Coffin Nails

I know, we don’t actually use nails to hold down coffin lids anymore, but the metaphor still works.

Note the strikeouts. In NASA’s desperate attempts to save the Space Launch System and Orion capsule, their plans are very fluid right now. The stike-outs in this article indicate late-breaking updates.

I’ve long said that Falcon Heavy won’t eat NASA’s Space Launch System…due to their different operational timelines, separate mission schedules, and some incompatibilities, or at least overly inconvenient differences, in technical specs. However, SLS flights have been pushed far enough down the calendar that SpaceX almost had the opportunity to torpedo it by simply refusing to send Falcon Heavy to Orion’s rescue.

I’m talking about the Moon. Several weeks ago a private company tried and failed to land a small probe on the lunar surface. Another such attempt by another company will be attempted soon. China wants to send human missions there. NASA and others intend to use Lunar orbit and its surface as test-beds for technology being developed for long-duration, deep space missions such as Mars.

It’s import has been felt. NASA has been directed by the Trump Administration to place humans on the Moon by 2024. They already planned to send Orion, launched by SLS, on a trip near lunar orbit in April 2020 as part of their Mars plans. They ain’t gonna make either of those dates, no way no how, but SpaceX’s far less expensive Falcon SuperHeavy/Starship just might. This poses a very serious existential threat to SLS/Orion.

Prompted by prodding from the Whitehouse, NASA Administrator Bridenstien tried and failed earlier this year to substitute unnamed (ahem…Falcon Heavy & Delta Heavy combo) commercial launchers for SLS on Orion’s 2020 EM-1 mission. This thought experiment prompted an attempt to speed up SLS development…which now seems to have also maybe failed, since the test that the SLS team would have to skip to meet their EM-1 date with Orion could may or may not in fact be skipped. Therefore, EM-1 looks like it cannot is unlikely to happen in 2020. Orion needed EM-1 to go off on time in order to meet testing and production needs for another Trump mandate…a crewed surface mission by 2024. That unlikely event would also require an uber-accelerated and trimmed-down version of the Lunar Orbital Gateway so that it more closely resembles an Apollo Command Module to support a quick and dirty, Apollo style, flags and footprints Lunar surface mission.

Oh, and Orion cannot land on the Moon, Lockheed-Martin plans to build an Apollo style, two-part lander/launcher spacecraft for that. Last year, before the Whitehouse-imposed acceleration, Lockheed had proposed a more useful, reusable lander with one stage that would bring all of its parts back to the Lunar Gatway with each use, instead of the “new” April 2019 plan of separating and leaving the descent hardware behind. So in order to compete with the timeline of a fully-reusable Starship or possibly Crew-Dragon, they’ve tossed their own reusable lander advancements out the window for a more Moon-focused, less sustainable program overall.

So, SpaceX’s Falcon Super Heavy and Starship have a chance to one-up NASA be achieving its #Dearmoon mission, a proof of concept loop around the Moon with humans on board, before crewed Orion missions. Starship can also double as a lander and appears to have met all of its production milestones so far. If they stick to this schedule they could conceivably land and return an empty Starship before any crew-rated NASA ship goes anywhere near the Moon.

The Falcon 9 looks like it will launch its 17th cargo mission to the International Space Station tomorrow Friday. That program took six years from development start in 2006 to first flight in 2012. Starship began last year, so following the same development timeline would put it’s first working launch for clients at more like 2024, the same year as Trump’s unreachable deadline. They will no doubt fly #Dearmoon as soon as safely possible after that. No one expects that mission to hit its pie-in-the-sky goal of 2023. However, at the same time I haven’t heard anyone say expect it will take longer than 2025 or so.

See what’s happening? The Trump administration first tried to save the program early on by pressuring NASA to crew-rate EM-1, so that Commercial Space wouldn’t be the ones to do a crewed Moon loop thing first. Perception is important and human spaceflight envelope growth is the only thing that captures the general interest of the public. If NASA keeps on top of that then SLS lives a little longer. However, no one found any surprise in the eventual conclusion that EM-1 could not be safely crew rated in 2020 or 2021. Now Trump has made a crew landing demand. I don’t pretend that Trump cares about the SLS program employees more than he does the bragging rights of a successful human Moon landing during his watch. Bush and Obama have more bragging rights over these possibilities than he does, but where NASA is concerned politics matters and whatever Trump’s base motives in these unsuccessful attempts to accelerate the SLS timeline, it is schedule slip that has been killing SLS.

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~ by Bill Housley on April 30, 2019.

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