Spaceflight Insider

Opinion: Is the Ukraine being used as a wedge to kill SLS?

Is the Obama Administration and its appointees using the crisis in the Ukraine as a wedge to cancel SLS? Image Credit: Nathan Moeller / Max-Q entertainment

The Space Launch System is not popular with everyone (yes, that’s an under statement). When President Obama canceled the Constellation Program, he didn’t want to retain any of it, not even the Orion capsule. After his first attempt at ending the program – the Space Launch System was created to salvage the nation’s manned space program. It now appears that world events are being used to try and once again cancel U.S. human beyond-Earth exploration efforts.

The Space Launch System or “SLS” has evolved into essentially Constellation by another name—minus the reusable rocket and the intent to return to the Moon. Some feel that SLS is simply too expensive and impractical a program, and that operating costs will keep it from achieving its objectives.

In a 2013 article, John Strickland of the National Space Society pointed out that a single SLS launch is estimated to cost $500 million, that this will limit SLS to a mere one launch per year if NASA’s budget remains flat, and that the decision to splash the Orion capsule down in the ocean rather than touch down on land will impact its reusability. Strickland and others believe SLS should be abandoned, and that commercial crew vehicles such as SpaceX’s Dragon should be used on existing rockets.

NASA’s Dan Dumbacher refuted Strickland’s article, pointing out that not having solid rocket boosters on SLS will defray the cost of booster retrieval, post flight analysis of reusable hardware, transportation, and so on, concluding that an expendable rocket makes more sense in the long run. Moreover, both Dumbacher and William Gerstenmaier have stated that NASA is looking into having SLS fly as often as once per year.

President Barack Obama cancelled NASA's Constellation Program in 2010. Since that time however, the president's leadership in terms of space has been sorely lacking. Image Credit: NASA

President Barack Obama cancelled NASA’s Constellation Program in 2010. Since that time however, the president’s leadership in terms of space has been sorely lacking. Image Credit: NASA

Only time will tell how ready commercial spacecraft are to embark on deep space missions—something no manned spacecraft has done since 1972. For their part, commercial vehicles have yet to launch a single human being into low-Earth-orbit – let alone to destinations beyond our home world. Now however, thanks to the crisis in Ukraine, proponents of Strickland’s view might just get their way – regardless of commercial space’s empty human spaceflight portfolio.

This past week NASA severed most of its efforts with Russia. Operations aboard the International Space Station are exempt from the moratorium—at least so far. It’s a sign of the deteriorating political situation, and probably inevitable. Russia was invited to partake in the ISS program during the Clinton Administration. What, at the time, was meant as an effort to ensure that Russian engineers stayed on the “right side” of the fence – has never really fit given the nation’s human rights record and history.

Ordinarily, this would be little cause for concern. As things stand right now, there’s little chance the crisis in Ukraine will lead to outright war, at least between the United States and Russia. Sooner or later the situation will ease and our space agencies will begin to work together again—though it’s amusing to imagine the awkwardness on board the International Space Station right now…

Given NASA Administrator Charles Bolden's recent comments - it is unclear if the stage has been set for another attempt to cancel NASA's human deep space exploration program. Image Credit: NASA

Given NASA Administrator Charles Bolden’s recent comments – it is unclear if the stage has been set for another attempt to cancel NASA’s human deep space exploration program. Image Credit: NASA

But the overriding implications are more alarming than amusing. Given that it was only a week ago that NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden testified before Congress that should the Russians deny American astronauts access to the International Space Station, he would recommend cancelling the Space Launch System. With that in mind, it might be wise to question NASA’s motives, as well as the wisdom of cutting off ties with Russia. What initially appeared to be a series of unrelated events – suddenly seem to be related after all.

Is it wise for NASA to take part in the escalating international tensions? It is the place of a civilian space agency whose focus is scientific research and international cooperation in space to join in the military fray? NASA’s announcement came at the same week NATO suspended cooperation with Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been widely condemned for his occupation of Ukraine and his annexation of Crimea.

But should the political differences between the two nations affect the friendly relations between the space agencies? Is the Russian Space Agency complicit in any way with the goings-on in Ukraine? While NASA’s decision was likely made for them for by the State Department – at some point leadership has to come in and either an individual or an agency must stand for what is right. Too many poor choices and failures have been laid at the feet of: “I was just following orders…”

It could be argued that condemning Russia’s policies while maintaining a close relationship with the agency that carries our astronauts to the ISS would be a sign of weakness. But in all fairness, we put ourselves in a position of weakness. If we appear to be at a disadvantage, it’s because we are. Given that Russia controls access to the International Space Station, cutting our ties with them is a risky move, but an interestingly timed one.

Mr. Bolden must have known in last week’s testimony that this decision was on the table. Given this, it seems curious that he made the extraordinary statement that he would recommend canceling SLS should relations with Russia deteriorate—and then a week later NASA takes the initiative in escalating the deterioration of those relations. It is tempting to think that Bolden—and President Obama—might be deliberately hastening the end of SLS.

Since his first foray into the world of space exploration, President Obama has stated verbally his support as the president has actively worked to see the space program be increasingly rendered irrelevant. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / SpaceFlight Insider

Since his first foray into the world of space exploration, President Obama has stated verbally his support as the president has actively worked to see the space program be increasingly rendered irrelevant. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / SpaceFlight Insider

NASA issued a statement about the suspension of communication with Russia which rings hollow in light of the events of the past four years:

“Given Russia’s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, NASA is suspending the majority of its ongoing engagements with the Russian Federation. NASA and Roscosmos will, however, continue to work together to maintain safe and continuous operation of the International Space Station. NASA is laser focused on a plan to return human spaceflight launches to American soil, and end our reliance on Russia to get into space. This has been a top priority of the Obama Administration’s for the past five years, and had our plan been fully funded, we would have returned American human spaceflight launches – and the jobs they support – back to the United States next year. With the reduced level of funding approved by Congress, we’re now looking at launching from U.S. soil in 2017. The choice here is between fully funding the plan to bring space launches back to America or continuing to send millions of dollars to the Russians. It’s that simple. The Obama Administration chooses to invest in America–and we are hopeful that Congress will do the same.”

Given that it was Obama who canceled the Constellation Program at the eleventh hour while still moving ahead with the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, indefinitely delaying U.S. access to space, the above statement seems rather disingenuous – at best. That’s not to absolve Congress of its failure to adequately fund Constellation or the new program (whatever that is), but for the regime of Bolden and Obama to posture a pro-space stance after such destructive mismanagement and lack of leadership is simply insulting. Obama’s and Bolden’s actions belie their words.

Choosing to alienate Russia just as the situation in Ukraine appears to be settling down - suggests that an ulterior agenda could be at play. Photo Credit: ESA

Choosing to alienate Russia just as the situation in Ukraine appears to be settling down – suggests that an ulterior agenda could be at play. Photo Credit: ESA

The sudden cancellation of the Constellation Program, the failure to replace Constellation with a viable alternative, the failure to make a public case for the new program, the failure to fight Congress for the necessary funds to launch American astronauts from U.S. soil as soon as possible, all speak to an agenda that does not prioritize NASA’s return to flight – in the slightest. Why would Bolden, a former astronaut, wish to do that? Firstly, perhaps as a Marine, he feels obligated to obey his commander-in-chief, and President Obama, for whatever reason, is dead-set on privatizing manned spaceflight. Secondly, perhaps Bolden honestly believes private companies are ready to take over manned spaceflight—a discussion for another time. Bolden’s suggestion to cancel SLS, followed quickly by NASA’s decision to cut ties with Russia, paints a picture of a concerted effort to use the international crisis to fulfill a politically-risky agenda: the end of U.S. manned spaceflight.

It’s perfectly possible, of course, that there is no plan to cancel SLS, that NASA’s current action is merely an extension of the current U.S. national policy or lack thereof, and that Bolden simply made a foolish comment while testifying. But those who are interested in America’s future as a space faring nation should pay very close attention to space policy decisions in the weeks and months ahead.


The views expressed in this commentary – are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The SpaceFlight Group

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Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.

Reader Comments

Umm….reread the statement. This is about trying to knock some sense into Congress on returning U.S. crew launches to U.S. soil. Fully fund the commercial crew program. End our dependence on Russia. That is what most of the statement is about.

Congress has consistently cut the requests for that program. But you then turn around and blame the administration for not fighting Congress over the cuts. You can’t have it both ways.

“This is about trying to knock some sense into Congress on returning U.S. crew launches to U.S. soil. Fully fund the commercial crew program.”

If that was really the case, NASA would drop from 3 to 2 or 1 company sooner than later to build a taxi to the ISS and speed up the program to launch astronauts on American soil sooner than later. As has been discussed many times, there is no market that will sustain more than 1 company. What? You say that is not true? Well than these companies can go to the markets with there business plans and obtain more capital to speed up the development of their “commercial” manned spacecraft that will generate a whole lot of profits.

Jason – great article. On the mark as always.

Sorry – I meant great article Collin. I apologize. I am use to Jason’s editorials.

There is value to the taxpayer to continuing competition as long as possible. The thing that will ultimately make commercial crew work is if Bigelow gets commercial space stations operating. Whether he succeeds remains to be seen, but without commercially available transport nothing will get launched. It’s a risk worth taking.

Good point, Doug. I had forgotten about that.
Also, the commercial cargo program has been extraordinarily successful at providing two separate cargo supply systems for the ISS, at greatly reduced cost.
Why not let the commercial crew program have the same chance at being this successful?

Bob Clark

CRS is a Success??? Really? Cost of 3.4 billion dollars for mere 40000kg(1.6+1.8 to both providers e.g. average 85000$/kg) was a huge success in reduction of it and open the frontier. Hahahaha… Its near twice the price of shuttle without up to 7 people additionally. Even SLS with 500 Mil$ for 70000kg is a cheap change as compared with this total robbery out of NASA and American taxpayers. And those two sucker companies SpaceX and Orbital had another 1bil$ for those rockets development. I call it insanity in action and you seem promote it in every space related blog.
Where are those greatly reduced costs? Point out any…

Exactly right JOE2. Instead of devoting his energy to furtively enlisting Senators Feinstein and Durbin against the RD-180 engine and the Atlas launch vehicle, thereby giving him a monopoly in launch services (so much for increased competition and lower prices), Elon should go to Wall Street for an initial public stock offering and raise capital the good ole’ fashioned way – undergoing the scrutiny of financial analysts, accountants, and advisers who are more interested in return on investment than commercial space fantasy of greenhouses on Mars. Certainly with all the commercial space support evident in these posts, there should be more than enough funding for Comm space with everyone willing to risk their own 401(k) and pensions. But then, there are no doubt easy ways to “convince” a Congressman to allow access to the taxpayer’s pockets to fund “commercial” crew. Hey! America also needs solar energy to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Maybe we need to fund a “commercial” solar energy “private sector” company, like Solyndra, to build solar panels.

I don’t agree with the one manned launch provider scenario. We all saw what happened with the shuttle when you only had one launch provider for manned launches and that one went down. SpaceX is the furthest along so it should be included in such a program. On the other hand the Atlas V has a much longer history of successful launches so that should count in its favor. We should have at least these two as launch providers.

Bob Clark

John Strickland

In my July 2013 Space Review article, What I actually said was: “The lowest and least believable (SLS launch cost estimate) of $500 million per launch, is from an unofficial NASA document that does not specify if the figure includes the estimated $30 Billion development cost or even the annual operating budget.” The actual launch cost for an expendable rocket would also include vehicle construction costs and launch pad operations costs. My best guess is still that an SLS launch (not including the payload) will cost billions, the amount depending on its launch rate.

Going back over 20 years to Rick Tumlinson’s expendable airplane argument, lets assume that in World War II, every airplane that flew a mission was expendable, and that its crew parachuted to safety if it was not shot down (as many were). The Germans suspended air raids on London later in the war due to the fact that airplane production could not keep up with losses. Currently, only governments can afford to launch massive payloads with humans on board, due to the continuing use of expendable rockets. This era will soon be over.

Can we use just a little logic here. A large booster rocket is comparable to the cost of a large airliner. How much would an air ticket cost if the airplane could only be used once. Even if a rocket endures more stress during its flight, any loss of payload capacity due to a stronger structure would be more than compensated by the huge savings achieved by being able to reuse the rocket. It is currently estimated that a fully reusable rocket would have launch costs between $200 and $400 dollars per pound of payload. Current government payload rates are about $8000 per pound.

NASA has previously admitted that it does not have the budget to launch the SLS more than once every 2 years. If it launched it once a year, what programs would need to be cancelled to support such launches. What would the rocket be launching? There is no budget to develop alternate payloads for the SLS other than the Apollo-style Orion capsule. The SLS budget is using up all of the other money which we should be using to develop such payloads.

About 3 years ago, SpaceX announced that it could develop and build a vehicle comparable to the SLS for a flat rate of $2.5 Billion, with an expendable launch cost of $300 million. Development of an even larger vehicle by SpaceX is now under way, and it will be reusable. The government chose to select the SLS program contractors without an open bid process for it. How will the Congress look when the first Falcon 9R is reused for the first time.

Please note that in my articles, I am expressing my own opinion, not that of the National Space Society.

Collin R. Skocik

Thanks for the reply. Even though I’ve been a supporter of SLS, I have to admit I find your arguments compelling.

For an accurate analysis of the SLS/Orion program, Jason Rhian’s 24 March 2014 posting on SpaceFlight Insider entitled “Fact Checking Rumors on NASA’s Space Launch System” provides an interview with NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development Dan Dumbacher which clears up many oft-repeated erroneous statements that have become accepted as fact.

Cutting to a single source is not what we want. We want a highly competitive industry that drives prices down through competition. We want an end to costplus. I am in the industry and buy parts for spacecraft myself so I am quite aware from friends how the costs of even basic parts are driven upwards by the costplus poison. Additionally, note that an email memo from the Executive branch went out to a bunch of agencies and ordered them to drop technical contacts with Russia with the exception of ISS. Now perhaps things will settle down in Russia… and perhaps they won’t. Putin is hardline, an old KGB head. Watch some of the Russian videos of pro-Putin marches. They are filled with Communist flags and slogans (when translated) saying things like USSR 2.0. Should things go down that path, we could be cut off from access to ISS by a single phone call from Putin to the appropriate parties. And as to our defense satellites, Delta is not very commercially competitive and ULA has a stockpile of Russian built engines that will only last a couple years… and after that they are stuffed because all the plans spec Russian materials and Russian coatings technology which we have not replicated… it would take several years and billions of dollars for our costplus lads to do so. The USAF decided to accept the supplier risk and not go that route. So if things go tubular, we might be launching defense sats on Ariane, and have the Russians in de-facto control of ISS.

Just an additional note: OSC as well as ULA will be casting about for new engines. The Atlas is not the only vehicle beholden to a threatenable supply.

Maintaining competition in commercial crew is a good deal for taxpayers. I believe there is a market beyond ISS for commercial crew. Bigelow’s commercial stations will use the same vehicles. It’s unknown whether Bigelow will succeed, but it’s a risk worth taking.

This comment violated SpaceFlight Insider’s commenting policies and was removed.

When the leader of the legitimately elected Ukrainian government chose to accept support with substantial guaranteed financial assistance from Russia, elements seeking ties with the European Union which was already under financial strain from EU members experiencing severe economic difficulty staged massive civil unrest and occupied government buildings. The duly elected government was overthrown and the leadership sought refuge in the ethnically Russian Russian-speaking eastern part of Ukraine. Rather than enlisting the aid of Russia to take back the government, the deposed leaders and an overwhelming majority of Russians in the eastern Ukraine Crimea area voted to return to Russia. Crimea had been a part of Russia for hundreds of years before it was given by the Soviet Union to then Soviet Union member Ukraine in the 1950’s, and it is very obvious that the Russians in the Crimea want to be a part of Russia. Did anyone seriously believe that the Russians were going to allow the near bankrupt Ukraine to hand its crucial naval port at Sevastapol over to the EU and NATO? It’s hardly in the best interest of the Administration to keep flogging this issue just to benefit “Commercial space” when Russian help in the Syrian crisis, and to get our troops and equipment out of Afghanistan, is desperately needed. It isn’t Collin who looks foolish.

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