Charlie Bolden admits the SLS rocket will meet the scrap heap sooner than expected

C C Offline

INTRO: Charlie Bolden, a four-time astronaut, served as NASA administrator from mid-2009 through early 2017. During that time, he oversaw the creation and initial development of the agency's large Space Launch System rocket. Although some NASA officials such as then-Deputy Director Lori Garver were wary of the rocket's costs—about $20 billion has now been poured into development of a launch vehicle based on existing technology—Bolden remained a defender of the large rocket, calling it a lynchpin of the agency's plans to send humans beyond low-Earth orbit, perhaps to the Moon or Mars. He also dismissed the efforts of commercial space companies like SpaceX to build comparable technology.

When I sat down with Bolden for an interview in 2014 at Johnson Space Center, I asked why NASA was investing so much in the SLS rocket when SpaceX was using its own funds to develop the lower-cost Falcon Heavy rocket. His response at the time: “Let’s be very honest. We don’t have a commercially available heavy-lift vehicle. The Falcon 9 Heavy may some day come about. It’s on the drawing board right now. SLS is real.”

Two years later, in 2016, Bolden said he still did not believe commercial companies were up to the task. "If you talk about launch vehicles, we believe our responsibility to the nation is to take care of things that normal people cannot do, or don’t want to do, like large launch vehicles," Bolden said. "I’m not a big fan of commercial investment in large launch vehicles just yet."

Since that time, a lot has changed. In February 2018, SpaceX launched the Falcon Heavy rocket for the first time. It has since flown successfully two more times, and it will play a role in NASA's future exploration plans. Meanwhile, the SLS rocket, originally due to launch in 2017, is now delayed until at least the end of 2021. As a result of this, Bolden appears to have changed his mind. In an interview with Politico published Friday morning in the publication's Space newsletter, Bolden was asked what might happen during the next four years.

“SLS will go away," he said. "It could go away during a Biden administration or a next Trump administration… because at some point commercial entities are going to catch up. They are really going to build a heavy lift launch vehicle sort of like SLS that they will be able to fly for a much cheaper price than NASA can do SLS. That’s just the way it works.”

Bolden remains a popular and influential voice in the space community, but he no longer has a direct say in US space policy. Perhaps because he no longer has to answer to Congress for NASA budgets, he is also free to speak his mind. In any case, his comments reflect the general sentiment in the space community—at least outside of the traditional contractors like Boeing and Northrop Grumman who directly benefit from SLS development—that the SLS rocket will eventually go away... (MORE)
Yazata Offline
I expect that Bolden's right. After massive expenditures, SLS is almost certainly going away. (But not just yet.) It's just too expensive to hang too many hats on. NASA will have difficulty keeping up a cadence of one flight a year. So once again NASA faces the spectre of a white elephant rocket sucking up all their available funds so that they can't do anything else in manned spaceflight, just like the Shuttle did in years past. NASA runs the risk of becoming an agency that does little more in manned spaceflight than keeping the SLS flying.

Meanwhile, assuming that it's successful (not a given), Starship will be flying far more often and far less expensively. Even if Starship never succeeds (very possible that it won't), Jeff Bezos and his New Glenn rocket (with a larger New Armstrong on the drawing board) will rise to challenge SLS.

In some ways the later SLS with its newer still-under-development future upper stage will still be the world's most powerful rocket. But if SpaceX perfects orbital refueling, that will be an absolute game-changer. It will no longer be necessary to lift your exploration vehicle and all of its fuel in one single boost.

What I expect to happen is that NASA will use SLS for the projected 2024 return humans to the Moon mission (which is likely to slip further in the decade). They will want to do that to justify the SLS project and all the money that they have already spent on it. (It got humans back to the Moon after more than 50 years!) But after that, for follow-up missions, lunar bases and stuff, they will probably turn to SpaceX's Starship (or alternatively to whatever Blue comes up with) because it will be so much cheaper kilogram for kilogram to deliver payloads to and from the Moon's surface with the private rockets.

No way that I can see that SLS goes to Mars. That's Elon's baby at this point. Kind of a long-shot, but Elon wants it so bad that they will definitely try.

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