CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla — AmericaSpace recently received numerous comments stating that NASA’s new Space Launch System, or “SLS,” was neither wanted by the space agency nor did it even have a mission. It was also said that, under the current economic uncertainty, NASA could not afford this new heavy-lift booster. These beliefs stem from the perception that Congress forced SLS on the space agency. AmericaSpace has sought to seek out the validity of these assertions and whether or not they have any basis in fact.
When we approached NASA, we were referred to the space agency’s Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems in the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate Dan Dumbacher. Dumbacher spoke with AmericaSpace for close to half an hour regarding the topics of SLS and Orion, as well as the driving forces that were behind how the agency has been managing its newest human-rated launch vehicle and the spacecraft that will ride atop it. It turns out that one of the most prominent of these forces is something that the nation itself has been struggling with for the past few years—the budget (more on that in later segments).
AmericaSpace: First, let me thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. We have been hearing a lot of things about NASA’s new Space Launch System and we were hoping to gain the agency’s perspective on them.
Dumbacher: “My pleasure. I hope I can help clarify a few things.”
AmericaSpace: Dan, a lot of people are very interested and excited about NASA’s Space Launch System. There have been some things that have been stated about SLS that we were hoping you could help us with. The Program of Record before SLS was the Constellation Program, and it had a very clear mandate under the Vision for Space Exploration, “Moon, Mars, and Beyond.” SLS doesn’t have that. We’ve heard the president say that he wants NASA to go to an asteroid in the 2020s and to Mars “sometime” in his lifetime. There are some folks who feel that SLS does not have a specific destination. Is this perception valid? Or is it inaccurate?
Dumbacher: “The way we at NASA look at it is, the ‘horizon’ destination that we are going to is Mars—sending humans to Mars is the goal that we are working toward. There are a number of different ways that we can accomplish this, and we’re still looking at the various tradeoffs as to how we conduct that. … That’s currently what we are doing right now is to research the various ways that we can send humans to Mars and then bring them safely back home.”
AmericaSpace: It sounds like one of these various approaches might be a stepping stone–type approach. This would mean that SLS would have a number of possible closer destinations (the Moon, a LaGrange Point, or an asteroid). Can you pick one out as an example for us?
Dumbacher: “Some of the destinations that we are looking at between here and Mars are, obviously, the Moon, the area around the Moon, and of course some asteroids. This will serve to get us ready to go to Mars and its moons. Now, the one thing that we want to make sure that everybody understands is that there is a fundamental capability that we need to have to get to any of those destinations. We need to get crew beyond Earth orbit, and we need to get crew home from beyond-Earth orbit—and that’s the role of Orion. Orion gives us about a 21-day capability; now that is obviously a short time, but what is missing in that is that we will eventually have to develop what we call the habitat module, or ‘the habitat.’ The astronauts would stay in this for the longer-duration missions, and Orion would be attached to the habitat. It would remain ‘quiet’ (essentially powered-down) once we got the astronauts to the habitat, and it would be reactivated once we needed to get the astronauts back home.”
AmericaSpace: President Obama has directed NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid. You might not have picked out which one, but you do plan to use SLS and Orion to send a crew to an asteroid, correct?
Dumbacher: “That is one of the trade studies that we are looking at. As you mentioned, there has been a presidential directive to travel to an asteroid around 2025, and we are currently looking into which asteroid would be most appropriate for such a mission. We actually have some options there—we can either send the humans to the asteroid or bring the asteroid to the humans. We are currently reviewing all of those options. So we are still trying to define what that mission might look like. This is heavily dependent on the type of asteroid, what its orbit is like, and so on.”
AmericaSpace: Any and all of these ‘side’ destinations, however …
Dumbacher: “Are all aimed at making sure that we learn what we need to learn on the road to Mars.
AmericaSpace: A bit off-topic here, but there have been multiple incidents involving meteors and asteroids lately, and this has garnered a lot of interest in NEOs (Near-Earth-Objects). How do you view the role of Orion and SLS in helping us to avoid having Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck save us using a titanium shuttle? Is this part of what NASA is looking into, or is just traveling to an asteroid, or is there a whole range of things that NASA is looking into?”
Dumbacher: (Laughs) “Let me back you up a little bit. We haven’t made any commitments—to any missions. What we are currently doing is, while we are building SLS and Orion, we are also in parallel with that, working through the missions that we are going to conduct first, second, third, and fourth. If we go to an asteroid, depending on how we do it, the whole idea is to learn how to travel beyond Earth orbit. For example, the navigation, how do we get there, how do we work in those orbits? They are different from those that we typically deal with in low-Earth orbit. They are also different than the orbits that the Apollo astronauts conducted around the Moon. We also have to learn about how to conduct communications, command, and control approaches for when we have astronauts so far away. Obviously, as you go further and further towards Mars that round-trip communications time takes longer and longer. We have to learn how to deal with that. We have to learn how to handle the radiation environments and the solar flares that feed into the radiation environment—these kinds of things we have to learn along the way, and we also have to learn how to build reliable spacecraft that can support human life for long-duration missions. This is no small thing to consider when with every minute they travel, home is increasingly further away, and therefore it’s harder to get repairs if something should go wrong.”
With that we figured we pretty much had an answer to the first of our questions—the one as to whether or not NASA has a specific destination in mind for SLS. The overriding objective is Mars, and NASA is currently developing the path that will get them there. However, in the short term there was no specific targeted date or destination. There are different routes NASA might take, but, outside of the EM-1 cislunar mission slated for 2021, nothing is set in stone.
Stay tuned tomorrow for the second part of this four-part series, where we ask NASA about how the agency looks upon SLS.