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posted by janrinok on Wednesday March 28 2018, @08:08PM   Printer-friendly
from the weighty-problem dept.

NASA chief explains why agency won't buy a bunch of Falcon Heavy rockets

Since the launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket in February, NASA has faced some uncomfortable questions about the affordability of its own Space Launch System rocket. By some estimates, NASA could afford 17 to 27 Falcon Heavy launches a year for what it is paying annually to develop the SLS rocket, which won't fly before 2020. Even President Trump has mused about the high costs of NASA's rocket. On Monday, during a committee meeting of NASA's Advisory Council, former Space Shuttle Program Manager Wayne Hale raised this issue. Following a presentation by Bill Gerstenmaier, chief of human spaceflight for NASA, Hale asked whether the space agency wouldn't be better off going with the cheaper commercial rocket.

[...] In response, Gerstenmaier pointed Hale and other members of the advisory committee—composed of external aerospace experts who provide non-binding advice to the space agency—to a chart he had shown earlier in the presentation. This chart showed the payload capacity of the Space Launch System in various configurations in terms of mass sent to the Moon. "It's a lot smaller than any of those," Gerstenmaier said, referring to the Falcon Heavy's payload capacity to TLI, or "trans-lunar injection," which effectively means the amount of mass that can be broken out of low-Earth orbit and sent into a lunar trajectory. In the chart, the SLS Block 1 rocket has a TLI capacity of 26 metric tons. (The chart also contains the more advanced Block 2 version of the SLS, with a capacity of 45 tons. However, this rocket is at least a decade away, and it will require billions of dollars more to design and develop.)

SpaceX's Falcon Heavy TLI capacity is unknown, but estimated to be somewhere between 18 and 22 tons (between the known payloads of 16.8 tons to Mars and 26.7 tons to geostationary orbit).

Does the SLS need to launch more than 18 tons to TLI? No. All of the currently planned components of the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (formerly the Deep Space Gateway) have a mass of 10 tons or less due to flying alongside a crewed Orion capsule rather than by themselves. Only by 2027's Exploration Mission 6 would NASA launch more massive payloads, by which time SpaceX's BFR could take 150 tons to TLI or even Mars when using in-orbit refueling.

Related: NASA Eyeing Mini Space Station in Lunar Orbit as Stepping Stone to Mars
NASA and Roscosmos Sign Joint Statement on the Development of a Lunar Space Station
President Trump Signs Space Policy Directive 1
Russia Assembles Engineering Group for Lunar Activities and the Deep Space Gateway
After the Falcon Heavy Launch, Time to Defund the Space Launch System?
President Trump Praises Falcon Heavy, Diminishes NASA's SLS Effort

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  • (Score: 2) by pe1rxq on Wednesday March 28 2018, @10:08PM (4 children)

    by pe1rxq (844) on Wednesday March 28 2018, @10:08PM (#659713) Homepage

    While I agree with you that real advances can benifit greatly from government funded research, there is a difference here: NASA is not doing much fundamental research with SLS, it is pretty much doing stuff already proven before.
    NASA should be building new stuff that is not yet ready for commercial exploitation, for example a project like Skylon.

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  • (Score: 2) by legont on Wednesday March 28 2018, @10:28PM (3 children)

    by legont (4179) on Wednesday March 28 2018, @10:28PM (#659724)

    Perhaps, I don't really know what NASA is doing lately and I agree it should do new risky stuff. However, NASA already invested heavily into subsidiaries who work on the project. Are they inefficient? Perhaps. Will Space X be more efficient over the long run? Highly unlikely. The more likely scenario is that Mask will suck the same and then some more; much more. I may be wrong, but regardless let Mask prove himself for a decade or so. Meantime we should increase NASA budget like 10X.

    "Wealth is the relentless enemy of understanding" - John Kenneth Galbraith.
    • (Score: 2) by qzm on Thursday March 29 2018, @07:21AM (1 child)

      by qzm (3260) on Thursday March 29 2018, @07:21AM (#659876)

      Spotted the NASA contractor.
      Is that pork nice and tasty?

      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 29 2018, @06:15PM

        by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 29 2018, @06:15PM (#660112)

        Holy crap, assholes like you are the reason we can't have nice things anymore. It should be obvious to you that when the last arrow in your quiver is the "you're a paid shill!", it is clear to the rest of us that you've lost. You should at least try to save what shred of dignity you have by not loosing that arrow.

    • (Score: 1) by khallow on Thursday March 29 2018, @07:48PM

      by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Thursday March 29 2018, @07:48PM (#660164) Journal

      However, NASA already invested heavily into subsidiaries who work on the project.

      NASA would be even better invested, if it cut off the Space Shuttle supply chain altogether. There are so many decision points where NASA could have made the right choice, in the early 1970s, they could have chosen not to build the Space Shuttle. In 1990, after the Challenger accident, they could have ended the program then. Again in 2005 after the Columbia accident and when it became quite clear the Space Shuttle couldn't continue (too few Shuttles to handle another Shuttle loss). Then finally in 2011 after the final Shuttle flight. It's a disgrace that those subsidiaries are still funded now.

      I may be wrong, but regardless let Mask prove himself for a decade or so. Meantime we should increase NASA budget like 10X.

      Just so they can waste 10X on the crap they already waste it on? Show me that NASA can handle that responsibility first. It also would be acceptable to put the money into a new organization that can do the job. Else 5-6% of US GDP on space is not sustainable. It's going to be killed off just like Apollo was.