President Eisenhower signed the law creating NASA on July 29, 1958. At that time, the United States had put about 30 kilograms of small satellites into orbit. Less than 11 years later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon.
President Obama signed a NASA authorization bill on October 11, 2010. The clauses require NASA to build the Space Launch System rocket and have it ready for launch in 2016. This seems reasonable. At the time, NASA had been launching rockets, including very large ones, for half a century. In a sense, this new SLS rocket has been built.
The most challenging aspect of almost any launch vehicle is its engine. No problem – the SLS rocket will use engines left over from the space shuttle program. Its side-mounted booster will be slightly larger than the one that has powered the space shuttle for 30 years. The latest part of the vehicle will be its large core stage, which houses tanks of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen to fuel the rocket’s four main engines. But even this component is derived. The core stage has a diameter of 8.4 meters and is the same as the space shuttle’s external fuel tanks, which carry the same propellant as the space shuttle’s main engines.
Alas, construction is not that easy. NASA’s SLS rocket program was a mess almost from the start. It’s only been effective at one thing, spreading jobs among large aerospace contractors in states where the leaders of key congressional committees are located. Because of this, lawmakers have ignored years of delays, development costs more than doubling to more than $20 billion, and the availability of cheaper and reusable rockets built by the private sector.
So here we are, nearly a dozen years after the authorization bill was signed, NASA is finally ready to launch the SLS rocket. It took the agency 11 years to get to the moon from nothing. It took 12 years from having all the components of the rocket to getting it on the launch pad ready for unmanned test flight.
My emotions are complicated.
With launch only a few days away, I couldn’t be happier for the hard work of NASA employees and the space company, breaking the bureaucracy, managing thousands of requirements, and actually building this rocket. I am eager to see it fly. Who wouldn’t want to watch a giant Brobdingnagian rocket consume millions of kilograms of fuel and break the grip of Earth’s gravity?
On the less happy side, it’s still hard to celebrate the rockets that were in many ways responsible for the lost decade of American space exploration. The financial cost of the program is enormous. Between the rocket, its ground systems and the Orion spacecraft launching at the top of the stack, NASA has spent tens of billions of dollars. But I think the opportunity cost is higher. For a decade, Congress has focused NASA’s exploration toward an Apollo-like program with a fully depleted large launch vehicle that uses 1970s-era technology in its engines, tanks and boosters.
In fact, when the country’s vibrant commercial space industry gets ready to go by building big rockets and landing them — or storing propellant in space or building reusable tugboats that can go back and forth between Earth and the moon, NASA was told to look back. It’s as if Congress told NASA to keep printing newspapers in a world with broadband internet.
It doesn’t have to be like this. In fact, a handful of forward-thinking space policy leaders have attempted to stem this waste, but have faced opposition from the defense industry and its allies in Congress.
For me personally, this is also the end of an era. In many ways, this rocket reflects my career as a journalist and writer covering the space industry. So as we approach this big launch, I want to tell this story — real Story – about where it came from and where it went. I will attest that the SLS rocket is the worst thing that ever happened to NASA, and maybe the best thing at the same time.
I believe this story can still have a happy ending.