On Sept. 14 NASA announced its intention to develop a new heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) for the United States. The agency’s program plan is both good and original. However, as Samuel Johnson once said when reviewing a proposed work of literature, the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.

First, the good part. The shuttle-derived SLS booster design proposed by the administration of President Barack Obama is just fine. In fact, it is the same in all important respects as the shuttle-derived Ares 5 heavy lifter proposed by President George W. Bush’s NASA, which Obama previously sought to cancel. Indeed, the primary difference between the two concepts is the new paint job, which in the Obama NASA artwork is rendered to resemble that of the Saturn 5 (the Apollo program’s launcher, with which it has no parts in common) rather than the shuttle (which it does.). But the Saturn 5 was a great booster, and if the Obama folks want to dress up their rocket to look like it, so be it.

The problem comes with the aspect of the SLS that is original. In sharp contrast with the Saturn 5 and the Ares 5, both of which were proposed as a necessary part of a defined mission, it is proposed that the SLS be developed in isolation — a booster for booster’s sake, as it were. Thus, according to the schedule set forth by the agency, after an expenditure of $18 billion over six years, the SLS will make its first flight in 2017 — without, however, having anything to launch. Supposedly, the booster will then be available for use in a near-Earth asteroid mission envisioned (but not funded) for 2025. During the intervening eight years, the SLS would be funded at an annual rate of $3 billion, perhaps for use in Fourth of July displays, but not much else. This program plan is so absurd as to ensure the SLS’s cancellation well before its notional first flight.

In addition to its purpose-free planning, the size of the SLS budget is also an issue. NASA proposes to spend $18 billion over six years to develop a booster, an amount sufficient to hire 30,000 people at an annual cost of $100,000 each. There is no way a horde of this size (roughly equal in number to the force Alexander used to conquer the known world) can be usefully employed to build a rocket. Rather, the intent seems to be to take the bulk of the budget for the now retired shuttle and continue to spend it among appropriate constituencies through another election cycle or two. But if funding on this scale is actually available, it could be used not only to develop the booster, but to create in parallel the other flight elements required for human missions beyond low Earth orbit. This would enable actual flight of the allegedly planned near-Earth asteroid mission (which requires only a booster, a habitation module and a re-entry capsule) by 2017, with human missions to Mars following a few years later.

It is quite true that in contrast to the rest of the random set of constituency-driven technology projects (such as multimegawatt electric thrusters without power sources, orbital refueling depots for nonexistent interplanetary spaceships, and refurbished launch pads for grounded shuttles) the Obama administration has selected for NASA, a heavy-lift booster could have real utility. But such utility can be realized only if it is developed in company with the rest of the flight systems needed to accomplish an actual mission. Developing a heavy-lift booster in isolation is as foolish as developing a lunar ascent vehicle in isolation. Without the payloads necessary to carry out a mission plan, the booster is useless.

The American space program is currently adrift in the face of an oncoming fiscal tsunami. If it remains rudderless, it will be wrecked. This is very unfortunate. When properly led, NASA has accomplished magnificently. The United States comprises 4 percent of the world’s population, yet it has been responsible for 100 percent of the people who have walked on the Moon, 100 percent of the rovers that have wheeled on Mars, and 100 percent of the probes that have taken humanity’s eyes to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. These world-historic deeds are the work of NASA. But they were done by NASA when it focused its priorities around achieving missions, rather than pleasing constituencies.

The right way to run a space program is to first determine its mission, then devise a plan to achieve the mission, and then design and build the flight systems required to achieve the plan. The wrong way is to fund the assorted projects most effectively lobbied for by the agency’s vendors, and then hope that somehow they come together to enable a mission. They won’t.

The mission needs to come first.


Robert Zubrin is president of the Mars Society |(www.marssociety.org) and author of “The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must,” |recently updated and republished by The Free Press.