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

  • ThomasLMatula

    I wonder if he has had a phone call from Senator Shelby…

    What is interesting is that the SpaceX Starship/Super Heavy eliminates every one of those objections.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    1) Launching two heavy lift vehicles is *more* sustainable as those vehicles are commercially procured for less money and fly at a higher flight rates.

    2) Docking in LEO was proven during Gemini and happens all the time for ISS. Docking is way way way less risky than flying an extremely low flight rate vehicle.

    3) SLS is a dumpster fire, everyone knows it.

  • Lee

    Except for the little fact that SS/SH does not yet exist. Hopper is not SS/SH. Amazing how many continue to describe SS/SH as an already working system. It really does remind me of how the Commissars of the USSR described various technological advances they had, which never, in fact, came to fruition.

    I certainly hope SS/SH *does* come to fruition. But talking about it now as if it’s a done deal is borderline psychotic.

  • Cameron

    You hit every nail on the head.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Funny how many describe the SLS as a working system, even though its further from its first flight than the Starship/Super Heavy is. SpaceX has developed and flown three rockets in the last twenty years. NASA only has done one in the last forty years, yet folks like you still believe the SLS will fly, someday. Sounds like NASA has far more in common with the Commissars of the USSR with all of its proposed paper rockets that never flew. 🙂

  • Lee

    I’ve never once described SLS as a working system, and think it should have been canceled years ago.

    Although it might eventually fly, it’s a huge waste money, and will never do anything meaningful.

    Quit putting words in my mouth.

  • P.K. Sink
  • Eric Thiel

    I think he’s trying but the SLS lobbyists are hard to deal with

  • Larry J

    If there’s any single lesson we learned from the ISS, it’s that it’s possible to assemble complicated things in space that are too large to launch in a single mission.

  • newpapyrus

    Actually using the SLS to deploy at least 20 tonnes of habitat to NRHO before the first crew is sent there actually makes a lot more sense, IMO.

    Its just too bad that NASA didn’t embrace directly deriving such pressurized habitats from SLS propellant tank technology which NASA’s own studies have consistently shown would provide substantially more habitat volume per mass deployed.

    The highly eccentric NRHO location is going to provide NASA and international partner crews with with some absolutely– spectacular– views of the Moon! They’d also have a rather nice view of the distant Earth too.

    Put me in a Flexcraft appropriately shielded against the heavy nuclei component of cosmic radiation and I’d be on EVAs practically all of the time out there:-)


  • ThomasLMatula

    And I never said that the Starship/Super Heavy is operational. I merely pointed out that it overcomes each one of the those arguments being used to justify the SLS.

  • Lee

    Because of the general trend of the statements in your past posts. Collectively, they indicate that you believe SS/SH is a done deal. I have never even implied such about SLS. It’s not about one post but many.

  • Emmet Ford

    Once Starship/Super Heavy does exist, its glaring lack of an abort system is going to be a problem for NASA, or so it seems to me. What I don’t understand is why this is not obvious to SpaceX. Am I missing something? Or are we to assume that Starship is going to grow an abort system at some point in the future? If that’s the case, what is the rationale for not designing it in from the start?

    I realize that this is a bit off topic, but here we are talking about NASA using Starship/Super Heavy. If NASA at some point starts contemplating putting NASA people into a SpaceX Starship then the lack of an abort system is likely to come up rather early in those conversations.

  • Cameron

    IMHO NASA will become irrelevant anyway in this regard.
    Starship is its own abort system. Superheavy can be shut down (no solids) and Starship can fly away.
    It isn’t a solution for every problem. But there is a reasonable limit to how far you can go with ‘abort systems’ for launchers like this; better to make the system itself more reliable than to add more heavy abort systems that would tank the system’s capabilities.

  • ThomasLMatula

    It has the same basic abort system the Shuttle Orbiter had…

  • ThomasLMatula

    I see… You however seem to be ignoring SpaceX’s record relative to NASA’s which I am not.

  • duheagle

    Bridenstine is now faced with trying to sell the new approach to a lot of veteran swamp creatures to whom the name Elon Musk is anathema. I think the political sophistication of the proposed NASA 2020 budget in combination with this new take on EM-1 at the Senate hearing demonstrates that Mr. B. is exquisitely attuned to the totality of the political situation here.

    SpaceX seems certain to wind up with a big chunk of this revised EM-1 mission. Probably the biggest chunk. Conceivably, even the whole shootin’ match. But there are other heavy lift rockets extant and Mr. B. wants to keep their backers hoping for some piece of the action as long as possible. He’s not going to invoke the name of the Demon Musk until it’s time for him to appear and do his stuff.

  • Emmet Ford

    That has to be the definition of a backhanded complement.

    NASA seems to be making it very clear that commercial crew service providers are being held to a higher, more stringent safety standard than were their own undertakings with the Shuttle Orbiter or indeed in their future plans for SLS. After all, Bridenstine is currently entertaining the idea of putting astronauts atop the SLS on it’s maiden voyage. Falcon 9 Bock 5 had to have 7 unmanned launches to qualify for carrying NASA personnel.

  • Emmet Ford

    But there is a reasonable limit to how far you can go with ‘abort systems’ for launchers like this; better to make the system itself more reliable than to add more heavy abort systems that would tank the system’s capabilities.

    This notion has the benefit of being a plausible argument for why there is no abort system. However, one might use it to make the case that the Starship design is fatally flawed. It’s hard to say that the Super Heavy will never RUD. It’s hard to say that the five raptor engines will be able to extricate Starship from the destructive forces of a Super Heavy RUD. And if a Super Heavy RUD is possible then so is a Starship RUD. It’s the same plumbing, though less of it.

    Big picture, SpaceX needs NASA as a partner on this. They need NASA to get to Mars. SpaceX can build the rocket, but they can’t do that plus build the habitats, plus provide the nuclear power for the habitats, plus meet all the other challenges that a Mars mission will entail. They will need a coalition of partners to make all that happen, and NASA will have to be the anchor partner in that coalition. So Starship has to be a vehicle that NASA is willing to use to transport people. The lack of an abort system is a worrisome wrinkle to this challenge.

  • Cameron

    I’m curious what you believe an A380 sized abort system would look like?

  • Saturn1300

    I think they are going back to Ares. The Ares-1 is the safest Crew Launch System ever invented. The 4’D hole in the rear means it can not blow up. 500 launches with 2 on each Shuttle flight and no explosion and no steering failures that I know of. Super simple. It was designed to carry Orion and the Service module to LEO. SLS will be a cargo only launcher. Being single, if it leaks it can’t blow torch anything because there is nothing there. Yes there might be a leak big enough to over come the steering. They did not have any leaks after the fix. The Orion abort system would take care of that in any event. No fueling worries. It just sets there. Strap them in with no worries.They had not tested a 2nd. stage. Just the 1st stage in Ares 1X. Omega is going to use a single segment for the 2nd stage. But Omega will not be available next year. NASA can duplicate Omega with the segments they have in stock. Steel or Carbon. They do not have to wait for the new carbon segments of Omega. They made carbon fiber segments for the West Coast Shuttle. Never flown. Fired on the ground of course. NASA overbuys, so there should be a lot of them. Can be reused 20 times if you want to. There was a law passed that NASA had to use Orion to go to ISS. So there you go. It is also Astronaut approved. One said she was sorry to see it go as it would be quite a hoot to fly it. 4-6 million lbs of thrust should work. Right Mike and Gerst?

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    1 This fight should have started years ago. 2, if we want to go back to the Moon to stay, we should be going back on a regular basis. If Orion is ready to fly, let’s fly the damn thing. SLS won’t be flying soon, and if it ever does it won’t be flying very often. Having a commercial based architecture to get Orion’s into cis Lunar space makes all kinds of sense and it looks like we’re almost ready to go.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    My bet is any early commercial based Lunar architecture will consist of Orion going up without people on a heavy and docking with crew in a Dragon 2. Then use a Atlas V upper stage or the 5m upper stage for Delta IV if that line’s not shut down. That spreads the work around, and keeps everybody in the loop. Later the upper stage will be off Vulcan or New Glenn. With an approach like this, we fly soon, everyone works, and no new man ratings are needed once Falcon 9 completes the COPV flights next quarter.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    There’s Space X’s record of being 3 to 5 years late on most products vs NASA’s horrid record of the past 30 years in launch vehicle development. Just because Space X looks good compared to NASA does not mean they’re going to fly a clean sheet design (clean as of the past 6 months), and transition from well known techniques used for generations to maritime materials and construction techniques into a new scale of spacecraft and re-entry technique and do it all that, and fly within two years. THAT’s what a lot of folks don’t believe.

  • Emmet Ford

    Apples and oranges. Airplanes regularly fly for decades without incident, with engines running for hours per flight. We are only just getting to flying rocket boosters for a 4th time, with multi-week refurbishing between flights, and engines running for a total of tens of minutes at most, including tests.

    It’s been over a decade since we lost a commercial airliner in the US, or so they claim in the media, and that’s with thousands of flights a day. SpaceX has lost two Falcon 9s with fewer than a hundred flown. And at that, we all think they are doing quite well.

    Rockets are currently orders of magnitude more perilous than airliners.

  • Vladislaw

    How many escaped from recent airplane mishaps? The rest of the planet seems to be aware and willing to accept that there isn’t always an escape. Millions get on airplanes knowing this .. why should space be any different.

    “Capt. Picard: I understand what you’ve done here, Q. But I think the lesson could have been learned without the loss of 18 members of my crew.

    Q: If you can’t take a little bloody nose, maybe you ought to go back home and crawl under your bed. It’s not safe out here. It’s wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross. But it’s not for the timid.”

    If we are not willing to accept the risk, we can be couch potatoes and let robbie the robot do it all ..

  • duheagle

    I see things working out a bit differently, but you may well be right about that D2 flight to put EM-1’s crew into LEO.

    My suspicion is that EM-1 will use a D IV-H to put Orion and its service module into LEO and an FH to get some sort of TLI stage up – maybe an ICPS, maybe something else.

    D IV-H already put up an Orion and a boilerplate service module over four years ago so duplicating the special hardware used for that mission looks like the least time and effort path for EM-1 given the limited window in which to prepare. But D IV-H lacks the structural margins to be human-rated, so no Orion launched on it can carry crew – hence the high likelihood of your D2-to-LEO crew transfer mission as part of EM-1.

    Long-term, this won’t be sustainable because ULA needs to shut down the Delta CBC line to switch over to Vulcan. If that transition is quick enough, perhaps a version of the D IV-H-Orion interface can be put into production for Vulcan and a high-end Vulcan can step in for the retired D IV-H. If Vulcan can be human-rated, it could take up Orion complete with crew thereafter.

    If the timing on that is too lengthy, though, or if Vulcan, for some reason, cannot be human-rated, SpaceX could design their own Orion interface for FH and be, at a minimum, a second source for such missions. Given the probable cost differential, one suspects that, should SpaceX develop said hardware, it would likelier wind up the preferred provider as it is for CRS even if Vulcan is human-rated.

    If Orion ever flies on FH, it would make more sense to just human-rate the thing by adding all the F9 Block 5 human-rating bits to each of the three cores. That way, a crew could ride Orion and the F9-D2 step could be eliminated.

  • duheagle

    Starship will have seven Raptors, not five.

    As to an abort scenario, it strikes me that simply chilling in the Starship Raptors on the pad at the same time as those of SH would allow Starship a reasonable shot at escaping a notional SH RUD at any point from ignition to SH MECO.

    There may be some scenarios for which this would be insufficient insurance – notably if Starship itself RUDs. But both SH and Starship should have an opportunity to develop a decent reliabilty record launching Starlink phase 2 sats before large numbers of passengers are ever carried on them. Even civil aircraft with very good safety records are not immune to fatal misadventure. TWA 800 comes to mind.

    Looking further down the road – to Mars – it is also far from obvious that SpaceX needs NASA anywhere nearly so much as NASA needs SpaceX. Once Starlink is in service SpaceX will likely be generating annual gross profits that rival NASA’s annual budgets. Even a decade ago, SpaceX was four to ten times more efficient than NASA at hardware development. The ratio between what NASA will have spent on SLS and Orion and what SpaceX will have spent on SH-Starship by the time the latter first fly to orbit will easily best even those historical numbers.

    SpaceX has often expressed the hope other entities will step up anent future Martian settlement infrastructure. This will likely happen. NASA is likely to be among said entities. But, in extemis, SpaceX will have both the ability and the means to roll up its sleeves and do the whole job itself.

  • ThomasLMatula

    That is because they are expecting Elon Musk to have the same low tolerance of failure NASA has. One bad launch and NASA spends years in analyzing it and then goes off in another direction claiming its impossible.

    SpaceX is different. They don’t mind losing test vehicles if they learn from them. Elon Musk has already stated he expected to lose the hopper, and maybe a Starship or two, in test flights. It’s what happened in the past when he pushed the boundaries. Remember one of the test vehicles for the F9R, the Grasshopper blowing up? And the repeated crashes of used F9R’s as they learned how to land it?

    You are thinking of the Starship/Falcon Heavy in NASA terms that it must work perfect the first time. Elon Musk is thinking in terms of the pioneer days when the waters off the Cape, and WSMR, both of which are littered with scrap from test flights. It is also why I expect he will get kicked out of Boca Chicia, but that is OK, the old Matagorda Airfield up the coast where the first commercial rocket flights, and crashes, were made in the early 1980’s is still available.

  • ThomasLMatula

    And Elon Musk is also flexible. He is talking much more now about the Moon. He hasn’t forgotten Mars, but he also sees the Moon is a possible source of early revenue. If NASA doesn’t want to send astronauts there on a Starship private groups and foreign governments will.

  • duheagle

    Ultimately, what will make rockets as safe as airplanes is accumulating comparable bases of operating experience and design maturity. That’s going to take awhile. In the interim, rockets will be a higher-risk form of transport.
    Those who ride them will be from the more adventurous end of humanity’s
    bell-shaped curve. Some will die.

    It isn’t going to help matters to insist on unattainable levels of safety in the early going or to mandate ill-conceived ideas for allegedly achieving same. The VG SpaceShip2 crash was caused by out-of-envelope use of a system whose whole purpose in being there was to make the vehicle safer. 747’s don’t have escape systems for their passengers. More to the point, neither did Ford Trimotors.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Interesting you mentioned the Ford Trimotor as experts in the aviation world at the time were as skeptical about Henry Ford building planes out of Aluminum instead of wood as they are now of using stainless steel. And the arguments were the same, planes needed to be light they said, but Henry Ford said he wanted them to be strong and rugged.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Your case for Delta IV H makes sense. In the decision between Delta IV H and Falcon Heavy it will probably come down to TLI stage. The engineering question will be who has the 2nd stage best suited for the TLI? Also how do you sequence the launches. Putting Delta IV in the loop will require it to launch first as it’s nothing like a responsive space launch vehicle, while Falcon can with a small amount of pre-prep stand in reserve as if it is. This will be a two or three launch flight, so two of the launches have to happen in quick succession with respect to the first and each other.

  • duheagle

    SpaceX has not, in fact, been “3 to 5 years late on most products,” just on the Falcon Heavy – which was quite exceptional in that respect. None of the reasons for FH’s tardy appearance apply in the case of SH-Starship.

    As nothing short of SH-Starship’s initial launch to orbit and successful return is going to overcome your skepticism, I’ll make no further efforts in that direction here. If I, Dr. Tom and other like-minded souls are correct, you won’t likely have more than another year or so to wait.

  • Robert G. Oler

    and for some reason it is the one we are determined to ignore

  • Robert G. Oler

    And I never said that the Starship/Super Heavy is working so why were you attacking me over it?:”

    ok then you are simply what fantasizing with these words

    “What is interesting is that the SpaceX Starship/Super Heavy eliminates every one of those objections.”

    if it works yes, so far there is no evidence it will

  • Robert G. Oler

    my bet on a commercial lunar system is that we soon see a shift to reusable upper stages used as cyclers (ie drop off pick up) lunar landers…

  • Robert G. Oler

    what has happened with the Max should show you how fragile a system that depends on federal funds and yet does not accomplish a lot of value…would be to disaster

  • Robert G. Oler

    LOL…the tolerance is set by “the people on the vehicles”

  • duheagle

    I see it as a two-launch mission. A third launch would only be needed if there were to be crew aboard, but for EM-1 that isn’t the plan. I don’t believe Orion will even have a functioning ECLSS at that point.

    As for which should go first, I agree it should be the D IV-H with Orion on top. The recent example of NROL-71 suggests that D IV-H is likelier than FH to have vehicle-related delays. FH will likelier be able to quickly follow D IV-H than the reverse.

    And quickly will be the watchword. The TLI stage FH would be tasked with hauling to LEO is quite likely to be a hydrolox unit so getting it upstairs quickly and mating it up to Orion and its service module would be necessary to prevent excessive propellant boil-off.

    A less likely, but still reasonably plausible, alternative is that the TLI stage could be a custom hypergolic unit designed by SpaceX and powered by SuperDracos. The lower Isp is a definite drawback but it would have the advantage of being able to be launched either first or second and, if first, able to await a D IV-H-launched Orion without anywhere near the time pressure of a hydrolox upper stage. Going this route would also obviate any necessity to make significant LC-39 mods to fuel the thing.

    So what the TLI stage will be is the real mystery. A suitable FH adapter can be whomped up by SpaceX for pretty much anything selected. But, as others have already pointed out, a hydrolox stage might need to be vertically integrated with the rest of FH and would also require that both LH2 and “warm LOX” supply plumbing and tankage be added to LC-39A. So there is quite likely to be more than just some custom/prototype rocket adapter hardware on SpaceX’s critical path in that case.

    One hopes most of these questions will be answered when the promised report on this new EM-1 option is released, perhaps as soon as next week.

  • duheagle

    Not literally “we” though – just NASA SLS partisans.

  • duheagle

    SH-Starship will accomplish a great deal that is of value, starting with the deployment of Starlink phase 2. Beyond that, it has enormous potential utility for both NASA and Space Force on unmanned missions of various kinds as well as manned missions in the case of NASA.

    What happened with the Max isn’t entirely clear yet, but it could turn out that the problem is its maker has simply lost its former considerable mojo in recent years. Major miscues with Dreamliner and SLS and the lesser difficulties attending Starliner development all pointed to this likelihood even before MAX’s started falling out of the sky.

  • ThomasLMatula

    The problem is how do you attach the TLI Stage? The service module is not designed to have a TLI Stage docked to it. If you want to attach it there you will need to redesign it. If you plan to use the Docking Module on the Orion you will need to determine if it will be able to handle the stress of the boost. You will also have to determine if the new spacecraft stack will be able to handle the stress of being boosted backwards, Service Module first, into the new orbit. Not impossible, but factors that need to be taken into the design of it.

  • ThomasLMatula

    And if the SLS works, which everyone seems to be assuming. Its the first rocket NASA has built in decades, so that is not assured as well until one has flown.

    At the moment both are just potential launch systems.

  • Lee

    Not sure where you get the idea that “everyone is assuming SLS will work”. Certainly neither I nor Oler have ever said that. In fact, quite the opposite.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Which is why the SLS is at more risk of failure than the Starship is. If the SLS blows up on its first flight there probably won’t be a second given Washington politics. The same Congress Critters funding it will be roasting the program managers and administrators over the fires of multiple blue ribbon commissions and Congressional Hearings.

    If the hopper or Starship fails Elon Musk will try again as he did in the pass when rockets failed. Indeed, he has already hinted he expects to lose a couple working his way up the learning curve. This is his advantage, staying power and the ability to learn from failure.

  • ThomasLMatula

    The basic problem is that increasingly systems are dependent on computer software that is increasingly more complex. I just had my car in for a recall because the engine software was causing problems with the transmission shifting.

  • ThomasLMatula

    And the Starship is not going to have a crew until after many many flights deploying satellites. So Elon Musk has the ability to lose a few in its development process. Just like the Dragon, with its 14 flights, paved the way for the Dragon2. Its not like the SLS/Orion which is scheduled to have a crew on its second flight.

  • ThomasLMatula

    You have said that you don’t think it should be built or that its too expensive, but that is quite different than stating it will won’t “work”. I haven’t seen any technical posts talking about why SLS won’t work if the money keeps flowing. On the other hand you seem skeptical that the Starship will perform as expected because it is so unconventional.

  • Robert G. Oler

    its quite clear to those of us in the know. I talk and video with my former collegues near daily…we are having a meeting in IST on Monday…

    if Starship makes it off the ground in under a decade we should all be impressed.