Home > Science, Space, STEM, Workforce Development > Commentary: NASA Unveils New Jobs Program

Commentary: NASA Unveils New Jobs Program

NASA has unveiled plans for its “new” Space Launch System (SLS) , throwing away any plans for a more  sensible Single Stage to Orbit (SST) design.  The original budget proposal for the SLS was $63 billion to be spent by 2025, but that was called “inflated” and pared down to just $10 billion by 2017.

Anyone who takes the time to examine NASA’s budget record would recognize that the $63 billion tag is deflated, not inflated.  When the Shuttle program was initially introduced in 1972, the purpose of a reusable “Space Transportation System”  (STS) was  to reduce the cost of putting payload in orbit.   The proposed cost of putting 1 pound of payload into orbit by the Shuttle was $118 dollars.  Adjust for inflation in 2011 dollars that cost should have been just under $700/pound.  Instead the Shuttle program cost us $29,000 for every pound we managed to put into Low Earth Orbit  (LEO).   If NASA performs as well with the SLS it could cost us $4.7 Trillion by 2025.  The shuttle cost us $1.5 billion per launch.  Let’s be generous and pretend NASA could make this monster perform for only $750 million per launch.  Payload to orbit costs would still be $4070/pound.

NASA’s stated purpose for the SLS is to:

1)  “create good paying, American Jobs”

2)  “ensure continued U.S. leadership in space”

3)  “inspire millions of people around the world”

If we really want to create jobs, ensure our dominance in space and inspire billions, we would disband NASA,  create a new space agency whose job it would be to work in LEO and beyond only.  This new agency’s job would be to create real industry in space and explore the solar system.   To get the payload to orbit, this agency would offer to pay private industry  $20,000 a pound for the first 5 years,  $15,000 the second 5, and so on until we had cheap payload-to-orbit costs.

If we concede the need for a huge, disposable launch system why use the Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME) which were designed as reusable and therefor extremely expensive?  Why  segmented, reusable solid-fuel  boosters except for the politically expedient goal of keeping the factories going in Utah? Why reusable at all?  Solid fuel rockets are basically steel pipes stuffed with gun-cotton  and leached with a catalyst.  Let them fall into the Atlantic to become seedbeds for coral.   Making them recoverable adds significantly to the cost of the rocket.  Making them segmented (so they can be shipped from Utah) adds significantly to the operational risk (think Challenger).  The payload of this beast will never be significantly higher than the Saturn V and will initially be significantly less.  And we already know how to build the Saturn, and how reliable it was.

We need low cost payload-to-orbit systems.  Manned and unmanned exploration and exploitation of space is cheap, once we get the hardware out of earth’s gravity well.

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