2 and a lander were developed.

    Rather I would find little hope in meeting the schedule otherwise if it weren’t the case its either Orion can still do this or the report will go the same as other reports saying it will take too long and cost to much to change course.

  • I’ve worried about this for a while. I’m also worried about the reentry profile. I’m even worried about SS’s landing safety on the lunar surface, both because two Raptors, even throttled down, can’t hover an SS, and because the tilt angle on an SS isn’t gonna be great.

    But there’s a solution:

    1) Launch an SS with a crew module in its payload bay.
    2) Refuel it–pretty close to full. (Expensive, but straightforward.)
    3) Launch a D2/F9 to rendezvous and transfer crew.
    4) SS goes to cis-lunar, where it hands off the crew to whatever lander architecture NASA’s going to use. (Whether you like it or not, there’s going to be one, because NASA is not going to let SpaceX single-source their lunar program.)
    5) When the crew returns, it transfers back to the waiting SS.
    6) SS does TEI, but then does a powered insert into LEO, instead of a straight-in reentry.
    7) SS rendezvous with the waiting D2, which takes the crew to the surface.
    8) SS reenters from orbital speed to be reused.

    I’ve run the numbers; they work for NRHO. They’re a little tight for LLO, but NASA seems pretty well set on NRHO as its staging point.

    It’s certainly not as elegant as the one-size-fits-all Starship profile, but it’s vastly easier to crew-certify. Then SpaceX can work on the scary parts of the profile at their leisure.

    BTW, I completely agree with you about the lack of an abort system. NASA will never, ever launch crews using Starship. A major change will have to be implemented. If I had to guess, there will be a self-contained capsule in the nose of the SS which can abort, and the crew will only access the rest of the crew module after launch is complete.

  • gunsandrockets

    I am in the camp that believes SLS is doomed. But I also believe there will be two to six flights of SLS before that doom.

    So what interests me is, how to get the maximal use out of SLS before it is dead? And I think I have an idea…

    If NASA exploits the maximum design height of the SLS (99m!) and great mass of the empty core stage (85t!) which goes all the way up to orbit, then a simple design, rotating, manned LEO space station is possible. Let us call it Skylab III for now (Skylab II is an earlier NASA 2014 cislunar concept).

    Instead of a normal SLS cargo fairing, the fairing would be integrated with the Skylab III manned habitat, and permanently fixed to the core stage. A habitat massing 70t could be lifted up to orbit by SLS, with the habitat neatly counterbalanced by the mass of the expended core stage. A relatively slow rotation rate could simulate Mars surface surface gravity in the nose of the habitat and Lunar surface gravity at a level closer to the axis of rotation.

    Crew would stay aboard Skylab III for six months or longer, to investigate long terms effects of low gravity on human and animal health.

  • Jeff2Space

    SpaceX isn’t ignoring it. Starship flights to the moon and Mars will require multiple flights in order to perform propellant transfer to the Starship making the trip. SpaceX will depend heavily on distributed launch. It’s just that most of the launches will be tanker launches.

  • Jeff2Space

    That is NOT for you to tell ME what level of risk I am comfortable with///

    that is just really wishful thinking

    I’m late to the party, but I’d like to clarify this. Currently the FAA only cares about the safety to people and property on the ground when it comes to orbital launches. That’s why we launch over the ocean, have exclusion zones for air and sea traffic, and etc. They really don’t care about the safety of passengers, at this time. As long as the passengers are informed of the risk involved, they can fly.

    NASA is going “above and beyond” with Dragon 2 and Starliner because NASA astronauts will be flying on them to ISS. NASA is responsible for the safety of their astronauts both in the crew capsules and on board the ISS. They’re also responsible for safety of the ISS itself. So NASA imposes safety rules well above and beyond what the FAA will impose when the first private astronauts (or tourists, or whatever you call them) fly into space.

  • publiusr

    New spacers are a lot more ugly to old spacers than the other way around. I wish Elon the best. But when the twister hit MAF–the new spacer trolls were rooting for the tornado.