Europa Decision Delivers Crushing Blow To NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS)

These days, NASA deciding to launch one of their future missions on a commercial rocket is hardly a surprise. After all, the agency is now willing to fly their astronauts on boosters and spacecraft built and operated by SpaceX. Increased competition has made getting to space cheaper and easier than ever before, so it’s only logical that NASA would reap the benefits of a market they helped create.

So the recent announcement that NASA’s Europa Clipper mission will officially fly on a commercial launch vehicle might seem like more of the same. But this isn’t just any mission. It’s a flagship interplanetary probe designed to study and map Jupiter’s moon Europa in unprecedented detail, and will serve as a pathfinder for a future mission that will actually touch down on the moon’s frigid surface. Due to the extreme distance from Earth and the intense radiation of the Jovian system, it’s considered one of the most ambitious missions NASA has ever attempted.

With no margin for error and a total cost of more than $4 billion, the fact that NASA trusts a commercially operated booster to carry this exceptionally valuable payload is significant in itself. But perhaps even more importantly, up until now, Europa Clipper was mandated by Congress to fly on NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). This was at least partly due to the incredible power of the SLS, which would have put the Clipper on the fastest route towards Jupiter. But more pragmatically, it was also seen as a way to ensure that work on the Shuttle-derived super heavy-lift rocket would continue at a swift enough pace to be ready for the mission’s 2024 launch window.

But with that deadline fast approaching, and engineers feeling the pressure to put the final touches on the spacecraft before it gets mated to the launch vehicle, NASA appealed to Congress for the flexibility to fly Europa Clipper on a commercial rocket. The agency’s official line is that they can’t spare an SLS launch for the Europa mission while simultaneously supporting the Artemis Moon program, but by allowing the Clipper to fly on another rocket in the 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act, Congress effectively removed one of the only justifications that still existed for the troubled Space Launch System.

To Europa, Eventually

There’s no question that the SLS, at least on paper, would have been the ideal vehicle to carry the Europa Clipper on its epic journey. The megarocket would have enough energy to send the roughly 6,065 kg (13,371 lb) probe on a direct trajectory towards Jupiter during its closest pass in 2024, which would bring the planet within 611 million kilometers (380 million miles) of Earth. On this flight path, it would take a little less than three years for the Clipper to enter orbit around Jupiter and begin its scientific mission.

Europa as seen by the Galileo spacecraft.

Unfortunately, there’s simply no replacement for the SLS in terms of raw power. While future vehicles from SpaceX, Blue Origin, and United Launch Alliance could be compelling options, they simply won’t be ready in time for the 2024 launch window. Even if they’re operational by then, which is by no means a guarantee, they certainly won’t have enough flights logged to prove their reliability. NASA could conceivably wait until one of the later launch windows in 2025 or 2026 to give commercial operators more time to bring their next-generation heavy lift vehicles online, but at least for now, that’s not in the cards.

So how do you get to Europa without the massive boost provided by the SLS? In a word, slowly. While there was some previous speculation that the spacecraft could be fitted with a small “kick stage” to make up for the reduced initial velocity, the preliminary launch contract information provided by NASA specifies that the spacecraft will make use of gravity assist maneuvers by flying what’s known as a Mars-Earth-Gravity-Assist (MEGA) trajectory. This will allow the Europa Clipper to reach its destination without any hardware modifications, but the downside of this complex orbital dance is that the journey will take more than twice as long to complete, with the probe not reaching Europa until 2030 at the earliest.

No determination has yet been made as to which rocket will ultimately launch the Clipper, and the decision isn’t likely to come until next year after the completion of a formal selection process. That said, as it has the highest payload capacity of any currently operational rocket in the world, the SpaceX Falcon Heavy is far and away the most likely choice. Even still, it will potentially have to launch in the as of yet unused fully expendable mode.

So Long, Shelby

This first public acknowledgement that NASA is no longer planning to fly Europa Clipper on the Space Launch System comes just days after Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, one of the SLS program’s staunchest supporters, announced he would be retiring next year. Concerned that President Obama’s 2010 cancellation of the Constellation program would mean the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama would no longer be the center of America’s spaceflight industry, Senator Shelby fought hard to make sure SLS would be a flagship program to rival the Saturn V and Space Shuttle:

Without the development of rockets with heavy-lift capability, humans will not be able to explore space any further than they can with the Shuttle today. The ability of NASA to achieve our goals for future space exploration has always been and always will be through Marshall Space Flight Center.

While few would complain about politicians taking an active interest in space exploration, and keeping hundreds of high-paying aerospace jobs in his district was a commendable achievement, Shelby’s support of NASA came at a cost. He has been vehemently opposed to NASA’s partnerships with commercial launch providers, going so far as to call the agency’s early contracts with companies like SpaceX a “faith-based initiative” and “a welfare program for the commercial space industry” as the fledgling aerospace firms had yet to demonstrate they could actually build a booster capable of reaching orbit.

It’s a safe bet that Senator Shelby’s replacement will take a similarly bullish approach to Marshall Space Flight Center, but it’s difficult to imagine they will be able to ignore the leaps and bounds made by commercial launch providers in the last few years. As private industry rapidly iterates through cutting-edge engine and booster technology, the Space Launch System’s reliance on Shuttle-derived hardware conceived in the 1970s only becomes harder to defend.

Difficult Decisions Ahead

Between the embarrassing “Green Run” failure in January, the loss of the Europa Clipper mission, and the retirement of Senator Shelby, the future of the Space Launch System has never been more uncertain. Add in a White House that’s far more concerned with fighting a deadly pandemic than leaving new boot prints on Mars or the Moon, and it’s not hard to see how the oft-delayed and incredibly expensive program might finally be running out of road.

To be sure, the SLS will fly at least once. NASA and Boeing are getting ready to repeat the failed engine test in the next few weeks, and too much time and money has been invested to not go ahead with the Artemis I mission. Even if NASA ultimately decides to wind down the SLS program in favor of further commercial cooperation, the shakedown flight is just as much a test of the Orion crew vehicle. With several more Orion capsules already under construction for future Artemis missions, development of the Apollo-like capsule is almost certainly going to continue with or without the SLS.

110 thoughts on “Europa Decision Delivers Crushing Blow To NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS)

  1. “While future vehicles from SpaceX, Blue Origin, and United Launch Alliance could be compelling options, they simply won’t be ready in time for the 2024 launch window. ”

    And the SLS would be?


        1. Exactly. The basic idea (rockets are expensive and we shouldn’t allow them to blow them each time) is the very special type that is both obvious, in hindsight, but visionary at the time. Like factoring large numbers into primes.

      1. Heck, NASA wants the US to benefit from it’s R&D. It even published magazines like Tech Brief’s to help make people aware of what’s available.

        And even if not directly, SpaceX attracted experienced aerospace engineers.

    1. It’s only a welfare program if the company can’t stand up on its own. Ten years later, it’s clear that SpaceX knows what they’re doing and it was worth the initial investment. We’d still be paying for cramped seats on a Russian rocket if NASA didn’t take a risk and give SpaceX those first lucrative contracts.

      But beside that, R&D is what NASA is supposed to be doing. Companies being built with NASA research is exactly how it’s supposed to work.

      1. 100% correct. All else is sour grapes from those benefitting from government largesse of the past. What NASA should be doing is working out nuclear powered space travel to dramatically reduce transits to the moons of the gas giants and applying this to both hardware “mating” and software development.

        1. Following SpaceX down the rabbit hole
          by Stewart Money
          Monday, April 18, 2011

          First, the uncomfortable questions. Given the fact that the SpaceX Falcon rockets are not based on any radical technological breakthrough that lowered their costs, one has to ask just how bad a deal has the taxpayer been getting from the Atlas V and Delta IV, products of the legacy aerospace establishment? Soon to be deprived of the hyper-expensive Space Shuttle as their own point of comparison, the answer would appear to be much worse than we ever imagined.

          1. Thanks for pointing out this central fact to the entire discussion. Waste and dare we say “fraud” that we can imagine goes along with aerospace procurement may one day soon be fully revealed.

          2. @Winston said: “Given the fact that the SpaceX Falcon rockets are not based on any radical technological breakthrough that lowered their costs…”

            What? So reliable vertical recovery and multiple rapid turn-around and reuse of more and more of the vehicle is not a radical technological (and economic) breakthrough?

          3. @Drone the article was from 2011, the first landed booster wouldn’t be for another 4 years after. Just shows how ridiculously cheap (comparatively) they were even before booster recovery.

      2. I used to do engineering and one of the magazines I subscribed to was “ NASA Tech Briefs”. At the end of every article there was a paragraph explaining on how to contact someone in regards to using the technology covered in the article in your own private business. R&D is the business oF NASA. Not just spacecraft, but materials, electronics, and software. I would be willing to bet there isn’t much on your car that wasn’t checked at one time by the virtual test software FEA(Finite Element Analysis) that was initially developed by NASA.

      3. Yes, but the article focused on heavy lift ability and being able to reach Jupiter in two to three years instead of six or seven years.
        SLS could do that, and though more costly, it is more “proven” than the Space X Starship is, which exploded on its last test. It’s more significant than that, because It leaves anything past Mars “almost” out of doing missions, unless you don’t mind waiting a decade or more. I hope Space X will fix POGO issues with their Starship, but SLS is actually closer to working than Starship is with recent Starship dramatic failures up in flames. POGO issues plagued the Saturn 5 as well. The POGO issues were mostly solved with mechanical changes to modify structural base natural oscillation frequencies, placing inert gases for initial and post burn in the tanks and using a water based shock absorbsion system. (Hint) Without those, the Saturn Five like Starship, would have destroyed itself and blown up. I would also NOT assume Space X knows this history. I would hope they “might” after their Starship exploded. These issues were tested and mitigation procedures developed in the late 1960s. Just because we have more computer processing power in handheld smartphones than entire buildings filled with mainframes 50+ years ago, doesn’t mean important mechanical engineering is not missed. In fact, I have seen attitudes like: since that was “so long ago”, we are WAY beyond that now, why bother looking at their engineering work. I mean the used slide rules back then ! (Laughter) Yes they used slide rules and did a better comprehensive engineering review of the heavy mechanics involved. It worked then, all the way to the moon. Result now is Starship explodes as vibrational oscillation tears it’s structure apart. Again, I hope Space X knows the mechanics history, but I still wouldn’t bet on it. The good news is Space X IS working with NASA and hopefully exchanging lots of engineering days from the old Saturn 5, because it does apply to Starship as well.

        1. What POGO issues? You are misinformed. Their most recent failures were due to lack of fuel pressure and an engine re-ignition issue at landing. The rocket performed just fine until the final part of the landing sequence. They don’t have POGO issues.

        2. SpaceX knows it’s history. It is also far from wedded to it. Lack of a water deluge system for protecting Starship on launch is not an oversight – it simply doesn’t form part of their current plans. This is because the booster would launch from a sea platform, where this is free, and the starship needs to be able to take off from Mars, where it’s not possible to build one. Starship prototypes are also just that – rapidly constructed test articles. I and other fans of their development cheer them when they go boom, having completed 90pct of a test programme where 50pct would have been a huge win. The bang for buck SpaceX is giving back to NASA totally justifies the seed investment given, and is validating this approach – not to forget Rocket Lab at a smaller scale, and apparently Jeff is making some tickets too…

        3. I’d like you to explain how a rocket that destroys itself EVERY time it crashes back to earth, by design, is more reliable than a rocket that destroys itself SOME times when it attempts to land, during a test.

          Both of ’em go up just fine, only one attempts to come back down.

          Also, I’ve heard nothing about oscillations in Starship, just a fuel loading problem and an engine restart problem. Got some sources you can cite?

        4. This may be ‘out of the box’ thinking – but why not do two launches? One launch that puts the space probe itself into orbit and a second launch with be a propulsion stage to get it to Europa. This way you can use an ion drive which is far more efficient.

        5. Comparing Saturn V to Starship makes no sense. Saturn V is a booster, Starship is a lander, its production booster is Super Heavy or (BFR). There has also been no hint of POGO (and its is not an orbital booster anyway) on Starship so I am not sure where any of that came from. Is anyone remembering how many rockets NASA blew up before their first manned flight. Remember that SpaceX has already done crew and cargo Dragon as well while Boeing has still not flown a manned mission. The more likely comparison to SLS for this mission would be can SpaceX use their Falcon heavy to run a similar mission profile or could it easily be modified to do so. They also have the upcoming super heavy which will probably not be available in time for the launch window (but is on a very aggressive schedule and I fully expect a flight before 2024). Starship is not meant for this but its super heavy booster might be used to launch this payload. Remember that Starship is intend to LAND cargo and then people on Mars or the moon. It is boosted into orbit by the super heavy booster. This mission is launching a space probe, not landing one. Falcon 9 is operational, Falcon Heavy is operational, Falcon super heavy prototype is not built yet but most likely will be flown before 2024.

    2. Yet NASA did that research and still could build proper designs.

      And as for getting NASA data, I used to work on H2O2 motors, and NASA did research that would have been very useful to me, instead the info was not released on their catalyst pack.

      Also SpaceX is using an engine design that NASA never even made used.

      Or maybe you mean their research on the Delta-Clipper (DC-X), that ran fine while being tested by a private company, but soon after NASA took over the program they end up crashing it.

      Then there is the mess they made with Venture-Star, where they tried pushing three different research projects into one design. Result over a billion dollar spent and not research finished. For the same amount of money they could have built three test vehicles each with just a single tech and test it fully.

      Thru the years NASA has wasted a lot of money because it is more a jobs program rather than a space program.

      1. Delta Clipper had a functional vehicle that demonstrated capabilities not duplicated until years later by SpaceX, and nobody had flown a rocket horizontally since until SpaceX’s SN8 – but they’ve still yet to land without crashing after tipping the rocket over.

        But NASA chose the Venture Star that had nothing but some pretty pictures and proposals, and finished with a section of a linear aerospike engine, some pretty pictures and proposals, and the knowledge that materials technology of the time wasn’t up to the task of making odd shaped cryogenic tanks that were light enough to fly.

        1. The first to fly horizontally in this century was actually the SpaceX “Grasshopper” prototype, to develop technology for F9 booster landings. And the first Starship prototype, informally known as “Hoppy”, certainly did before SN8, as well as at least two other prototypes. And they all landed successfully, though there is evidence that Hoppy’s engine may have been about to eat itself a few seconds later.
          Also, SN8 wasn’t even expected to reach the ground to attempt a landing.

    3. OldSpace: NASA contracts private company to engineer and provide support operations for a spacecraft with a cost-plus contract that guarantees profit to the company’s shareholders regardless of performance, incentivizing projects that come in late and over-budget.

      NewSpace: NASA contracts private company to engineer and operate a spacecraft with a fixed price pay-on-completion contract that mandates co-investment from the company at what NASA’s OIG has determimed is a fraction of the cost of the OldSpace approach. Failures cost the contractor rather than the taxpayer (NASA did not pay for the failed Starliner test flight, Boeing is estimating it will spend $400M of its own money to repeat the test so it can get paid and certified) and the contractor is free to use the vehicle with other customers, stimulating the space industry to grow with commercial (not tax funded) projects and generate tax revenues.

      One of those structures is much more like welfare than the other, it isn’t the one SpaceX is known for.

    4. That’s the purpose of our tax dollars, to benefit the citizens and industries if the USA. If we have private companies competing to do space exploration, it will be far cheaper for the United States than any other country to do that enterprise. Hence we will compete better

    5. That’s rubbish. SpaceX is cutting edge rocket tech as far as lowering cost to orbit and reusability. The SLS is 1970’s one and done garbage. The SLS is the welfare program for Alabama and Boeing, and after their disaster of a test with the CST 100 Starliner capsule I don’t think I would want to fly their garbage to LEO let alone the moon. Falcon Heavy is 10 percent of the cost of a SLS launch. Boeing needs to be able to compete on cost and innovation and they are failing on both magnificently.

      1. When Boeing was trying to say they didn’t need to do a full test again I was shocked. They should have to do 3 unmanned tests after pulling that BS with the first one. They’ve got some serious cultural issues they need to fix.

      1. As a kid I read space adventure stories where streamlined rockets would land vertically as needed. I “knew” that was “not possible”, but enjoyed it nevertheless. I cannot describe my emotion when I first saw a successful booster landing by SpaceX. I was transported to another time… I am sure many felt the same.

    6. And Lockheed, Morton Thiokol, Martin Marietta and the rest weren’t? At least SpaceX has successful non governmental operations and is pursuing commercial ventures. The rest were 99.999999 percent defense and NASA.

    7. So what’s the problem? If a US based and run company wants to us something we all paid for in taxes, I do not see the problem.
      That’s called “public domain” and is intended for any americans use, especially to hire american workers and to reduce costs for all of us… Why shouldn’t the federal government/NASA bid out the work?

    8. No, Space X first had to prove they could (at their own cost) and then they won a contract to do what they proved they could do which was being paid to Russia to do, now that Space X is doing what the Russians were doing at half the price the Yankee taxpayer should be kissing Space X’s privileged backside.

    9. I thought SpaceX was working for their paychecks.

      People like to misuse the word welfare a lot, but companies like SpaceX are creating value with the contract they receive. Otherwise, we could consider all government employees to be ‘welfare recipients’ (which obviously is not the case)

    10. “Shelby was 100% right, SpaceX was built on NASA research and American tax payer dollars.”

      Interesting view. I’ll agree they used NASA Research (how could anyone not?). But the Falcon 1 was developed using private funds.

    11. When U of Tokyo tried it with as little military/government involvement as possible, what they ended up successful with was something as incompatible with politics as “open-source civilian ICBM” can be. Mu rockets was a lineage of all-solid, domestically manufactured, ITAR-free, inertial guided vehicle launched from a reinforced bunker.

      So I think it’s generally better that space program is government supported and bureaucratically controlled. It keeps things militarily benign.

  2. The US government can’t build a rocket after all this time & money, can’t even obtain a sufficient quantity of much less hi-tech N95 masks after a year of covid….. man how did the country ever get it together during WW2……………….

    1. Different culture with a intact industrial base, that’s how. Boeing is not the same company it was when it did it’s best work.Now it’s run by short term thinking accountants now that have no idea how planes are designed and built.

    2. The US government does not build anything. They manage a group of management companies that manage subcontractors who know how to build things. The down side is they manage it like the IRS.

    3. Well, I’m gonna bet that industry could do it but it takes political will.

      Legend has it that Henry Ford II sat down with representatives of the Defense Department and in one week hammered out a deal to build thousands of B24’s if the government would guarantee to buy them at a fixed price. In the ensuing 3 years Ford built 4000 bombers.

      The difference, of course, is that nobody bickered, suggested that every state should be responsible for their own bombers, and complained that building bombers was unnecessary anyway, not only was it an infringement of our freedom, but the war would probably go away in the summer anyway.

    4. Fear and risk of loosing loved ones is a powerful motivator to build properly and worry less about the cost… Helps in getting the population behind the task at hand too – while the war is far distance and not bothering you why worry, but as soon as your family and friends could be dying if you don’t build them the tools to do the job…

      Also helps hugely that America itself was nearly completely unharmed by the war, being too far away from any of the axis powers to really take harm while targets remained closer to home, makes it much easier to keep the production lines going.

      1. Almost though: “In September 2018, the Trump administration received detailed plans for a new machine designed to churn out millions of protective respirator masks at high speed during a pandemic. The plans, submitted to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) by medical manufacturer O&M Halyard, were the culmination of a venture unveiled almost three years earlier by the Obama administration. But HHS did not proceed with making the machine.” (In fairness, Obama never got the funding either.)

    5. Relatively privative technology, mainly…. Also less boo-hooing about who’s district the work would be done in….
      It’s not that hard to go from building cars, to building 1930s/40s aircraft…

      Modern military equipment is too complex to be built by ‘converted’ consumer-goods firms…

      And modern government is a self-licking ice-cream cone that is used-to being able to get away with not delivering results.

  3. >> It’s a safe bet that Senator Shelby’s replacement will take a similarly bullish approach to Marshall Space Flight Center..

    The big issue is that whoever replaces Shelby as (now junior) senator from Alabama will no longer be the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and therefore not the guy who effectively controls NASA’a budget.

    One assumes that this factor was not overlooked by NASA in their newfound…. appraisal… of the Marshall spaceflight center and their SLS rocket in the new commercial flight era.

    1. >> One assumes that this factor was not overlooked by NASA in their newfound…. appraisal… of the Marshall spaceflight center and their SLS rocket in the new commercial flight era.

      It’s been known for some time that NASA was considering commercial options for the Clipper.

    1. > *looks at Mars*

      And Jupiter, and New Horizons, and Parker, and OSIRIS-REx, and a gaggle of space telescopes that aren’t James Webb, and the ISS, and…

      NASA’s pretty decent at this stuff when Congress allows them to be.

    1. “Jupiter is a copious source of radiowaves having a wavelength of 3-75 cm. The radiation is 20% or so linearly polarized perpendicular to the planet rotation axis, does not vary much in intensity over the entire range of observed frequencies, and changes slowly in intensity over a time interval of the order of a few years.”

        1. Jupiter has a very strong magnetosphere that traps and accelerates charged particles from the solar wind. This results in radiation belts similar to the van Allen belts around Earth, but thousands of times stronger.

          So, not just radio. Nor just sunlight.

    2. heh, good question. you should keep asking until you get a good answer.

      Gravis provided a description. It’s interesting, but not an answer.

      if you search around online you’ll find an actual answer, but it’s not a *good* answer. it’s the kind of answer that reminds me of the axiom “when your only tool is a hammer everything looks like a nail”

  4. Disagree. No doubt they could use their budget more efficiently (although way better than all the wasteful ‘social’, ‘climate’ projects that are out there today). NASA is needed as a ‘focus’ and ‘vision’ on near/far space exploration and as a ‘helper’ to keep things moving. Man needs a frontier to conquer (space is a big place) if he isn’t to stagnate. To that end, the ‘commercial’ launch system makes really good sense, because then the company has an incentive to perform well and innovate (like landing the core booster as example to reduce costs), and on a faster time-line. Otherwise they are out of business as no one will be willing to supply payloads which is the whole point. Plus, the company can afford to blow of a rocket or two when testing new technology without the public getting irate (See Mike’s comment above :) ) . SpaceX Starship is on ‘#10’ now as an example of iterative testing. You don’t hear of people ‘whining’ about all the ‘money’ going down the drain…. But if SLS blows up on the pad…. Watch people come out of the woodwork! Hopefully a few more companies will crop up to give SpaceX competition as that always helps keep cost down and reliability up.

  5. Bet you would rather it was spent on nukes and landmines huh?… for sure in the war mongers mind its better to give the future of the country to the military industrial complex.

  6. NASA should be a business incubator of sorts. Once the commercial industry has taken off, NASA should probably step back from that business. Doesn’t mean it won’t exist anymore, but maybe it’s focus can shift away from delivery vehicles and more towards probes and products to go on commercial vehicles. There’s all kinds of products that have been developed from R&D performed by NASA – not just aerospace companies.

  7. SLS has an entrenched design and it is very difficult for anyone to think outside of the box or go with something completely new. Thats because its a large lumbering beaucracy that prohibits that. SLS is where there is a kind of herd mentality that everyone tries to make the design work because that is what everyone else is doing, SpaceX was different because Musk lets his engineers try new things, refine and improve and make major changes to designs as needed. They don’t burden themselves with legacy architecture.

  8. At one time… NASA did well at managing risky projects, but over the years they and the public have become very risk averse. Boeing uses a study it till it is old tech then crow about it and bill it like it is all made of unobtainum to male Wall Street analysts happy every quarter. The SpaceX generation does take $ to experiment and prototype to spec, then NASA chooses between competing vendors and chooses the direction they want to go. Sometimes they experiment on their own nickel .. aka starship development. NASA is now expressing interest in it since SpaceX bid it as a minor diversion to go to the moon but that is a sideline to the private development as a Mars vehicle (or other use for others as a base for earth rapid deployment, heavy lifting, etc.). Oh SpaxeX development cycle is shorter with study, design, build, test, analyze, then iterate as needed. Vs Boeing study, analyze, test each component, assemble, fly without iterating as fast and skipping full system integration test and fly. Boeing did use a shorter cycle in years gone by, but are now trying a close to no risk approach and IMHO failing in it.

    Thanks for reading my rambling.

    Just the way I see it currently, that will change over time.

  9. NASA’s SLS:
    – $2.2 BILLION per launch
    – 27 tons, 2-6 crew into orbit
    – Completely expendable
    – Launch cadence once per year
    – Uses 40 year old technology (Space Shuttle engines and solid rocket boosters)


    SpaceX Starship:
    – $2 million per launch
    – 100 tons, 100 people into orbit
    – Completely re-usable
    – Launch cadence up to 2 launches per day(!)
    – state of the art full-flow staged combustion Raptor engines
    – Methane-fueled (to allow fuel production on Mars)

    And with all of Elon and SpaceX’s accomplishments to date, “don’t bet against Elon”.

    No wonder NASA begged Congress to let them use commercial providers (SpaceX).

  10. I’m not a fan of SLS if only because it relies on the same problematic solid rocket boosters as the Space Shuttle. Once they’re lit astronauts have to ride it out.

    Why was this system built using flawed technology?

    1. Every technology is flawed. It’s a matter of what the flaws & benefits are. Tradeoffs are everything. Example: Electric Vehicles rely on problematic lithium batteries. These batteries can catch fire when punctured, overheated, charged too fast, discharged too fast, charged too much, discharged too much, etc. Why are we building a system on this flawed technology?

      Answer: It’s benefits outweigh the costs for what’s needed.

  11. I agree with most of the posts here; especially the last two by Justin and marks59.

    Going back to the OP, it seems silly to rush to a 2024 launch which then has to spend three more years getting to the destination, rather than wait a year or two for a booster that doesn’t need the extra three years. We would be rushing to put the probe in space three more years, and arrive one or two years later. It reminds me of the Galileo fiasco, where the probe spent so much more time in space, the lubricant for the high-bandwidth antenna failed, so we got back only a tiny fraction of the data we could have.

    My forecast of what will happen is the probe won’t be ready on time, and by the time it is SpaceX will be more than ready to send it without needing a three-year gravity assist.

  12. Every molecule of our planet got here by “collisions” . Some bigger, more violent, than others. Some “hurt” more than others. Mass extinction events can be attributed to some. A virtual certainty to happen again…

    Some day, assuming we survive long enough, humanity WILL almost certainly look up to see an impending mass extinction event… who will Earth’s populations turn to for trajectory diversion of the next big rock? ??

    Much later, our central thermonuclear energy source WILL, eventually, run out of fuel… what will we do? where will we go?? how will we do or go???

    Might seem like a long time away… BUT it might take even longer for us to make it happen… Will our distant progeny lament: “… why didn’t they start earlier…??”

  13. Honestly, it makes sense to move to commercial. Almost every incoming administration has cancelled, refocused or re-budgeted NASA missions which made all work done up to that point, a waste. At least with commercial companies operating on their own, any work they do for a launch system, will have future value in some way, even if NASA’s missions get scrapped or changed by new administration. The overall tax payer cost will be reduced if these relationships are successful. I am sad that NASA cant be given any sort of promise of stability which prevents them from reaching their full potential again, but that unfortunately just seems to be how things are.

    1. I was kinda wondering if they could design a modular engine to boost the original mission capsule and send two halves up to join in orbit. I’m not sure a heavy could launch another heavy?

    2. The real problem is that the Falcon upper stage (it’s the same on Heavy) is quite underpowered compared to the rest of the system. Mainly because its using the same engine as the first stage, just with a different nozzle. This makes everything easier/cheaper/faster compared to having two different engines, but it’s not an ideal solution in terms of performance.

      That’s why SpaceX was supposedly looking into developing a next-gen upper stage for the Air Force (now Space Force I suppose) using their Raptor engine. But then that makes things tricky because the two stages would use different propellants.

    1. 1. Perhaps you are thinking much more is being invested than is. Surveys indicate that the average Americans estimate of the budget allocated to space is 25%. The reality is less the 0.5%.
      2. We are not pouring cash into cargo bays and sending it into space. We are spending the money right here paying engineers and scientists for R&D and manufacturing of these craft.
      3. Many scientists and engineers, including essentially all of the most senior ones, say a major factor in their decision to pursue these careers was being inspired by the space program. (I don’t know of any technical person that was around the age of 7 in 1969 that was not hugely inspired by the Apollo program.)
      4. While there were a handful of people, like Benjamin Franklin, that talked about ecology, the subject was otherwise ignored until Apollo 8 sent the now-famous photo showing Earth from the vantage point of lunar orbit.
      5. Yes, there have been huge additional benefits of our investments in space technology, including (and this is a TINY fraction of the examples):
      – Integrated circuits (required to make the computer on the lunar lander light enough) now in your iPhone, etc., etc.
      – Tephlon
      – GPS
      – Weather forecasting
      – Disaster services

      So, yes, I would say the investments in space technology have paid for themselves at least a thousand-fold.

      1. You make a good case. I kind of agree with your point about the technologies that have indirectly benefited from the space programs, but I often wonder if these technologies wouldn’t have flourished anyway. Low-weight and highly reliable integrated circuits, for instance, were probably also in high demand for use in fighter jets etc., as well as in rockets and other space vehicles.

    2. Yes. If we remain earthbound the next extinction event will snuff out homo sapiens. Sheer insanity to have all eggs in one basket when you know that the basket will fail with a 100% certainty, just a matter of when.

      1. It’s reckoned we might have been reduced to mere thousands of individuals 2M years ago and 75k years ago… and those guys were still mostly for realz, no play-acting, subsistence hunter gatherers. So our next apocalyptic asteroid or supervolcano has to avoid affecting the few areas where that is still practiced, because everyone else is screwed. I know people say spend the money on fixing this planet, but even worst case scenario global warming and biosphere catastrophe from anthropogenic causes still probably sees millions survive it, not that 90% of the rest deserve to die, but there’s no reason to suppose that a decently diverse gene pool does not go forward, preserving knowledge of culture and past mistakes.

        So yep, we should take care of the planet we’ve got, but there’s some bolts from the blue we can’t protect well against as yet, so spreading our risk is wise long term.

  14. SpaceX has proven their ability to have autonomous docking so why not get the payload to orbit with one existing rocket and send a second rocket up with a “barge” that would grab the payload and power it out of orbit? Guessing the barge could be built for $600 million, launched for $80 million, and needed tech development achieved.
    All while getting the mission accomplished on time.

  15. Its sad that a once pioneering company (BOEING), has become the poster child, of the bureaucratic juggernaut bloated corporate/government. They sold off their intellectual departments that sent us to space and built the largest and safest planes. Now they cant even maintain their launch pad, let alone build a rocket in an exceptable amount of time. If it will ever get off the ground, and their planes crash. this is all due to GREED – INCOMPETENCE – and just plain STUPIDITY.
    they should be allowed to go under if they cant produce, not suck on the government TIT. NO CORPORATION is too big to fail. Hail – ELON MUSK (a foreigner), new innovator for a NEW WORLD. sometimes governments fail too. #TIME FOR CHANGE. make AMERICA great again.

  16. As much as I love the Falcon 9 / Heavy, it has one big design flaw when it comes to high energy trajectories. The upper stage, which is the same for both F9 and Heavy uses the same kerosene based engine as the first stage, just with a larger nozzle. This rocket it about 30% less efficient than the hydrolox RL-10 on Atlas and Delta (and Vulcan and SLS) launch systems. Not a big deal when the goal in putting heavy payloads into orbit, but a huge penalty when trying to get something out of Earth’s gravity well. Starship solves this with metholox Raptor engines, but it is still in development. If you want a more coherent explanation with graphs, I refer you to Scott Manley:

  17. As long as somebody’s rocket gets up there and real human beings start exploring space again. It has been too long! I’ve waited my whole life to see people pick back up where my grandparents generation left off!

      1. Exactly, he takes great pride in outdoing the competition. Showing up SLS would be right in his wheel house. He could improve on Falcon Heavy or accelerate development (which is already pretty aggressive) on super heavy which is intended for Starship but in reality is just a super sized booster. Starship itself has nothing to do with this since it is not an orbital booster system.

        SpaceX may or may not get this done but I have faith that they will try to way before SLS is ready. I think they are revolutionizing what people expect for development timelines. They are a high risk, high reward organization which is the exact opposite of their competition. Everyone that bet against their success has lost so far.

        1. My guess is that just like our Air Force who was scared to risk their GPS payloads to SpaceX, SpaceX will continue to develop their Falcon Heavy and Falcon Super Heavy for their own purposes and then when there is really no other option NASA )like the Air Force did) will come to them. They just always need to prove themselves multiple times before they get believers. As always, NASA really does not want to use SpaceX because they are not as politically connected as Boeing and ULA. However when NASA is facing heat for late mission schedules and failure to produce, they will resort to SpaceX to save their bacon. It is really not about technology, it is about the pork barrel and keeping struggling ULA and Boeing alive. Supposedly it is about creating “competition” in the launch market but at this point can you really claim that anyone is effectively competing with SpaceX without moving the goal line to “help” someone else win?

          Boeing and ULA would need a complete change of corporate culture in order to keep pace with SpaceX. I don’t expect that to happen (Boeing is having issues in aircraft as well as space, ULA makes decisions like any other corporate alliance, slow and least common denominator) so barring a huge run of failure from SpaceX I think they will maintain their lead. Government hates them but does not have a viable choice right now.

          1. Steven,

            I completely agree with everything you are saying here. While I don’t agree or like everything Musk says and does, he definitely is making tremendous advances that are sorely needed. He has repeatedly proven his high-risk, high-upside approach is vastly superior to what we have been doing for the past half-century. (We need someone like him to drive atomically-precise manufacturing, but I digress.)

            I see a parallel with the mid-’50s when the “established” players were trying to launch a satellite for years, with no success. They were able to block the “wild ex-nazi rocket builder with crazy ideas” from even trying. That is, until 1957. That little beep beep beep is what finally gave Verner a chance, and it took him only a few months to be successful.


  18. The reason the probe is no longer going on an SLS rocket is Joe Biden. Like Obama, he plans on gutting much of the space budget and according to politico, he is even going to put the manned moon mission behind China’s launch window. Typical “America Last” attitude imo.

  19. @steven naslund @stevevetter @andrewlbc

    re: Boeing/ULA
    Their situation is akin to what has happened to American, Delta and United after 40 years of deregulation and consolidation. They are in a state of permanent capture. They will never catch Elon. Or Jeff.

    re: viable 11190 m/s all up
    This thread is missing discussion of New Glenn. Although it is not here yet, what are the design targets for performance? I would bet on Jeff over Boeing at this point.

    re: the moon
    The pandemic has a cost. To justify a lunar station, where is the rest of the plan for development of in-situ resource utilization? I believe Elon is correct in his prime directive – to insure survival of the species, we must terraform Mars, and then proceed to Callisto and Titan. Can we manufacture methane on the Moon to pair with his investment in Mars Direct? Radiation be damned, he is going to Mars. The United States is in need of serious repair to avoid the fate of Rome. The US failed to capture the spirit of Apollo. We should have been on the Moon permanently by 2000 and have been to Mars multiple times by now. The Government of the United States had it’s opportunity. Going back 100 years, the US Government transported airmail on it’s own planes for only 8 years (1918-1926). Domestic Airmail lasted another 50 years as an USPS added-fee service, ending in 1977, in tandem with airline deregulation and the end of the Civil Aeronautics Board. 58 years ago was 1963. The US needs a Space Industry to enhance our National Security, not a captured-pork Government Program.

    If there is a commercial reality to spending on the Moon, Elon and Jeff will figure it out, long before the Chinese catch them on launch economics. It took the Europeans 40 years to catch Boeing and Douglas (honorable mention to Lockheed). Give the contracts to Elon, and Jeff, and anyone else that can match them on $/pound, and it will take the Chinese a lot longer to catch them.

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