Constellations, Launch, New Space and more…

Does NASA Really Need a HLV for BEO Exploration?

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
April 2, 2011
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Jupiter Direct Launcher Variants

Much of the debate over NASA’s heavy-lift launcher program has centered around how to build it. How much to spend this year vs. next year, to use shuttle- and Ares-derived technologies vs. starting from scratch, and whether the Dec. 31, 2016 deadline is remotely realistic. However, there is a far more fundamental issue that has received little or no attention, one that could affect tens of billions in spending and thousands of jobs nationwide in many districts and states.

In his latest note, Space Access Society Founder Henry Vanderbilt points out the existential threat faced by advocates of building a heavy-lift vehicle:  namely, that the HLV might not be necessary to accomplish beyond Earth orbit exploration.  A combination of existing rockets and a new technology (propellant depots) could allow the United States to launch its deep-space exploration effort without having to develop an expensive new booster with extremely high operational and launch costs.

Vanderbilt closes with a plea for opponents of the Congressionally-directed HLV to call their Congressional representatives to urge them to not to dictate to NASA what architecture is required for BEO exploration.

NASA Exploration Funding

Some Background

There’s a new development in the ongoing debate over the wisdom of Congress ordering NASA to develop in-house the “Space Launch System” (SLS) heavy-lift booster.  Last year, NASA ran a study on what it would take to do a twenty-year human exploration program culminating in human flights to near-Earth asteroids.  The HEFT study (Human Exploration Framework Team) concluded that if NASA built its own 100-ton payload Heavy Lift booster then used it to launch fully-fueled mission stages Apollo-style, the overall program cost would be $143 billion over twenty years, or an average of just over seven billion a year.

For what it’s worth, NASA Human Exploration looks likely to be funded at no more than four to five billion a year for the foreseeable future.

Now a team working out of Georgia Tech has released a study looking at what happens to program costs if you add propellant depots to the HEFT baseline, allowing everything to be launched on medium-lift commercial launch vehicles with no need for a new NASA SLS-style HLV.

Under a range of assumptions, their cost for this modified HEFT program comes in at between $73 billion and $97 billion over twenty years – an average of between $3.6 billion and $4.9 billion per year.

These studies make it crystal clear: NASA can probably afford a human deep-space exploration program based on commercial boosters plus propellant depots.  NASA definitely cannot afford a human deep-space exploration program based on the Congressionally-mandated 130-ton SLS heavy lifter.

(Mind, neither HEFT nor this new Georgia Tech study are the last word in how much such a program really should cost.  Both are relatively quick ballpark estimates based largely on existing NASA practice.  The Georgia Tech study very conservatively introduces one low-risk new element into the equation to come up with these savings.  We happen to think considerable additional time and money savings are possible with further reform to the traditional NASA way of doing business.  But that’s a discussion for another day.)

Latest Status

Meanwhile, Congress may be approaching a decision point on overall federal government funding for the remainder of federal fiscal year 2011 (FY’11 ends at midnight this September 30th.)  The government has been funded so far in FY ’11 by a series of “Continuing Resolutions” (CR’s) that essentially continue funding appropriations at FY ’10 levels.

The latest of these CR’s runs out next Friday April 8th, and both sides in the budget battle are currently talking tough about no more short-term CR’s.  It’s possible some sort of CR to cover the rest of FY’11 actually will be worked out during this coming week.

There’s no way of knowing for sure what sort of NASA language might end up in such a final compromise bill, but a look at the competing House and Senate versions can provide some clues.  Both are roughly similar in overall NASA funding levels, both provide NASA with some flexibility in moving funds around for the rest of the year to deal with changing circumstances, both cancel the “Shelby Amendment” that has been expensively delaying final shutdown of Constellation since last year.

In fact, the only significant difference we can see between the House and Senate positions on NASA is that the Senate CR mandates spending $3 billion over the next six months on SLS plus the MPCV son-of-Orion crew capsule (see SAU#121, at and the House CR doesn’t.

Given that:

– $3 billion is the majority of the Exploration total so other more useful Exploration programs will suffer badly
– NASA funding in general may well be stretched before the last two Shuttle missions have flown
– NASA has told Congress politely but repeatedly they simply can’t build SLS for the money specified (or within the time mandated)
– The Georgia Tech study makes clear that NASA cannot afford meaningful deep-space exploration based on SLS

it looks to us that it would be a very good thing if the Senate $3 billion mandate doesn’t make it into the final FY’11 CR.

Recommended Action:

Contact your Representative and both your Senators during this coming week – earlier is better – and tell them (politely!) that Congress should stop telling NASA what kind of rocket to build, that the SLS (or “Senate Launch System” if you prefer) is unaffordable and unsustainable.  Get as many of your friends as you can to do it too.  Numbers count.  We need to make as many of our Representatives and Senators as possible aware of our concerns in the next few days, before deals start being finalized on the FY’11 CR.

If you’re from one of the districts or states with a major financial stake in SLS, you may not make any converts, but it still helps to let them know that they have constituents who disagree with them.  They may bring up the jobs SLS would bring home – you might respond that you’re not against jobs, but they should be for building something useful; you’re more concerned with what’s good for the country as a whole.  Be direct, be passionate, be persuasive, but stay polite – rudeness or vulgarity just makes the whole position look less respectable.

Contact Info for Representative and Senators: If you know their names, you can call the US Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and ask for their DC office.  If you don’t know who your Representative is, go to and enter your home zipcode.  (You may need the 9-digit version.) For Senators listed by state, go to

Once through to their office, let the person who answers know you’re calling about the NASA provisions in the FY’11 CR.  They may switch you to another staffer (or that staffer’s voicemail) or they may take the call themselves.  (If you’re calling after-hours or they’re getting a lot of calls, you may go directly to a voicemail.)

Regardless, ask them to tell (Representative/Senator TheirName) that Congress should stop telling NASA what kind of rocket to build.  Pick a reason from the list that follows (or come up with your own) and give it.  If whoever you’re talking to has questions or wants to discuss the matter more, fill them in as best you can.  Then thank them for their time and ring off.


– NASA has said they can’t build the SLS (or “Senate Launch System” if you like)  for the money provided.
– NASA has said they can’t use a booster the size of SLS for at least fifteen years – why insist it be ready in five?
– SLS as mandated would use thirty-year old technology.  Why not let NASA draw on the best of current US industry capabilities instead?
– According to last year’s HEFT study, NASA cannot fit a deep-space exploration program based on an SLS-like heavy lifter within current budgets.
– According to the recent Georgia Tech study, NASA can actually fit a deep-space exploration program using smaller commercial boosters within current budgets.   (We wouldn’t recommend getting into propellant depots unless whoever you’re talking to shows signs of sharing our serious space geekery…)

Or, to quote our friends in the Space Frontier Foundation (they got their alert out two days ago, but then they’re not putting on a conference next week…)

” Our space program needs an open and fair competition among not just different contractors but different and even multiple approaches to see which are the most affordable, most flexible, and most sustainable…

“Instead, some in Congress want to make NASA build their favorite rocket, without competition, even though NASA has already told them it can’t be done for the resources available on anything like the timetable Congress wants.  It’s time to stop the Congress from mandating the Senate Launch System, and let NASA compete ideas…

“We can’t afford to repeat the mistakes of Constellation, and just rubber-stamp a pre-selected design for a rocket.  No more sole-source, non-competitive procurements…”

OK, that’s the basic version.  Some of you may want to get more involved in this effort than making a few quick phone calls.  Letters (faxed, at this point) are great!  (Emails much less so; you know how much spam you get – now imagine the amount a Congressman gets.  Better to phone than to email.)  Keep letters to one page, state your basic point (Dear Representative/Senator TheirName, I am writing to request that Congress not tell NASA what type of rocket to build in the FY’11 CR, etc…) in the first sentence of the first paragraph, then go into a paragraph of supporting detail, then politely wrap up.  Faxes are much better than paper mails at this point, in that you can be sure they’ll arrive on time.

What it comes down to is, if we care about US space commercial and technical competitiveness, if we want to see NASA with some hope of going new and interesting places in our lifetimes, we need to keep at this.  We won one battle last fall, but the war continues.

Now go get ’em!

One response to “Does NASA Really Need a HLV for BEO Exploration?”

  1. James Owens says:


    Thanks for rallying the troops here! I’m a former NASA MSFC support engineer who got the axe in October due to the ongoing struggle between Congress and NASA over what direction they should go. I lost my job not because Constellation was cut, but because it was an unsustainable architecture in its final configuration (and I was working on Ares I before it was named – since May 2005). The SLS is just another unsustainable architecture. And while NASA is perfectly capable of picking unbuildable rockets on their own, it’s especially annoying to have the Senate trying to dictate (even if it’s based loosely on DIRECT). MSFC’s talent would be much better spent on propellant depots and in-space propulsion systems than on rehashing another standard chemical rocket. I have already called Congressman Brooks and Senator Shelby. Hope many others will do the same!

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