Proposed NASA Budget Signals Changes To Space Launch System

The White House’s proposed budget for 2020 is out, and with it comes cuts to NASA. The most important item of note in the proposed budget is a delay of the Space Launch System, the SLS, a super-heavy lifting launch vehicle designed for single use. The proposed delay would defer work on the enhanced version of the SLS, the Block 1B with the Exploration Upper Stage.

The current plans for the Space Launch System include a flight using NASA’s Orion spacecraft in June 2020 for a flight around the moon. This uncrewed flight, Exploration Mission 1, or EM-1, would use the SLS Block 1 Crew rocket. A later flight, EM-2, would fly a crewed Orion capsule around the moon in 2022. A third proposed flight in 2023 would send the Europa Clipper to Jupiter. The proposed 2020 budget puts these flights in jeopardy.

The proposed cuts to NASA for the 2020 budget would defer construction of the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) to focus on the much larger Exploration Upper Stage. The ICPS is a derivative of the upper stage for the Delta III and Delta IV rockets. The Exploration Upper Stage will be significantly bigger, allowing the entire booster to loft 105 tons into Low Earth Orbit, or 37 tons to the moon.

The reasoning that can be gleaned from the proposed NASA budget seems to indicate that cuts to the ICPS are intended to advance the timeline and get the SLS doing what it does best much sooner. While the Block I SLS is more capable than even the Falcon Heavy, it’s still much less than the upgraded Block 1B SLS. The Falcon Heavy is capable of lifting 50 tons to Low Earth Orbit, as is the unflown and untested New Glenn from Blue Origin. Only the Saturn V could carry more to orbit, with a maximum payload to Low Earth Orbit of greater than 140 tons.

The cancellation of the Block 1B of the Space Launch System puts several missions into question. Most notably, the delivery of the European System Providing Refueling, Infrastructure, and Telecommunications (ESPRIT) and the US Utilization Module to LOP-G, This is the launch of a space station to a weird orbit that looks like a highly eccentric polar orbit around the moon. This launch is currently planned for 2024 with Exploration Mission 3, a mission to send four astronauts to the moon to build the Lunar Gateway. Further missions using the Block 1B SLS follow: one to two month missions in 2025 through 2028 will build out the Lunar Gateway, with the crowning achievement of launching four crew to the Lunar Gateway for a mission of more than six months.

The goal of the Space Launch System is to build the machine that will take humans and a lot of payload to the moon and beyond. With the successful launch of the Falcon Heavy, the development of Blue Origin’s New Glenn, and the expected 2020 launch of the Ariane 6, the market for heavy lift launchers is crowded. The proposed budget from the White House still supports building the Lunar Gateway, but says these modules, “would be launched on competitively procured vehicles, complementing crew transport flights on the SLS and Orion.”

Although the White House’s budget does list numerous cuts to space exploration, there is no guarantee this budget will pass; this budget is merely a proposal to Congress which must pass its own budget for the government. The Space Launch System itself is well-supported in Congress and has rightfully been referred to as the Senate Launch System in the past. This is by design, and part of the organizational structure of NASA that dates back to 1958. Whether or not the interim cryogenic propulsion stage will fly on the SLS remains to be seen, but either way we will eventually return to the moon, and most of that payload will be delivered by the Space Launch System.

17 thoughts on “Proposed NASA Budget Signals Changes To Space Launch System

        1. This is what I hate about smart phones and the complete absence of proper keyboards. People try to use speech recognition or that infernal onscreen “keyboard” to express themselves and they end up dishing out the kind of crap that would make a grammar teacher spin at 10,000 rpm in their grave. A real keyboard by a skilled typist can convey words as quickly as the author can generate them so the thought stream flows nicely and articulately. Text then actually becomes a pleasure to read.

          1. I totally agree and think mobile has done more damage to UIUX than any other invention, but honestly I don’t think it was lack of proper HID that made that person seem illiterate.

    1. I know this is probably a joke, but since enough people apparently think Musk’s Mars flight is even remotely credible it bears saying: ambitious manned space exploration is fundamentally incompatible with private aerospace. It needs larger organizational backing. These are civilization-scale problems.

      It won’t be the result of a single team of engineers beholden to a goofy celebrity CEO or mindless, heliotropic stockholders, whipping about in the wind every financial quarter. It just doesn’t work that way. Musk’s plan just might be able to carry itself to Mars, but it certainly won’t carry live humans that far.

      Of course NASA won’t either if it continues to be cynically abused as a political trick, praised and promised on the campaign trail yet always having its budget slashed far between elections. It’s a real shame–after half a century, our precious momentum is basically completely gone.

      1. I have the opposite : state run behemoth organizations like NASA are incapable of getting people to Mars. Agile private companies like SpaceX are more likely to get there.
        NASA’s manned program was always dependent on politicians, originally simply to beat the Soviets, now NASA has to make do with whatever pork barrel resource they are given. The weird thing in proving that capitalism beats communism, the US did it with a state run organisation typical of communism. Meanwhile the “communists” are still providing seats on Soyuz for NASA… It’s puzzling how people in the US venerate their state-run bureaucracy, but castigate private enterprise. The original pioneers where “crazy entrepreneurs”, but now pioneering spirit lies… with the federal government?
        SpaceX has already proved doubters wrong, and run rings round established players. It’s SpaceX who finally proved that capitalism can beat state run organisations – witness the muted response from RosCosmos on the arrival of Crew Dragon at the ISS. They have realised their day is over.
        My prediction : in the next 10 years we will see boots on Mars, and the name on the lander will be SpaceX.

        1. Ok, so SpaceX’s schedules never really seem to work out… however, SpaceX under Shotwell has done AMAZING things that no one else is doing. They stand on the backs of giants, but people will stand on their backs someday as they innovate even more. Musk has ambitious goals, and I think his schedules are way too aggressive, but he wants to push his people, and it’s working. If BFR or whatever it’s being called today is successful then it will change the market. I just wish that he would crowd fund BFR, as I’d gladly invest. even if my reward is just seeing progress. We need to get off this planet and have an outpost if humanity is going to prosper, and NASA is never going to get us there.

          1. Both NASA and Space-X could teach each other a thing or two. Consequently, I want to see them both fully active and working together. Space-X is more aggressive and able to move forward quickly but NASA’s strengths are really going to show when it comes to helping people prosper out in space for extended times. In that context it’s not about performance, but endurance/comfort/sanity/etc. and NASA understands that. They started out strong friends. The both still are strong friends, and they need to stay that way. Like two brothers working on a project one outgoing and ambitious, the other cautious and thoughtful and together they do great things without being too stupid. Write Brothers????

  1. All orbital (and beyond) launch systems are essentially cargo ships, sometimes with passengers. When crossing the ocean we hire merchant marine ships or airlines/cargo-planes to move things and people around. That paradigm is now being transferred to space. It’s a natural progression as the whole industry matures. Best to let the private companies do the lifting unless it’s a military launch on an urgent mission. This is a good thing. It saves money. We can let NASA do what it is best at, making and sending off excellent scientific probes. Yes, NASA will soon probably end up meaning “Not Able to Send Anything” into space but that’s OK if there is already a dozen other entities who would be glad to get people and stuff up there for them. It’s too bad I can’t own any Space-X stock right now. They are sitting pretty in this situation.

  2. Its time the waste of money pork-barrel SLS (which only exists because a few congressmen and senators got yelled at by a bunch of workers who used to build Space Shuttle parts and said congressmen and senators then told NASA that they needed to build something that would keep these factories and workers in business) was canceled in favor of spending that money to subsidize development of a “Falcon Super Heavy” or some other rocket that can do the same job at a better price.

    1. It can’t do even remotely a better job at any price, and you’re naive if you think private industry magically makes everything cheaper in all situations. Healthcare and space exploration don’t work that way; in these sectors, privatisation just adds parasitic costs to expenses that just can’t be cut without sacrificing the function of the whole operation.

      Private rockets will always be optimized for marketable endeavors that can turn a profit relatively quickly, e.g. satellite launches. In other words they will only refine paths that we have already tread; they simply cannot travel to new places.

  3. “The cancellation of the Block 1B of the Space Launch System puts several missions into question. Most notably, the delivery of the European System Providing Refueling, Infrastructure, and Telecommunications (ESPRIT) and the US Utilization Module to LOP-G, This is the launch of a space station to a weird orbit that looks like a highly eccentric polar orbit around the moon.”

    That’s really not what Bridenstine or the budget said. The budget *specifically says* that “Lunar Gateway elements would be launched on competitively procured vehicles, complementing crew transport flights on the SLS and Orion.” ESPRIT and the US Utilization Module aren’t in question, they’re now aiming for launching them on commercial vehicles.

    Block 1B would launch ESPRIT and the US Utilization Module *co-manifested* with Orion – if you’ve only got Block 1 (so no co-manifesting) you launch them separately (on commercial launchers) and Orion meets up with them at NRHO. NASA “needs” Block 1, because it’s the only crew-capable launcher capable of getting to the Moon (I doubt NASA thinks SpaceX will be anywhere close with Starship, and given Elon time that’s probably reasonable) but it doesn’t *need* Block 1B.

    That being said, I don’t think they sold this well at all from a salesmanship perspective (i.e. selling it to Congress) because along with pushing to fly Orion commercial instead of Block 1 (in 15 months!) for EM1, it looks like they’re setting themselves up to kill SLS entirely (which isn’t a bad idea in general, just a bad idea politically) which means it’s very likely that Congress will end up specifically directing funds for Block 1B development and forcing NASA’s hand.

    Plus with the other “eff you Congress” parts of the budget (killing WFIRST, killing Earth science, killing STEM outreach), it’s entirely likely that Congress will just flat ignore it.

    1. Yes, thus the crazed astronaut in the LEGO movie who so desperately wants to build a spaceship. Everyone knows it’s pathetic and has been pathetic since….well….since they shut down the Apollo space program. It’s almost as though aliens came down discretely and had a little “talk” with Earth authorities and convinced them that it was best to just putz around rather than go deep out there and get into trouble we are told we don’t want to get into. (personally I don’t buy into such a conspiracy theory, but its fun to think about :-) )

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