Trump, Pence Demand Space Spectacular During Election Year as SLS Schedule Slides Further

SLS liquid hydrogen tank (Credit: NASA/Tyler Martin)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

If you’ve been puzzling over exactly why NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine suddenly floated the idea of flying the first Orion space capsule to the moon next year without the Space Launch System (SLS), The Washington Post has a couple of answers today:

  • SLS is much further behind schedule than anyone knew; and,
  • 2020 is a presidential election year.

Christian Davenport has the details of a recent briefing prime contractor Boeing gave to Bridenstine and other NASA officials about why the launch would be delayed from June 2020.

One estimate had the rocket launch as late as November 2021, and NASA’s leaders were furious, according to people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid about sensitive negotiations. President Trump and Vice President Pence wanted NASA to pull off something big and bold with human spaceflight before the 2020 election: sending a crewless capsule around the moon in a precursor to an eventual return of American astronauts to the lunar surface.

But the latest delays would push the flight well past the election.

“We’re not doing this,” a dismayed NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told the Boeing team. “We’re going to create an alternative solution. All options are on the table.”


John Shannon, Boeing’s SLS program manager, said the company acknowledges widespread problems but recently has shown progress.

“We’re late and I completely own that, but we are dialed in now and the team is producing extremely well,” Shannon said. “I have high confidence that we’re going to come out with an amazing capability by the end of the year, and I can’t wait to get to that point.”

NASA is evaluating whether an uncrewed Orion could be launched on a flight test aboard a commercial rocket next year. Once it was in orbit, the spacecraft would link up with a booster stage launched on a different rocket that would send it around the moon.

The most powerful boosters in the U.S. launcher fleet are SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which flew its inaugural flight last year, and United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy, which launched an Orion capsule on a test flight in December 2014.

Bridenstine said the plan would allow NASA to test the Orion spacecraft in deep space while saving the SLS booster to launch the first element of a human-tended Lunar Gateway that would be placed in orbit around the moon.

Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to chair a meeting of the National Space Council on Tuesday at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. The center is managing the SLS program.

There are rumors on Twitter that Pence could announce plans to accelerate a return of astronauts to the moon ahead of the currently 2028 planning date. Given the pace of the SLS program, that would likely mean greater use of commercial boosters.

 Pence’s former chief of staff, Nick Ayres, tweeted the following about Davenport’s story this morning:

Cannot overstate the importance of this story. Thrilled @POTUS and @VP continue to demand performance and raise the bar for US Space interests. Even better that @JimBridenstine said “all options are on the table” RE SLS

The administration’s move toward commercial boosters has reportedly infuriated Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.). Shelby has fiercely protected the SLS and Orion programs despite years of delays and cost overruns.

There is also broad bi-partisan support in Congress for both programs, which employ large numbers of people in key electoral states such as Florida and Texas.

Citing cost overruns and schedule delays, the Obama Administration canceled Orion and a pair of Ares boosters that would have launched the spacecraft into Earth orbit and on deep-space missions. Congress saved Orion and the Ares heavy-lift booster evolved into SLS.

The Trump Administration’s fiscal year 2020 budget request forecasts six to seven flights of the SLS and Orion combination. However, it also projects that the Lunar Gateway would be completed and resupplied using commercial boosters.

Under the budget, funding would be reduced for SLS, Orion and the Exploration Ground Systems that are required to support launches at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The funds would be reallocated toward the Lunar Gateway and technologies needed to return astronauts to the moon’s surface.

The request would defer funding on upgrading the booster’s from lifting 85 metric tons to low Earth orbit to 105 metric tons. Work on the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS), which is required for the upgrade, and a second mobile launch platform would be deferred.

The Europa Clipper orbiter to Jupiter’s ice-crusted moon be launched on a commercial rocket. Under current law, both the Europa orbiter and a subsequent lander must be launched aboard SLS boosters.

  • duheagle

    I already told you, but let’s go through it again just for grins. I’ll even break it down as best I’m able instead of just giving you the bottom line.

    The Orion itself is, I’m sure, hellaciously expensive, but it will be so whether it rides an SLS or something else so it needn’t figure in the comparison.

    One SLS would cost roughly $2 billion, maybe more, because the core stage alone costs $1.4 billion. Boeing’s contract to build the first two was for $2.8 billion. Then there are the solid boosters and the ICPS upper stage which aren’t exactly Cracker Jack prizes either. ULA’s contract for ICPS was $412 million and they only built one. Teledyne-Brown got a $60 million contract to build the adapter between the SLS core stage and the ICPS. Somebody else got a contract to build the adapter between the ICPS and the Orion-SM stack, but I don’t know who or for how much. I couldn’t find cost numbers for the 5-segment solid rocket boosters either, but I’m sure they’re pricey.

    Worst alternative case, two ULA Delta IV Heavies costing $700 to $800 million. That leaves at least $1.2 billion to cover some sort of upper stage, any rendezvous and docking lash-up needed to allow it to hook up with Orion plus any ground system mods needed to support this twin-launch EM-1 variation. I don’t think all that is likely to take more than $500 million – quite possibly much less. So that saves at least $700 million right there. If a Falcon Heavy can substitute for one of the D IV-H’s, that’s another $200 to $250 million saved. If two FH’s are used, those extra savings double. If the FH’s don’t have to fly completely expendable, add another $100 million to the savings ledger.

    Bottom line? The two-launch solution for EM-1 could cost as little as a third of what the SLS version of that mission would cost. There seems no way it could possibly cost more than about half as much.

  • duheagle

    I would think the snake-eyes you guys have rolled with “Russian collusion” might serve to convince you that endlessly repeating lies doesn’t magically make them come true.

    The people who dealt directly with W were not crazy progs trying to talk big to impress other crazy progs so – unless you care to name them – I’m going to charitably assume you are simply a credulous twit where politics are concerned and always ready to believe anyone who tells you what you want to hear.

    Even assuming your “people” were correct though, how is bringing in missionaries and/or getting Iraq “hooked into our economy” equivalent to “pillage and rape?” How are either of them even bad things?

    Saddam had at least 1,000 tons of yellowcake uranium. That nearly all went to Syria. Absent the war, Saddam’s plan was to get the sanctions lifted, then bring in the Norks and Pakis to help stand up a fresh nuke program in return for free or heavily discounted oil.

    Assad got his nerve gas from Iraq. He’s probably used all or most of it by now. The Russians aren’t dumb enough to give him more so he’s had to resort to chlorine. Not as effective, but a lot easier to make.

    The intelligence agencies were all convinced Saddam had nukes. He was deliberately putting that idea out there in the hopes it would keep us from doing him in. I’m sure there are some weasels in the intelligence “community” who now say otherwise – these types seem to come out of the woodwork like retroactive psychics after every major intelligence agency failure.

  • publiusr

    The folks at MSFC are good guys.
    Zubrin and others called for shuttle derived heavy lift–and heavy lift is what MSFC is for. So it wasn’t Congress that tells NASA what to do–but Pence. He sets a vision–then pulls funding for the Block 1B/Block @ work needed to get anything on the lunar surface.

    Pence is treating space workers the way the Russian leadership treats theirs–badly.