A Long and Winding Road

The Europa Clipper mission…once used by Congress as a justification for it’s pet Space Launch System, was finally freed of that albatross late last year when the new budget allowed NASA to seek alternative launchers. Yesterday, NASA awarded the contract to SpaceX to launch the mission on Falcon Heavy.

Of course it took long enough. The mission has been in the works since 2017 when Congress latched on to it to assure that SLS would have something to do. NASA explored several possible launchers for it, but SLS always provided the mission with the possibility of not only a direct flight with a 3 year flight time, but also maybe even enough throw weight to bring along a lander, but SLS would not only have added tons of cost to the overall mission, but it also would have delayed the mission for two years because SLS isn’t yet ready to fly. Once it starts launching, they’ve scheduled it to be used for many lunar missions…another iniative that has been pushed back somewhat due in part to SLS development delays. SLS, a crew capable spacecraft, would be needed to assure a human presence in lunar orbit and on the lunar surface itself. The SpaceX Falcon Heavy by comparison has several other things going for it…

  • It’s not a paper rocket.
  • It can fly far more frequently.
  • It costs lots less.
  • SpaceX needs deep-space experience.
  • Congress can’t cancel it.

Paper Rockets.

When I say “Paper Rocket”, I mean a launch system that has never flown. The fictional spacecraft in my books have been around for nearly as long as SLS and to date have flown exactly as many times. Missions that get joined to launchers that are still under development are always at the mercy of development delays. SLS has been kicked down the road numerous times, and with each schedule delay it loses missions to other launch systems as the spacecraft become ready for launch while SLS is still in development. This also has the effect of reducing NASA’s reliance on the launcher so that the costs become increasingly less justified. A few years back, that became a problem to the future of the program, prompting Alabama Senator Richard Shelby to quietly add a provision to Congressional funding of the Europa Clipper mission that required NASA to use SLS as the launcher. Recently it has become increasingly apparent that Clipper would be ready well before SLS.

Launch Cadence.

With all of the difficult work completed, it appears that the SLS schedule is now fairly solid. However, it can only be launched once or twice per year and that entire schedule is now taken up by Moon shots. The Artimis program and lunar gateway, with their own set of scheduling challenges, need SLS (at least for now) to heavy-lift station componants and astronoauts to the moon and lunar orbit. Without an SLS rocket available until (maybe) 2025, the Europa Clipper spacecraft would have to be stored for two years to wait for it. Falcon Heavy is capable of launching several times per year, giving it the flexibility to fly soon after Clipper is ready to go.

Money makes the world go ’round.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

The SpaceX Falcon Heavy is a partially reusable launcher that costs $90 million per flight. If you use up all of it’s fuel so that its all components just crash into the ocean, it costs $150 million. SLS is a totally throw away kleenex that will cost somewhere between $500 million and $2 billion per launch, depending on how you choose to add it up (government programs are fun that way). Anytime you study the feasability of a spacecraft, you have to add the launch cost to it and many missions never make it past the drawing board because they would cost too much to fly. Generally speaking, the cost of Falcon Heavy would lamost always add up to much lower than that of the spacecraft that would ride as payload. Costly launchers like SLS are likely to work out the other way around. Budgets are tight and the comparative costs of SLS vs Falcon Heavy weighed heavily on NASAs decision to dump SLS as the launcher for Europa Clipper.

SpaceX has Deep-Space plans.

Photo by SpaceX on Pexels.com

Part of the benefit of NASA using existing commercial launchers is that the company that operates them gets to learn from NASA about how to do certain things. They can then go on and do those same things for private industry. The Falcon Heavy proved on its first flight that it can throw things way outside of Earth orbit when it sent a Tesla Roadster out to solar orbit on a direct flight that takes it out near the astroid belt. Now the moon Europa orbits Jupiter, well past the astroid belt,
but creative flybys past Venus, Earth, and Mars can use the gravity of those planets to speed up the Europa Clipper and fling it out to Jupiter. NASA has already done the math on this and the journey would take 6 years. SpaceX would get to partner with NASA on the flight though, which means they would understand better how to do this kind of complicated launch which NASA shines at. They will then take use knowledge in their journey to Mars.

The Fickle Congress

Precision Meets Progress in Welding on SLS Liquid Oxygen Tank Hardware. NASA/Michoud/Steve Seipel

The warehouses of the United States are strewn with the bones of space programs that government lost interest in. Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, the Space Launch System’s most vocal defender, once chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is no longer the chairman. The Democrat Party currently holds the majority in the Senate and that means that the chairman is Patrick Leahy from Vermont. Vermont has no major SLS manufacturing facilities. Now, I like Leahy, and he is a vocal supporter of NASA, but Alabama hosts NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, and yes that does make a difference. That shift in power after the November 2020 election probably had a lot to do with why Congress finally relented to allowing NASA to cut the ties between SLS and Clipper. Shelby, an avid defender of jobs at Marshall, which manages NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans where the SLS rockets are built, would not have stood for that because every flight that gets taken away from SLS risks its future funding and survival. This sort of garbage happens with all Congressionally funded projects all across the nation. Independent Commercial launch services companies like SpaceX make their own decisions as to where they build stuff, which states they spend their money in, which projects they work to tie themselves too and where they get their funding. Politics get intermingled in everything that NASA does, but has a lot less impact on the longevity of projects that Commercial Space launches because those organizations get their funding from places other than just Congress.

All in all, Europa Clipper will take longer to fly to Jupiter on the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, but it will also launch a lot sooner so it might very well actually take less time to get there, and the Clipper program won’t be at risk if and when Congress decides to stop throwing money at SLS to keep it flying. NASA also will save money flying it on on Falcon Heavy anyway. Win Win.

~ by Bill Housley on July 24, 2021.

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