Op-ed | A bright future for SLS production

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This op-ed originally appeared in the Oct. 22, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

This month, as moviegoers flock to theaters to experience Neil Armstrong’s bold journey to the Moon, we witness some of the less theatrically appealing drama of human spaceflight play out here in real life.

Movies like “First Man,” “Apollo 13”, and “The Right Stuff” capture the tension, danger and excitement of our nation’s spaceflight history but in the background of these films is a common thread that seems to be wavering in today’s society: the strength of an entire country’s focus and support.

Anyone who has worked in the space industry can confidently say that “space is hard.” It requires a tenacious drive to boldly go forward despite the inevitable bumps and drawbacks you encounter. In fact, I would argue that the very nature of exploration is defined by how you adapt and advance when roadblocks arise.

Recently, NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a report outlining some of the initial setbacks humanity’s next large-scale exploration program — the Space Launch System (SLS) — encountered early in its development. The powerful and flexible SLS rocket will enable us to explore our universe beyond the low Earth orbital perimeter we’ve been confined to for several decades. Designed from the ground up for human spaceflight missions, it’s the only rocket capable of transporting astronauts and large exploration systems to deep space.

As Boeing’s program manager for SLS, I take our nation’s goal of returning humans to the moon and being the first country to step foot on Mars very seriously and remain committed to our shared exploration success.

Many of the issues outlined in the OIG report are from years past, no longer affect schedule or cost, and do not accurately reflect the SLS program of today. We’ve restructured our SLS leadership team to better align with current program challenges as we transition from a development program to production program and implemented the rest of the report’s suggestions relevant to Boeing.

We are making great progress towards delivery of the first core stage and — at the same time — setting the stage for a robust production capability to efficiently build future core stages for later flights. In doing this, we acknowledge that while schedule is always important, safety is always the first priority. We absolutely will not take short cuts on the first rocket — or any of those to follow.

I grew up in awe of what our country accomplished in the space race of the 1960s. Everyone was enamored with the idea of stepping foot on the moon. In order to repeat that success and recapture the hearts and minds of people around the world, we must continue to boldly press forward with that same tenacity.

We should identify and recognize the speed bumps, roadblocks and setbacks we encounter along the way — even the more mundane ones that don’t make it into the movies — and continue to adapt and improve our trajectory. In that sense, I remain confident in our deep space exploration prospects and see a bright future for SLS production and our shared journey to go where no one has gone before.


John Shannon is Boeing’s program manager for the Space Launch System.