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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: 4, Interesting) by khallow on Thursday March 29 2018, @05:51AM

    by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Thursday March 29 2018, @05:51AM (#659854) Journal

    Sure, Space X as any good capitalist enterprise can and will, well, capitalize on a good bag of inventions. They will mass produce and they will cut costs and they will make lots of money out of it but, but, they can not innovate and they will need innovations for the next step which probably will not be done by Space X, but some other company.

    I disagree. Here, SpaceX did extensive innovation to get where it is now. It's demeaning to claim that the national space programs laid out various things like vertical landing, staged combustion, reusability, telemetry, secondary payloads, etc, like Legos on the floor, and like a toddler, SpaceX merely had to assemble these things in a suitable order. Even if idea generation were somehow beyond the capabilities of a company (and it's not), the creation of a viable business operating at a far lower price point from a haphazard collection of ideas going back 50 years (which no one else had figured out yet) is a huge act of innovation in itself. Remember innovation is not just coming up with ideas, but making them work.

    But then we get to the second problem, which is the equally demeaning assertion that SpaceX (and the rest of the planet's businesses) can't come up with new ideas. Here, Musk claims to be planning Mars infrastructure for a settlement and he's far from alone in that. That's innovation that NASA has barely touched.

    Regardless, they will need serious research that only governments can provide and that's why we need to keep NASA projects going even if they are, supposedly, 10X more expensive.

    Well, right there we have the rate of idea creation slowed by a factor of ten merely because we involved NASA. That's a typical problem with the government approach.

    Notice that the story is about a NASA official ruling out a superior launch system merely because it can't perform a mostly irrelevant task (throw a particular amount of mass, 45 metric tons directly on a Trans-Lunar injection orbit). But what he doesn't mention is that there are several multiple launch configurations that can do the same job for about 700-800 million USD less in launch costs (unmanned 2-3 Falcon Heavies assembled in low Earth orbit (LEO) or 2 Falcon Heavies and a Falcon 9 for manned missions - the latter rocket would bring the people) and higher reliability. Also, by ending SLS right now, we would have considerable funds to devote to lunar activities now.

    There are superior alternate approaches such as creating a non-profit to do the research which removes most of the political rent-seeking and other conflicts of interest that come with government agencies and their contractors. But then one wouldn't be able to siphon off a enormous amount of public funds with little accountability.

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