Using Jedi Mind Tricks to Sell NASA's Next Big Rocket

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These Are Not The Droids You Are Looking For

NASA had a press telecon today to discuss progress with the SLS (Space Launch System). NASA was trying to use Jedi mind tricks to try and spin the news - except the media covering the story did not fall for them.

Among the things being announced by NASA was that the launch date for the first SLS mission was being slipped to late 2018 from its current 2017 date. But NASA did not want to call it a slip and said that everyone was still working according the schedule they had been working on. Of course this would mean that NASA has spent the fast few years working toward a date 2018 date while telling the world it was focused on 2017. Later in the telecon NASA said that it might launch the first SLS mission in late 2017 or early 2018. So in other words NASA does not actually have a clear idea when it will launch the first SLS mission. You can be certain that it will slip again - well into 2019 before a first launch date is even discussed.

But NASA wants you to know that they have 70% confidence in all of their plans at this point. But when asked what the previous level of confidence was they admitted that they had never done the calculation. So were they more - or less confident prior to this? Given that they just slipped their launch date by a year ...

The initial plan was to launch EM-1 with an upper stage composed of a modified Boeing Delta IV upper stage i.e. the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS). After trying this for several years, and spending $400 million or so, NASA realized that this was not going to work. So they are going to ask Boeing to deliver a standard Delta IV upper stage and use that. NASA then wants to commence work on a 4 engine Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) that will only be used a few times. NASA spent a large sum of money on the J-2X engine which would be used in the much more powerful stage envisioned for SLS but has now shelved that work - for the next decade. There's no money to build the stage wherein the J-2X would be used.

But NASA did not want the media to focus on the purpose of the telecon i.e. that the SLS had passed a key milestone but had delayed its first launch by up to a year. No. Instead they wanted everyone to focus on the bigger picture - how SLS as a program can do all of these marvelous things including Mars. They even titled their press release "NASA Completes Key Review of World's Most Powerful Rocket in Support of Journey to Mars". One small problem - they are not even remotely close to sending an SLS off on a mission to Mars.

When asked to identify the missions that had been approved and for which funding had been clearly identified, NASA could only point to EFT (the Orion test later this year on a non-SLS rocket); EM-1 the first flight of a SLS with an uncrewed Orion; and EM-2 the first test of SLS with Orion and humans which may or may not do the Asteroid Retrieval thing that Congress is against doing. NASA claims to have all the money needed to do these two test missions with SLS. That's it folks. This is like being in the mid 1970s and announcing progress for the Space Shuttle Program and all of the marvelous things it will do but only having plans in place for STS-1, -2, and -3. Wait. That is more or less what NASA did to sell the Shuttle: promise everything to everyone.

Its easy to talk about what you might do - but much harder to talk about what you can - or will do.

But NASA wants everyone to be thinking about Mars. But no actual Mars missions were mentioned. No timeline was offered. No budget to do the whole Mars thing was available. NASA has been so desperate to show that the SLS has value that they have been running around the planetary and space science communities asking them to come up with things that SLS could do for them. Alas, at no point has NASA identified a single penny that might be used to pay for such missions.

While NASA may want you to think that everything is paid for, the GAO begs to differ. In its 2014 report "Actions Needed to Improve Transparency & Assess Long-Term Affordability of Human Exploration Programs", GAO noted: "Moreover, NASA's estimates do not capture the cost of the second flight of the 70-metric ton vehicle during EM-2, the costs of development work that will be necessary to fly the increased 105- and 130-metric ton SLS capabilities, and the costs associated with legacy hardware that will be used for the Orion program. In contrast, best practices for cost estimation call for "cradle to grave" life cycle cost estimates in order to help assess a program's long-term affordability."

So here we are with NASA trying to tell the media (and anyone else who listens to the audio recording) not to pay any attention to the fact that the SLS will likely launch a year late or that there is no money for any of the missions it wants you to think that they are going to be doing.

I have seen this movie before.

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