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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:

Original Submission

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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 [] 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.