We had promised this article would appear yesterday and as we like to keep our promises, we ran a portion of it yesterday. We felt it was important that our readers be able to read the article in its entirety, and so here it is.
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.”
One of the oft-repeated sentiments regarding NASA’s new heavy-lift booster, the Space Launch System, is that NASA did not want the booster. This is obviously factually inaccurate, as just a year-or-so earlier NASA was developing the Ares V heavy-lift booster—when compared side-by-side, the two launch vehicles are very similar. Moreover, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has publicly stated that one of his main priorities – is SLS.
We continue our interview with Dan Dumbacher and he emphatically denied that this belief has any basis in fact. To the contrary, the message that Dumbacher relayed was that not only did NASA want SLS, it needed it.
AmericaSpace: One of the things that AmericaSpace has seen posted repeatedly and stated as ‘fact’ is that NASA does not want SLS—that Congress forced SLS on NASA. NASA Administrator Bolden already addressed this when he testified to Congress that his three priorities—and I believe that they were in this order—were Orion, SLS, and the James Webb Space Telescope (it turns out that SLS and Orion were one priority, JWST another and ISS/Commercial cargo and crew the third). Is NASA excited about this new heavy-lift booster? The agency definitely wants this heavy-lift booster. Is it correct to say this, sir?
Dumbacher: “That is fair to say. NASA needs Orion and the Space Launch System to conduct exploration beyond low-Earth orbit. All of our studies over the years have demonstrated the need for a launch vehicle that can get significant mass to orbit and can help us cut down on trip times, and we need that launch vehicle’s capabilities to get us beyond Earth orbit, which we have been operating in for a little over 30 years. It has been over 40 years since we have been outside of Earth’s orbit. If we are going to go beyond Earth orbit, then we need Orion and we need the Space Launch System, and that is why you heard NASA Administrator Bolden list Orion and SLS as some of his top priorities.”
AmericaSpace: The next point that we want to address is one that has also been brought up repeatedly, and it is one that most Americans are concerned with—the budget. Sequestration is already causing issues with some of NASA’s other programs. One of the things that has been stated is that while NASA might not be ‘slow-rolling’ SLS, it does appear to be taking its time with the program in an effort to kind of ride out the country’s current state of economic turbulence. Is there any truth to this belief that NASA is taking its time on Orion and SLS so as to ride out the financial dynamic we see today?
Dumbacher: “I don’t think that is another dynamic, but I do think that the characterization that NASA is ‘slow-rolling’ these programs is unfair. We are actually working as fast as we can within the budget constraints that we have to work within. We recognize as an agency that there are many demands on the federal budget and we are part of that budget, so we do have to recognize that we have to live within budget constraints. We will not see the budget environment that we had back in the ’60s. So, it’s incumbent upon NASA to live within the budget constraints and that’s what we are doing. Would we like to go faster? You bet! However, because of the national budget situation and the national budget environment, we have to recognize that we have to work within those constraints and that is what we are doing.”
AmericaSpace: There have been several metric-ton amounts that SLS is required to deliver to orbit. What caused those amounts to be selected? Why 70 and 110? Why does SLS have to have that capability to accomplish its objectives?
Dumbacher: “Seventy metric tons is the version of the launch vehicle that we are currently working on to send Orion to orbit for the 2017 mission. Ultimately, however, we are working toward the 130-metric-ton version that is planned to be used for the Mars missions. We need the 130-metric-ton version for the Mars missions. The 70-metric-ton variant is the vehicle that we could develop and have useful payload abilities within a reasonable timeframe and within the budget constraints. So, the 70-metric-ton version will provide us with the capability of sending Orion with crew to the area around the Moon and allow us to be able to work within that vicinity. We are also working on a plan to upgrade SLS after the first few missions to about 105-metric-ton capability on our way to 130. So, from an SLS perspective you should be hearing numbers of 70, 105, and 130.”
AmericaSpace: The one that I think folks are most familiar with is 70.
Dumbacher: “The reason that they have heard that one the most is because that will be our flight-capable version and the one used for our first crewed mission. It’s the vehicle that we are designing now. We are designing it in such a way so that we don’t have to redesign anything to go to the 105-metric-ton capability, because everything is designed to build toward the 130-metric-ton class. We in the rocket business like to talk about things in terms of mass and volume and those types of considerations—one of the things that we are trying to figure out how to communicate better. When you think about it, a Curiosity lander was about 900 or 1,000 kilograms. So, with all her components, 70 metric tons would deliver to low-Earth orbit about 70 Curiosity landers.”
AmericaSpace: That’s a lot of rovers.
Dumbacher: (Laughs) “That’s the message. A launch vehicle at 70 metric tons provides a lot of lift capability to get hardware to the orbits that we need to get to.”
AmericaSpace: I’m not sure if you’ll recall, but during your presentation at the Cape regarding the future of Human Space Flight, we asked about what type of spacecraft would be required to go to Mars—that it’d probably need to be about twice the size of the ISS. The ISS is about the size of a football field, so if you think about it, you need to have large up-mass capabilities to send such a spacecraft into orbit. Is that what we are hearing?
Dumbacher: “That’s exactly what you are hearing. All of our architecture mission analysis that we’ve done over the years always has shown us that we need lots of hardware to get to Mars, to get to the surface of Mars, and then back home safely. Depending on the hardware used and how you configure the mission, it takes multiple launches. Even using a 130-metric-ton class SLS, it still requires five or six SLS launches to do a Mars mission. In terms of Mars? Bigger launch vehicles are better.”
AmericaSpace: When this discussion broke out on AmericaSpace it became a very heated debate. Before we really got too involved we wanted to get our facts straight, which is why we contacted NASA Headquarters. One of the questions that was asked of us was, ‘If NASA saw that they could conduct these missions less expensively using smaller commercial launch vehicles—perhaps with more launches—would NASA be willing to do this?’ Would you say, ‘Look, SLS is great, but we can do it less expensively using either the Delta IV Heavy or the Falcon Heavy’? If NASA crunched the numbers and discovered it could put the mass it needed up on say six Delta IV Heavy or Falcon Heavy launches instead of one SLS, would you do that?
Dumbacher: “If we could do it for less—that is the key. Our analysis using the best data that we can lay our hands on says that there is a trade off with the amount of payload delivered per launch, launch cost, and also the complexity of on-orbit operations, and this begins to impact crew safety as well. If I start to put it up in smaller pieces, then that means there has to be more on-orbit operations that are necessary to get everything attached. And, by the way, that means that the crew will have to contend with longer exposure time in the space environment, radiation exposure, micro-meteorites, and so forth. All of that starts to play into the equation, so I think that gets lost sometimes in the debates that you’ve experienced. All of the considerations need to be factored into the analysis. It’s not just a cost equation, and, in fact, it takes a dramatic reduction in launch costs for smaller launch vehicles to be competitive from a cost perspective. You have to recognize that it is not just a per-unit cost; you also have to include the infrastructure on the ground to manufacture and assemble all of those extra launch vehicles.”
AmericaSpace: It sounds kind of like the K.I.S.S. philosophy—Keep it Simple Stupid.
Dumbacher: “Keeping it simple has its advantages. I’m not going to use the second ‘S’ (laughs).
AmericaSpace: Well, Dan, that covers the three main comments that we’ve seen repeatedly raised, and so I would like to talk to you a bit about EFT-1, which is scheduled to launch on a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy late next year, and then in 2017 we should see the first unmanned test flight of an SLS from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39B. However, it is 2021 which is the big year, because that will be the year that the U.S. will send a crew beyond Earth orbit for the first time since 1972. Would you like to talk a bit about what this mission will mean for NASA?
Dumbacher: “Yes, first though I’d like to talk about Exploration Flight Test One, which will be taking place in 2014. First of all, it is not the full-up Orion; it is the Orion structure, its heat shield—those things that we need to get tested as part of developing the crew vehicle. Because it weighs less we are able to send it to high-Earth orbit with a Delta IV Heavy; a Delta IV Heavy could not get Orion beyond Earth orbit. So the Delta IV Heavy meets our testing needs to get the data we need for the design of Orion. EM-1 and EM-2 (Exploration Mission 1 and Exploration Mission 2) is essentially a full-up Orion minus the systems needed to support a crew. We’re flying that on EM-1 because we get the integrated stack; we’ll get a better understanding of how SLS and Orion work together in the flight environment; we actually go all the way out to the Moon. With EM-1 all we are doing is looking at what the manned mission, EM-1, will look like and test out much of the procedures on EM-2—EM-1 as a ‘practice run.’ EM-2 is the crewed flight, and it will go to lunar space.”
AmericaSpace: Without getting into the orbital mechanics involved, can you break down for us what this mission will look like? Will it be similar to the Apollo 8 mission (which traveled around the Moon in 1968)?
Dumbacher: “We’ve drawn it up that way. I think I probably could have done a better job of communicating what this mission will look like. EM-2 will have the capability of going to LaGrangian Points, to retro-grade orbits, to do an Apollo 8-style mission. We’re sorting through what type of mission makes the most sense. This goes back to the questions: ‘What do we need to learn?’ and ‘How do we need to learn it—in order to prepare for Mars?’ ”
AmericaSpace: What we heard today is that not only does NASA want SLS, but the agency feels that it needs SLS to be able to go to Mars. That the agency is doing what it can to not only stay within the budget that it has been allotted, but also to be as safe as possible when doing it. NASA views SLS as the rocket that is finally going to send humans to Mars.
Dumbacher: “Right, and I will add to that a little bit in that to do anything significant or worthwhile beyond Earth orbit, we need a launch vehicle like SLS and a spacecraft like Orion in order to execute those missions. They are fundamental elements to our human exploration beyond Earth orbit. It is kind of like how the National Interstate System is a fundamental capability to service our economy. SLS and Orion are fundamental capabilities to allow us to send humans beyond the orbit of Earth.
AmericaSpace: As you might tell, there is some confusion out in the public regarding this subject, which is why we brought it up. We always like to close with the following question: If there was any one thing that you wanted to make the public aware of in terms of SLS and Orion, what would it be?
Dumbacher: “I think that it is all the stuff that we’ve talked about, and I’ll add one. There is the perception in the general public that, since shuttle, NASA is out of the human exploration and human space flight business—that is the furthest thing from the truth. We might not be moving as fast as some people would like, but that is because of the budget conditions. NASA—through its efforts on Commercial Crew and the International Space Station, as well as SLS and Orion—is heavily working on human space exploration. While it might have taken a different form from the shuttle program, this agency is still exploring space. We have a permanent human presence in low-Earth orbit on the International Space Station with the testing and the experiments that we run there. We’re also working to have commercial companies send crew and cargo to the station—an important and integral component of our exploration activities—and NASA is looking beyond Earth orbit with SLS and Orion. So, I think if anything I would add for the general public that NASA is still in the human spaceflight business, and there’s going to be more coming and we’re working very hard on it.”
To summarize, the three points that have been raised about SLS are as follows:
- 1 — NASA does not want SLS and is working on it because it is being forced to do so. This statement, from the very highest levels within NASA, does not appear to have any basis in fact. Quite the contrary, NASA has stridently stated the exact opposite.
- 2 — There is no mission for the heavy-lift booster. In the short-term this is somewhat accurate. However, Dumbacher addressed this as well. SLS is going to be used to send humans to Mars.
- 3 — NASA cannot afford SLS. In actuality, the space agency is monitoring the expense of both SLS and Orion to make sure that they remain within NASA’s allotted budget.
We also wanted to address statements regarding the use of commercial rockets to replace the Space Launch System and the metric ton requirements placed on SLS. According to Dumbacher, for the time being it would cost more to conduct multiple launches on smaller rockets, and the metric ton requirements were put in place to ensure the booster could loft the payload required to conduct a crewed mission to Mars.
Dan L. Dumbacher is the AAA for Human Exploration Capabilities at NASA Headquarters. He provides leadership and management for the directorate with a special focus on space launch systems and multipurpose crew vehicle (Orion) planning activities, as the Program Director for SLS / MPCV/ 21st Century Ground Systems.