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NASA to Reach Decision on Space Launch System Soon

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
June 6, 2011
Filed under , ,

Chris Bergin of reports that a decision on NASA’s Space Launch System is “just weeks away.” (Isn’t the suspense killing you? It’s like a World Cup final penalty kick shootout. For geeks.)

At the risk of spoiling the fun, it appears that NASA will be selecting an IL SD HLV 70MT –> 130MT, which is to say something a lot like this:

Jupiter Direct Launcher Variants

Especially the three variants on the far right.

In other words, the space shuttle’s first stage with the main engines on the bottom and the cargo on the top instead of the side. The initial rocket would be capable of boosting 70 metric tons into low Earth orbit with plans to expand capacity to 130 metric tons.

Surprised? You shouldn’t be. This is essentially what Congress ordered a reluctant NASA to do last year.

The bigger question is: can NASA deliver the vehicle to first flight by the end of 2016 with the funds that it has been given? And what will Congress if NASA can’t? Throw Charlie Bolden in space prison?

It probably won’t come to that. (I hope.) My guess is that once NASA commits to building this behemoth, Congress won’t care much about the deadline just as long as money keeps flowing into their states and districts to keep people employed. Because employed people are happy people, and happy people vote for the incumbent.

Gen. Bolden’s insistence upon telling Congress that NASA can’t actually meet the requirements it set out is admirable but, sad to say, futile. The fact that the rocket will be late, over budget, too expensive to fly very often, and lacking in any defined payloads is really NASA’s problem. It’s their problem when they go to build it, and it’s the administrator’s problem when Congress yells at him for not doing it on time and on budget while denying any and all responsibility.

In any event, the one good bit of news in Bergin’s report is that NASA has nixed a proposal to create an interim vehicle that would use left-over space shuttle main engines and then competitively bid out a new vehicle. This seemed to me at least to be a technological dead end that would waste time and money. Apparently, Bolden thought so, too.

Read Bergin’s full story for all the exciting details on engine trade-offs and systems requirements. Fascinating stuff. For geeks.