What are the betting odds?
What are the betting odds this thing, with all its issues up to this point, either blows up on the pad or on the way into orbit?
NASA is finally ready to launch its unmanned Orion spacecraft and put it in the orbit of the Moon. Lift-off from Earth is now expected in late August using a Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. This launch, a mission dubbed Artemis I, will be a vital stage in the Artemis series, which has the long-term goal of ferrying humans …
Not as high as is needed for a sustainable presence on the Moon.
The boosters may be well past their sell by date but that is because it takes time to measure the shelf life of a solid rocket and there was not a real opportunity until these two stood idle for ages. There is a limit to the number of cryo-cycles the main tank can survive. This gets misleading reports because the figured quoted is often the number allocated for a particular activity, not the maximum over the full life cycle. The main tank is actually very re-usable - as long as the use does not include launch. The engines are ex-space shuttle so they really are good for multiple launches. The upper stage is a Centaur and those have been flying successfully since 1963. Orion is sufficiently past its sell-by date that bits of it have already failed. The good news is the life support system cannot fail as it was never installed. The first zero-g test of life support will be with the Artemis 2 crew.
All stages of launch have actually been tested. Although the wet dress rehearsal ended early the bits that were missed were tested during the earlier green run. The remaining issues are:
1) power and duration limits on the fans that would scatter hydrogen so a hydrogen leak cannot lead to an explosion
2) the hydrogen leak in the quick disconnect arm.
3) a fault that would only show in a complete end to end test but not in individual unit tests - like that could ever happen.
There is a bad chance Atermis 1 will not fail until the solid rocket booster recovery parachutes are discovered to be missing and the main tank recovery fails because of lack of propellant for a boost back / entry burn.
Cost plus: Point out the absence of recovery, hope for a change order.
If a change order arrives: redesign end-caps again to include a hatch for parachutes. Redesign avionics to include calculating the correct time to open the hatch and deploy chute. Add appropriate pyrotechnics control outputs to avionics. Redesign cable harness to connect new avionics to required pyrotechnics. Re-write assembly manuals for new end-caps, pyrotechnics, chute, cable harness and avionics. Write re-fit manual for upgrading existing hardware. Create computer simulation of new hardware. Test new hardware by simulation including determining survivability for all conceivable failure modes. Build and install new hardware. Re-write operations manual to include an extra roll-back to the VAB to fit pryrotechnics and check the pins are correctly inserted to connect the parachute to the SRB. Write procedure for dealing with Viking invasion during SRB recovery. Write procedures manual for re-qualifying recovered hardware for a second flight ...
With just a few minutes thought, a 5-minute job for a work experience kid can be stretched to occupy multiple teams of skilled engineers for two years. With a bit of care the design can require detaching the SRBs to fit the pyrotechnics between the wet dress rehearsal and launch.
And at the launch cost, it's hardly going to be economic to use it on a monthly, or thereabouts, schedule to crew a Moonbase. SpaceX's Starship may not have flown yet (although it has reached higher than SLS to date), but it's looking like the only viable option currently in development to act as a regular Moonbase shuttle.
Maybe Falcom Heavy, but that also means building a working transfer shuttle/lander/ascent vehicle.
This is tax payer's money being spent by politicians indirectly on their own re-election campaigns. With that goal, the high cost is an advantage and efficiency is irrelevant. RS-25 engines are individually crafted by skilled artisans. Aerojet Rocketdyne can only make four per year - enough for one launch per year. Boeing can only make one main tank per year. I have not seen numbers for SRBs, service modules or Orion capsules but you can bet every contractor in the US and EU sized their production in the sure and certain knowledge that there could only ever be up to one launch per year - the minimum cadence considered acceptable to retain institutional knowledge for human space flight.
There has been talk of upgrading to two launches per year - but only talk. In theory the $560M/year ground support equipment maintenance cost would be divided by two launches instead of one but that would get dwarfed by the cost of doubling all the unique production equipment. There has also been a statement about dropping the launch cost from $4B to $2B. I will take that as loquitur ex ano rather than an accusation of fraud in a meticulously accounted cost plus contract.
SLS could not fly monthly even if politicians wanted that much money. A sustainable Moon program means Starship as much as possible until a competitor can offer something equivalent at a similar price.
I think we are looking for different lights.
A single SLS is $2.2B - ignoring R&D costs. Add in $568M for the ground systems, $1B for Orion and $300M for the service module and you get to $4B per launch. Maximum cadence is at best 1/year and the wheels fall off that after three launches (Artemis IV requires a new upper stage and a badly over budget and delayed mobile launch structure).
For comparison a Crew Dragon on a Falcon Heavy could do SLS's job for $250M with multiple launches per year. A crew Starship would be <$100M and many launches per year.
SLS is slurping up budget that could be spent on space suits, a Luna rover or a moon base while at the same time restricting Artemis to one launch per year. That will strangle any hope of a sustainable presence on the Moon. At the current rate of progress NASA astronauts will eventually get to the Moon and will be able to look at the window where they will see Jared Isaacman offering to let them borrow a space suit.
The only way Americans get a sustainable presence on the Moon is if they write to the politicians and ask for a Moon program instead of this SLS "jobs" program. The light I am looking for at the end of this tunnel is the proper cancellation of SLS, and not a re-naming as happened with Constellation/Ares.
NASA has caught returning bits of space craft with parachutes and helicopters. RocketLab has made one catch but had to drop because the load was swinging more than expected.
Space Shuttle SRBs descended under parachutes, splashed down and to some extend got re-used. Electron rockets have descended under parachutes, splashed down and some components have been re-used.
NASA has sent payloads to Lunar orbit. RocketLab will send a payload to NRHO on the 27th (Lies, damned lies and rocket launch schedules).
NASA used to re-use the main engines and payload fairing on a heavy launch vehicle. RocketLab has started work on a medium launch vehicle with a fully re-usable first stage and fairing.
RocketLab are making early progress on a rocket that could me more cost effective than Falcon 9. NASA are close to launching a rocket over 6 times the cost of a Delta IV heavy (first equal most expensive rocket in history).
NASA are moving out of the launch business. In future they will buy commercial launches for everything congress does not require them by law to launch with as many shuttle-derived components as possible.
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