SLS Will Never ‘Back Up’ Commercial Crew

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The release of President Barack Obama’s NASA budget plan for fiscal 2013 has triggered the usual chattering about what (and who) got too little or too much funding. Some offer hyperbole about the “catastrophic” impact of a cut or even an insufficiently large increase.

The 2013 submission clearly implements the 2010 Authorization Act compromise within an overall budget cap, and honors the deals struck last fall between then-Office of Management and Budget Director Jack Lew and key senators on exploration funding and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). So the only quasi-justified uproar is over Mars exploration having to pay for saving JWST.

But without the overt provocations of recent years, some in Congress are digging up obsolete assumptions to justify further criticisms of the Obama administration’s spaceflight budget priorities.

One such argument is the claim from both houses of Congress that the funding for the Space Launch System (SLS) — which increases from the 2012 level — is too small to enable the SLS to launch the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) as a backup for commercial crew services. Some even suggest that NASA is putting too much money into the legislatively stipulated primary means of carrying astronauts to and from the international space station (commercial crew) and therefore shortchanging the backup (SLS). Of course, NASA is spending nearly four times as much on Orion and SLS as it is on commercial crew, so the argument appears lopsided.

But how justified is the underlying concern? Let’s step back and review history. In 2010 Congress enacted authorization legislation that directed NASA to build an evolvable Space Launch System. To the Senate’s credit, it tried to avoid Constellation’s mistake of building two launch systems (Ares 1 and Ares 5) nearly simultaneously by developing just one system incrementally over time, with the initial version serving closer destinations and the later version enabling more aggressive missions. With this in mind, it directed NASA to ensure that the SLS be available to launch the MPCV to the international space station, if necessary, as a backup to commercial crew capabilities, which the law declares will be NASA’s primary means of space station crew transfer.

Leaving aside whether the Senate was right about its policy and programmatic choices, the flaw in this plan is that authorization laws don’t actually appropriate funds, and therefore you can’t actually force NASA to achieve a goal on your desired schedule for your imagined budget by passing a single law.

Sure enough, a few months later NASA told the Congress that a slightly tweaked version of the Senate’s preferred SLS design would not fit inside the likely budget run-out for human spaceflight. The Senate rejected this, and demanded NASA modify existing contracts to get work started right away.

Under pressure, NASA generated more-optimistic estimates of costs and budget limits that would allow SLS to start development but did not allow room for actual exploration mission hardware. After a few more months of fighting, senators extracted a pledge from the White House to fund SLS (as well as the already-agreed-to Orion) in fiscal 2012 and 2013, and then hosted NASA’s unveiling of the SLS design on Capitol Hill.

However, because of funding limits and design choices, NASA’s fall 2011 plan showed it would take longer to develop the Senate’s rocket than the Senate had originally wanted. Instead of a first crewed flight in 2016, SLS’s first uncrewed test flight would be in December 2017, with the first crewed mission nearly four years later, in late 2021. Even worse, NASA’s plan showed that Orion and SLS would be able to fly only one exploration mission every two (or more) years.

Given this schedule, how good a backup could SLS be? First of all, international space station operations have been extended only to 2020, but at best SLS won’t fly an astronaut until a year later. Even if the space station’s working life is extended to 2028, SLS could launch Orion to station only a few times.

Worse still, since Orion is being designed to accommodate four astronauts, that means Orion and SLS could transfer four astronauts up and down every two years. But during that period, NASA is responsible for at least 12 crew exchanges. So SLS provides only a one-third backup service several years after it would be needed.

Are we to believe that commercial crew won’t be ready by 2021, let alone 2017, so NASA would still require SLS as a partial backup? Doesn’t it make more sense to structure and fund commercial crew robustly, including competition up to and perhaps into the service phase?

But the real tragedy would be that this late, limited and astronomically expensive backup for commercial crew would come at the cost of any exploration beyond Earth orbit. NASA can use its budget over two years to either launch Orion on SLS to the space station or into cislunar space — not both. 

So, in that setting, it makes no sense to propose taking money from commercial crew — on which space station access and research productivity really depend, and where a marginal dollar has much greater leverage — and use it in a probably futile attempt to accelerate — at best by a few months — the SLS’s availability as an insufficient and too-expensive backup crew transportation system.

There may be arguments for increasing SLS spending. There may even be reasons for taking money from commercial crew to boost SLS. But pretending you’re investing in a space station crew transfer backup shouldn’t be one of them, because that’s just not true.

James A.M. Muncy is founder and principal of PoliSpace, an independent space policy consultancy.