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posted by martyb on Sunday February 11 2018, @01:32AM   Printer-friendly
from the it's-past-time dept.

An op-ed written by Lori Garver, a former deputy administrator of NASA, suggests cancelling the Space Launch System in favor of Falcon Heavy and BFR:

SpaceX could save NASA and the future of space exploration

The successful launch of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket is a game-changer that could actually save NASA and the future of space exploration. [...] Unfortunately, the traditionalists at NASA — and their beltway bandit allies — don't share this view and have feared this moment since the day the Falcon Heavy program was announced seven years ago.

The question to be answered in Washington now is why would Congress continue to spend billions of taxpayer dollars a year on a government-made rocket that is unnecessary and obsolete now that the private sector has shown they can do it for a fraction of the cost? [...] Once operational, SLS will cost NASA over $1 billion per launch. The Falcon Heavy, developed at zero cost to the taxpayer, would charge NASA approximately $100M per launch. In other words, NASA could buy 10 Falcon Heavy launches for the coat of one SLS launch — and invest the remainder in truly revolutionary and meaningful missions that advance science and exploration.

While SLS may be a "government-made rocket", the "beltway bandits", also known as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, and Aerojet Rocketdyne, are heavily involved in its development. The United Launch Alliance (Boeing + Lockheed Martin) have also shown that they can build their own expensive rocket: the Delta IV Heavy, which can carry less than half the payload to LEO of Falcon Heavy while costing over four times as much per launch.

NASA's marketing of how many elephants, locomotives and airplanes could be launched by various versions of SLS is a perfect example of the frivolity of developing, building and operating their own rocket. NASA advertises that it will be able to launch 12.5 elephants to LEO on Block I SLS, or 2.8 more elephants than the Falcon Heavy could launch. But if we are counting elephants — the planned Block II version of SLS could launch 30 elephants, while SpaceX's BFR could launch 34. Talk about significant.

Wait, what? 70 metric tons (SLS Block 1) / 63.8 metric tons (Falcon Heavy) = ~1.09717868339. 1.097 * (12.5 - 2.8) = ~10.6 elephants lifted by SLS Block 1 versus 9.7 for Falcon Heavy.

NASA documents list 12 elephants for SLS Block 1 (70 metric tons), and 22 for SLS Block 2 (130 metric tons). The author might have lifted some numbers from a Business Insider article that (incorrectly) estimates that 12.5 elephants can be lifted by Falcon Heavy, while SLS Block 2 can lift 30 elephants, and 34 for BFR. Perhaps we are dealing with a mix of adult and juvenile elephants?

Regarding the Falcon Heavy maiden flight, Lori Garver had this to say on Twitter about the Tesla dummy payload (which has attracted some criticism):

I was told by a SpaceX VP at the launch that they offered free launches to NASA, Air Force etc. but got no takers. A student developed experiment or early tech demo could have led to even more new knowledge from the mission. The Tesla gimmick was the backup.

However, the offer may have been informal, or made too close to the launch date. And Elon Musk himself guessed that the Falcon Heavy maiden launch had a 50% chance of succeeding.

While skeptical of Elon Musk's plans to get humans to Mars by 2024, she also says that NASA employees often dismissed the Falcon Heavy launch as "never going to happen".

Now it has happened.

Here's a refresher on the costs of SLS development:


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  • (Score: 3, Interesting) by Runaway1956 on Sunday February 11 2018, @01:43AM (12 children)

    by Runaway1956 (2926) Subscriber Badge on Sunday February 11 2018, @01:43AM (#636201) Homepage Journal

    First, I think, "hell no, you don't defund something just because something else works!" Having more than one way of accomplishing a task is a good thing, right?

    But, then, the SLS is heavily tax funded. Falcon is not, or at least far less so. (if the Falcon is funded by way of any contracts with the government, then yes, it is at least partly tax payer funded) If the taxpayer funded version of a heavy lift vehicle can't compete with the non-taxpayer funded version - then it's not worth keeping around.

    Yeah, go ahead and defund it. Some of us taxpayers get tired of paying for shit that does no one any good.

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  • (Score: 0, Troll) by Ethanol-fueled on Sunday February 11 2018, @01:59AM (3 children)

    by Ethanol-fueled (2792) on Sunday February 11 2018, @01:59AM (#636209) Homepage

    The most simple analogy to approach this would be the Intel vs. AMD issue.

    Intel were dominant, prices were high. AMD put its dick in the mashed potatoes and thus had a high following of converts.

    If the ULA were smart, they would buy out SpaceX. If for some reason that couldn't happen, then a disruption of market would occur. It could happen gracefully, or there could be assassinations and/or sabotage. Never underestimate the capacity for humanity to realize goals regardless of cost.

    • (Score: 3, Interesting) by takyon on Sunday February 11 2018, @02:33AM (2 children)

      by takyon (881) <reversethis-{gro ... s} {ta} {noykat}> on Sunday February 11 2018, @02:33AM (#636219) Journal

      Elon Musk is a multi-billionaire, and is probably willing to sink more money into the company if it can ensure smooth BFR development and a human presence on Mars. Aside from hating and shaming ULA, SpaceX is also a private company so there's no chance of a hostile takeover. When will SpaceX go public? After it regularly flies to Mars, according to Musk.

      ULA's winning move could be to license SpaceX's technology. Musk could do it in a few years when the full BFR is almost ready to fly and lose none of his company's lead, get some extra money to help R&D along, and further his goal of making humanity a multi-planetary species.

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      • (Score: 3, Interesting) by tibman on Sunday February 11 2018, @05:06AM (1 child)

        by tibman (134) Subscriber Badge on Sunday February 11 2018, @05:06AM (#636265)

        I think he'd license the tech if it helped move humanity off the Earth.

        Here's what he did for electric car tech:

        ... Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.
        ... Our true competition is not the small trickle of non-Tesla electric cars being produced, but rather the enormous flood of gasoline cars pouring out of the world’s factories every day.
        ... We believe that Tesla, other companies making electric cars, and the world would all benefit from a common, rapidly-evolving technology platform.

        https://www.tesla.com/blog/all-our-patent-are-belong-you [tesla.com]

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        • (Score: 3, Funny) by Ethanol-fueled on Sunday February 11 2018, @09:36AM

          by Ethanol-fueled (2792) on Sunday February 11 2018, @09:36AM (#636315) Homepage

          " . In other words, NASA could buy 10 Falcon Heavy launches for the coat of one SLS launch "

          Man, that must be some wicked coat.

  • (Score: 3, Interesting) by frojack on Sunday February 11 2018, @02:20AM (1 child)

    by frojack (1554) on Sunday February 11 2018, @02:20AM (#636213) Journal

    Musk has said he no longer thinks Falcon Heavy will ever carry humans. He's still not confident of that rocket, even if he got lucky the first time out of the gate. He's betting on the BFR. I'm betting he knows something we don't.

    SLS is the one rocket for the whole mission approach. I suppose BFR is as well.
    But that is no longer necessary. We can build stuff in space. We can launch pieces.
    It doesn't all have to go up at once.
    Falcon Heavy might be the optimum size. Or maybe BFR is.

    I'd rather see SLS aim for a different target. One where there is no private sector customers.
    Soft-landing habitats and supplies on the moon or mars.

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    • (Score: 3, Informative) by takyon on Sunday February 11 2018, @02:42AM

      by takyon (881) <reversethis-{gro ... s} {ta} {noykat}> on Sunday February 11 2018, @02:42AM (#636224) Journal

      https://www.theverge.com/2018/2/5/16975850/spacex-falcon-heavy-launch-elon-musk-tesla-questions [theverge.com]

      This would save the company the trouble of getting Falcon Heavy approved for human spaceflight only to turn around and replace it with the BFR. However, if the BFR takes longer to make than expected, then it’s possible SpaceX will return to the idea of putting crews on Falcon Heavy.

      As planned, BFR would replace both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy since it would be fully reusable. Getting Falcon Heavy human-rated would likely be a waste of time since Falcon 9 can already do the manned flights that are guaranteed to pay out in the near term: the crewed missions to the ISS. If BFR is ready somewhere between 2022-2026, most of NASA's manned activity will still be at the ISS, except for four crewed SLS missions [wikipedia.org] during that time period to build the Deep Space Gateway. Bringing us back to the topic of the article, cancelling SLS.

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  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 11 2018, @03:54AM (4 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 11 2018, @03:54AM (#636253)

    What are the long term percentages?

    If spaceX falcon blows up every x shot at the cost of 1 rocket + Y where Y is the cost of the lost sat(s) and that is less than the more safe-but costly NASA flights then sure. There are no passengers at risk.

    However, we do lose out on data that would be gained when safety is paramount from eliminating the more costly launches.

    • (Score: 1) by khallow on Sunday February 11 2018, @05:23AM (3 children)

      by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Sunday February 11 2018, @05:23AM (#636269) Journal

      However, we do lose out on data that would be gained when safety is paramount from eliminating the more costly launches.

      Launch frequency is a big deal when it comes to safety and reliability. The more often that you do something, the better you are at doing it. I don't believe NASA can safely operate SLS precisely because it launches so infrequently. Long term NASA loses a vehicle every 20 years. I think that would be true whether they launch that vehicle once every two years or twice a month (after the teething issues are worked out).

      • (Score: 3, Interesting) by Runaway1956 on Sunday February 11 2018, @08:26AM (2 children)

        by Runaway1956 (2926) Subscriber Badge on Sunday February 11 2018, @08:26AM (#636300) Homepage Journal

        The more often that you do something, the better you are at doing it.

        I don't remember how many space shuttles we launched, before they started blowing up. IMO, we were using flawed technology, but got really really lucky with it. Thus, the first part of my reaction. Maybe we shouldn't defund the SLS, because that tech may prove to be more reliable, in the long run. I don't really believe that, but we can't know what we are going to learn tomorrow, or next year, or in the next ten years.

        A hundred years from now, people living out there are going to look back, and laugh at our primitive technology.

        --
        Through a Glass, Darkly -George Patton
        • (Score: 1) by khallow on Sunday February 11 2018, @05:25PM

          by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Sunday February 11 2018, @05:25PM (#636384) Journal

          Maybe we shouldn't defund the SLS, because that tech may prove to be more reliable, in the long run.

          Launch frequency kills that argument. They aren't launching often enough to become more reliable. They aren't launching enough even to show that their current approach (massive simulation studies) is safe enough to use in designing rockets. This is not academic. They played the same games with the Space Shuttle, including a ridiculous estimate of the likelihood of failure prior to the first Shuttle accident (destruction of Challenger at launch and the loss of seven astronauts). The physicist, Richard Feynman participated in the official review of why the Challenger accident and had this [nasa.gov] to say:

          It appears that there are enormous differences of opinion as to the probability of a failure with loss of vehicle and of human life. The estimates range from roughly 1 in 100 to 1 in 100,000. The higher figures come from the working engineers, and the very low figures from management. What are the causes and consequences of this lack of agreement? Since 1 part in 100,000 would imply that one could put a Shuttle up each day for 300 years expecting to lose only one, we could properly ask "What is the cause of management's fantastic faith in the machinery?"

          [...]

          An estimate of the reliability of solid rockets was made by the range safety officer, by studying the experience of all previous rocket flights. Out of a total of nearly 2,900 flights, 121 failed (1 in 25). This includes, however, what may be called, early errors, rockets flown for the first few times in which design errors are discovered and fixed. A more reasonable figure for the mature rockets might be 1 in 50. With special care in the selection of parts and in inspection, a figure of below 1 in 100 might be achieved but 1 in 1,000 is probably not attainable with today's technology. (Since there are two rockets on the Shuttle, these rocket failure rates must be doubled to get Shuttle failure rates from Solid Rocket Booster failure.)

          Note incidentally, that these are the same solid rocket motors on the SLS system, just a bit longer ("five segment" instead of the Space Shuttle's "four segment"). The failure rate on them is lower than it was in 1985, but it's still probably not 1 in 1000. Now, consider carefully the following paragraph (emphasis added):

          NASA officials argue that the figure is much lower. They point out that these figures are for unmanned rockets but since the Shuttle is a manned vehicle "the probability of mission success is necessarily very close to 1.0." It is not very clear what this phrase means. Does it mean it is close to 1 or that it ought to be close to 1? They go on to explain "Historically this extremely high degree of mission success has given rise to a difference in philosophy between manned space flight programs and unmanned programs; i.e., numerical probability usage versus engineering judgment." (These quotations are from "Space Shuttle Data for Planetary Mission RTG Safety Analysis," Pages 3-1, 3-1, February 15, 1985, NASA, JSC.) It is true that if the probability of failure was as low as 1 in 100,000 it would take an inordinate number of tests to determine it ( you would get nothing but a string of perfect flights from which no precise figure, other than that the probability is likely less than the number of such flights in the string so far). But, if the real probability is not so small, flights would show troubles, near failures, and possible actual failures with a reasonable number of trials. and standard statistical methods could give a reasonable estimate. In fact, previous NASA experience had shown, on occasion, just such difficulties, near accidents, and accidents, all giving warning that the probability of flight failure was not so very small. The inconsistency of the argument not to determine reliability through historical experience, as the range safety officer did, is that NASA also appeals to history, beginning "Historically this high degree of mission success..."

          Here, we see ignored the power of launch frequency and learning from experience. How are we to get highly reliable rockets, if they aren't launching often enough to see those "difficulties, near accidents, and accidents"? SpaceX last year launched 18 times a year. In twenty years, at that rate, they would see 360 launches. If there was a 1 in 100 chance of failure, they would likely have 3-4 accidents to learn from in order to reduce that likelihood of accident much further. Meanwhile the SLS would have only launched maybe 20 times (likely considerably less!) in that time. So it would be more likely than not to not see those elevated risks.

          And here's where institutional learning effects play a role. When accidents don't happen, the organization is likely to cut corners and old experience eventually leaves. We already saw this happening with NASA. Prior to each Shuttle accident, they had grown complacent and somewhat sloppy, mostly at the management levels. Close calls get ignored because hey, it didn't blow up last time. SpaceX can't afford to get that sloppy because they would collect a lot of lost payloads (and perhaps dead people) real fast, if they did.

        • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 11 2018, @05:28PM

          by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 11 2018, @05:28PM (#636386)

          I don't remember how many space shuttles we launched, before they started blowing up.

          Not counting Enterprise, the Challenger disaster was the 25th flight of the shuttle program.

          And it didn't "blow up", rather it was torn apart by the resulting aerodynamic forces after one of the SRBs partially detached from the orbiter.

  • (Score: 2) by driverless on Sunday February 11 2018, @10:04AM

    by driverless (4770) on Sunday February 11 2018, @10:04AM (#636323)

    Also, the SLS can currently only lift one elephant, and it's white.