The Senate Launch System

04/01/2011 05:18 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2011

Given the current fiscal climate, it is sad to see that some in Congress (oddly led by so-called fiscally conservative Republicans) are pushing hard for billions of our tax dollars to be spent on space projects that are being cancelled, sending hundreds of millions to the Russians so they can better compete with U.S. commercial space firms and placing huge down payments on giant government designed socialist spaceships we aren't even sure we need -- and that if we did would be better and much more cheaply designed, built and operated by our commercial space sector.

For example, the main battle right now is over what some call the Heavy-lift Launch Vehicle (HLV), a new version of the giant Saturn 5 designed to carry payloads between 70 and 130 tons into orbit to support Apollo-style exploration missions (the size depends on who you talk to and which day of the week they are asked).

Enter Congress, which has decided to not only try and design its own rocket, but in advance has decided who will build it, where and for how much. Called by those on the Hill the SLS (Senate Launch System) it is designed not to do the best job the best way, but as proposed right now is rather a sole source, cost plus pork for pork's sake project designed to carry large amounts of cash home to replace old dead-end jobs and contracts with new dead-end jobs and contracts working on yet another soon to fail government space ship.

Although its proponents cite such things as the economy, jobs and exploration, if these were the real drivers we would have a rational discussion on the type of exploration planned (led by NASA -- who has to do it). We would then go with the most cost-effective means of carrying it out, and do so in a manner that creates a new space industrial and job base rather than one that props up the most expensive possible ways of doing things just to keep some old dead end jobs alive a bit longer -- even as it strangles our ability to explore.

At a time when those same Senators say we need to be trimming the budget, wouldn't it make more sense to not waste the more than $2 billion Congress wants to spend on this debacle using the old approach and try something new? (Way more if history tells us anything. Recall the $8 billion dollar government-designed space station that ended up costing over $100 billion?)

Yet there is a rational discussion to be had, and here are some baseline assumptions:

  • We have limited funds (NASA has a pretty fixed budget).
  • We do want a strong and robust human exploration program ASAP.
  • For now, NASA should lead far frontier human exploration as our current-day Lewis and Clark organization.
  • The nation cannot afford another multibillion-dollar, government-designed, cost-plus, use-it-and-throw-it-away Saturn 5 that is destined to be a museum piece rather than the core of a new space industrial revolution. (If we have to spend money let's make sure it can make us money in the long run.)
  • The best bang for the buck investment in our future is a system where industrial activities such as carrying freight and building buildings are done by people who do them everywhere else in our society -- the commercial sector -- rather than an expensive cost-plus single-use government program.
OK. There you go. Months of congressional hearings and NASA babble cleared out of the way. To put it in basic terms:

Government employees can explore but should not design or drive trucks or build buildings.

What is left is a reasonable debate to be had between the "build it in space" or "pre-build it on Earth" points of view.

One side aims to seed commercial launch and on-orbit activities with different elements designed for space-to-space use are flown to orbit by different smaller carriers (catalyzing a commercial launch market) and assembled into much larger vehicles and facilities (catalyzing a commercial on-orbit industrial base) that then depart for the far frontier. This method avoids the need for large national Apollo style missions to justify itself and seeds an orbital industrial infrastructure that can support both commercial and government activities in the near and far frontiers, as larger numbers of companies are involved, expertise is developed in space and "civilian" support and interactions create a low Earth orbit economy.

The other side believes that far frontier exploration and other uses require large preassembled elements launched from Earth rather than built from smaller pieces delivered to orbit. They point to the simplicity and efficiency of constructing complex facilities and systems here on the ground. They believe that by placing these larger elements into space both in the near and far frontiers they will create a "pull" effect on pioneering space activities by achieving grand goals such as Mars and lunar outposts more quickly. This side believes the super space truck can be built for a fraction of the proposed government version by funding commercial teams to come up with and build such vehicles to be used by both sectors -- perhaps based on currently flying systems or new vehicles entirely, and possibly by starting at the smaller end of the scale and working upwards using modular designs.

In either of these cases, if we go commercial with the lifting and focus NASA on exploring the U.S. taxpayers and the future of our leadership in space win. We save money, kick-start new space jobs and industry that can grow rather than die at the end of a program such as the shuttle, and insure a robust human exploration program.

In the case of the current SLS, we lose. We waste billions, set up the government to compete with the private sector and create a cost-heavy, unsustainable program that will eventually collapse, taking our exploration program with it, leaving flags and footprints and few museum pieces behind as its legacy -- if anything gets built at all. Kill the Senate Launch System. Let's do this right -- and open the frontier.