One year ago today, hot on the heels of retiring the space shuttle program, NASA announced its next step in spaceflight that would supposedly take us beyond low earth orbit, the Space Launch System. While the public’s reaction to the announcement of the SLS has been tepid due to its uninspiring design and extremely un-ambitious timetable, that hasn’t stopped NASA from reminding us every few months that it still exists. In their latest effort to get us excited about a rocket that won’t be fully completed until 2032, they’ve released a new video showcasing everything they’ve accomplished in the year since the SLS was announced.
That may seem like an awful lot of stuff to get accomplished just a year after a “new” rocket is announced, but don’t let the footage fool you. While it seems NASA would like you to believe that all of this was developed from a running start last year, in fact, almost all of the major things they talk about in the video are leftovers from the Constellation program that President Obama cancelled his first year in office. While work on the Orion module was scheduled to go forward, the work that was supposed to be suspended on the five-segment booster and the J-2X rocket engine (an upgraded version of the Saturn rocket’s engine) continued on even after they were supposedly cancelled, leaving many wondering just how much power Administrator Bolden and the President had over NASA. It seems Bolden decided that, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” and just added the unending programs to the SLS when it came time to announce a new human-capable space vehicle.
So what has NASA really accomplished in the last year that wasn’t already being made for a cancelled vehicle? Well, outside the approval of a system requirements review and some aerodynamics tests, they made a connector ring for the Orion space capsule that will be used to connect it to the SLS. This basically means that what we have are a bunch of parts to go on the rocket but no rocket to put them on. Since the preliminary design review will not even be completed until sometime next year, this means that right now no one is even working on the rocket part of the SLS, which I think most would agree is a pretty important part. This might seem like a harsh criticisim of something that literally is rocket science, but when you realize that the SLS really is just an updated version of the rocket that carried us to the moon over 40 years ago with SRBs strapped to it, it boggles the mind that it is going to take 20 years to see project completion.
While the government is rightly looking forward towards a future where privatized space travel can deliver humans to LEO, it seems that they are really dropping the ball on their part of taking us one step further out into the solar system. At this rate it’s looking like Elon Musk and a reality show really will be the first to get people to Mars.