Boeing, Northup Grumman, Aerojet Rocketdyne, Lockheed Martin, Airbus, and the United Launch Alliance are working on something I will collectively call the Space Launch System. The Space Launch System costs about $3 billion a year in funding, escalating at about 5% per year. The Space Launch System program started in 2005 as part of the original (but canceled) Constellation program for returning to the Moon, and includes the Orion spacecraft program.
In fourteen years the Space Launch System has launched one small rocket, built no space ships, lifted no cargo, and has not visited the International Space Station. For the price tag of about $40 billion, NASA has received nothing. Well almost nothing. It did get a nonoperational crew capsule that could be dropped into the ocean without sinking. The problem is, NASA already had crew capsules that have done this since the 1950’s.
In fact the Space Launch System is nothing more than a re-imagining of the Saturn V launch system with Apollo crew capsules. Which is staggering when you consider that the Apollo program landed astronauts on the Moon in 1969. But it gets worse. Because the Saturn V was really just an adaptation of the Nazi V-2 rocket program, which was developed in 1942 and launched a few thousand rockets in the space of three years. That is not a typo–over three thousand V-2’s were launched in the 1940’s. Nazi’s–three thousand in three years. Space Launch System–one in thirteen years.
Some readers have probably caught on by now. The Space Launch System is a really just a boondoggle for defense companies involved in the aerospace industry. It has no purpose other than to employ thousands of engineers, fabricators, and program management staff. These thousands of technical employees then are used to justify millions of dollars of executive salaries and bonuses. And let us not forget the millions spent on lobbyists to keep the spigots open.
There is some utility in keeping a number of technical resources engaged for national security and industrial capability. But it would be nice to know the country is going somewhere. Eventually.
This is not the only stupid expenditure of space program funding going on. The Air Force is funding Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket program to the tune of $500 million in order to siphon resources away from Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Why? The Air Force is pissed that SpaceX broke up the United Launch Alliance-Air Force military launch vehicle sole source boondoggle. Still–$500 million is a relative drop in the space industry bucket.
Ironically, the aforementioned SpaceX is building its own heavy launch system without any government funding. It started in 2012 and began assembling the first rocket in 2018 for test launching in 2019 or 2020. What is the launch window of the first Space Launch System on an Aries rocket? 2025? 2030? Never?
Heck, even the North Koreans launch more rockets than the Space Launch System program, although admittedly each launch probably kills thousands of its citizens every winter through resource deprivation. The only thing that the Space Launch System is killing is time.
I guess we should all be grateful that all this wasteful and aimless spending is relatively harmless. Or is it? While NASA fiddles, do other countries take their place on the Moon and Mars? Will it require another President Kennedy to pound on a podium and thunder “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”, while desperately funding a last ditch response to a new threat to national security in space?
I certainly hope not. But I am admittedly an optimist.