It’s time, this Thursday, for NASA’s SLS rocket to slowly roll from the massive Vertical Assembly Building (VAB) at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, to Launch Pad 39B on the Atlantic Coast. There is a missile A with a height of 108 meters wet rehearsal Waiting, simulation launch to test all systems and identify technical issues. The rocket is refueled with liquid hydrogen and oxygen, and a countdown sequence begins, which is aborted 9.34 seconds before the launch of the rocket.
The first real launch of the SLS is scheduled for May of this year at the earliest, although it is likely to be launched during the summer. The SLS then launches the unmanned Orion capsule, which flies to the moon in four days and enters lunar orbit, returning to Earth after 25 days and parachuting into the Pacific Ocean.
The first manned flight of NASA’s Artemis lunar program isn’t planned until 2024, when four Americans will make roughly the same flight. And in 2025, for the first time since 1972, an American should land on the moon again. In the following years, it will be the role of a European astronaut as well, because ESA supplies, among other things, the service module for the Orion capsule, the component that provides water, electricity, oxygen and propulsion.
In this sense, SLS – short for Space Launch System – embodies a technological renaissance for NASA. For the first time since the space shuttle retired in 2011, NASA has its own manned rocket again, and for the first time since the Apollo era, a rocket capable of transporting humans beyond low Earth orbit. Future versions of the SLS may take humans to Mars one day.
However, this is far from a foregone conclusion, as SLS is also a controversial project. The missile itself may be new, but it is technically a design from the past. The four rocket motors for the first stage are the same as the RS-25 rocket motors used in the Space Shuttle Space Shuttle, which was developed in the 1970s. But when the Space Shuttle was reusable, the SLS stage, including the rocket engines, simply dropped into the sea after use. With the current stock, eight more SLS launches can be outfitted. also booster, Solid fuel rockets on both sides of the rocket, made up of shuttle parts. But the shuttle’s boosters have been salvaged from the ocean after being used and reused, while the SLS’ boosters are sinking.
When the SLS design was announced in 2012, the disposable missile was still the standard. It was precisely the reusable space shuttle that had become obsolete due to high costs and fatal accidents. But in 2015, Elon Musk’s company SpaceX was able to land a Falcon 9 rocket stage for the first time after use, something that has since become a routine. SpaceX’s giant spacecraft rocket, which is scheduled to make its first spaceflight later this year, will be fully reusable. Reuse is now the standard for other missiles under development.
Thirty billion dollars
Additionally, during the same period, a commercial approach became popular, with NASA paying a rocket builder for performance rather than products. The supplier can then figure out for themselves how to deliver this performance as well and as cheaply as possible. This resulted, for example, in the success of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, the ferry service for astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
The SLS has since become a textbook example of the old approach, pushing NASA to build a design. The work will be distributed in parts across aerospace industries in as many states as possible, under contracts that reimburse all costs. This maintains the friendliness of politicians in those states, which in turn helps raise NASA’s annual $24 billion budget. But it does not necessarily enhance technological ingenuity and audacity.
The result: frequent breaches of deadlines and budgets, critics predicted in 2012. Initially, the SLS will cost $10 billion and make its debut in 2016. Development costs have now risen to $30 billion, with an estimated cost per launch of $4.1 billion. By comparison, a commercial launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy will cost about $130 million, while its successor, the Starship, will be ten times less.
A version of this article also appeared on NRC on the morning of March 17, 2022
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