SLI Takes A Small Step Forward Into An Uncertain Future

By Keith Cowing
May 1, 2002
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NASA held a press conference on Tuesday to announce recent progress in its Space Launch Initiative (SLI) program.

A press release issued in coordination with the conference proclaimed “NASA is another step closer to defining the next-generation reusable space transportation system and successor to the Space Shuttle.”

In reality, the step taken was rather small.

According (again) to the press release “Three contractor architecture teams — The Boeing Company of Seal Beach, Calif.; Lockheed Martin Corp. of Denver; and a team including Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., and Northrop Grumman of El Segundo, Calif. — presented dozens of potential architectures for review. Following the review, each retained a handful of possible candidates for the nation’s next-generation reusable space launch system.”

The briefing featured a panel that consisted of :

  • Dennis Smith, NASA Space Launch Initiative Program Manager, Marshall Space Flight Center
  • Michael Coats, Vice President Reusable Space Transportation Systems, Lockheed Martin Space Systems
  • Kevin Neifert, Director Next Generation Launch Systems, Boeing
  • Doug Young, Director Space Systems, Northrop Grumman Integrated Systems
  • Antonio Elias, Executive Vice President and General Manager Advanced Programs, Orbital Sciences

    Dennis Smith, NASA’s SLI Program Manager, said “we said we would not pick a [vehicle] design at the beginning. We started with many concepts – hundreds – thousands of ideas. We whittled them down to 15 between these 4 companies. We will reduce this to 3 by then end of the year. We will then go into competition with 2 leading concepts chosen next year.”

    The intent of the SLI program, according to Smith, is “to develop far more reliable, more affordable access to space.” One of the main goals is to enhance launch safety for the current Space Shuttle risk level which ranges between 1 accident /250 launches and 1 accident / 500 down to 1 accident in 10,000 launches. SLI also seeks to dramatically cut the cost of placing things into space by two-thirds i.e. to around $1,000 per pound.

    There are various ways to approach these challenges. All of the approaches offered include increasing efficiencies in ground processing and operations, and advances in vehicle health monitoring, guidance navigation and control, and propulsion. In other words, learing from experince and doing things smarter and better.

    NASA’s failed X-33 program, the agency’s last attempt to replace the Space Shuttle, sought to pursue only one single-stage-to-orbit launch concept with the distant hope that a full scale Venture Star vehicle would result from private investment. SLI now focuses on a range of concepts which involve stages that return to the landing site (for reuse) while others go on to complete a mission and then return. Unlike the current Space Shuttle (and the much-hyped Venture Star) many SLI systems now include multi-staged vehicles (for cargo) that do not have a human crew. Indeed, some human-rated designs could have auto-pilot capabilities. (see artist’s concepts of various vehicles)

    While these goals are rather straightforward, one aspect of SLI is not: the role of the private or commercial sector. According to Smith NASA needs to design a system to fit into the national [launch] infrastructure – owned and operated by the commercial sector even if the government is one of – or the only investor.”

    According to Smith, SLI is looking at a 60-70,000 pound cargo capability – this is more than the current Space Shuttle fleet is capable of carrying. Smith described the requirements of the SLI program as being focused to “support the growing GEO satellite market”.

    When asked if he could identify the specific commercial input (or reports) used by NASA to derive the SLI cargo capability (and if he would provide copies of these materials to the press) Smith replied that Futron Corp. had done a study. He then added that each of the participating companies had also provided input – but that this information was proprietary, When offered the chance to add to what Smith had said, all of the company representatives on the panel declined the to comment. When pressed again to provide actual copies of the Futron report to the press, Smith said that he would.

    Editor’s note: you can reach Smith for a copy of this report at Dennis.E.Smith@msfc.nasa.gov; +1 256 544-9119 (voice); +1 256-544-4103 (fax)

    According to Smith “we’re going to spend nearly $5 billion over the next 5 years to prove the capability to go develop the system.” The time frame Smith set is 2012 at which time a Second Generation launch system would be in place to provide crew and cargo transport to and from the International Space Station. NASA’s Office of Space Flight recently began a study to understand how to fly the Space Shuttle program until 2020. (see “Reassessing Space Shuttle Upgrades Strategy“; 3 April 2002 Letter from Office of Spaceflight Associate Administrator Fred Gregory to the Center Director of NASA JSC ) Regardless of whether these two dates remain firm, both the Second Generation Launch system – and the current Space Shuttle system will be flying for a significant period of time. NASA has not be clear as to how these tow systems would work together – as one is phased in – and the other phased out. Moreover, this has caused some concern among those who worry about how the current (Shuttle) system is going to be maintained.

    This issue came up in hearings before the House Science Committee last week. At that time, Rep. Dave Weldon (R-FL) said:

    “To be blunt, NASA has to come clean about what its plans are for manned rated vehicle operations. For the better part of the past decade NASA has been working under the assumption that a Shuttle-class replacement would be on the near term horizon. This caused for the Space Shuttles to have upgrades deferred or cancelled. This glide path toward expected retirement of the Shuttle within the first decade of the 21st century also caused the literally crumbling Shuttle related infrastructure to be given patchwork improvements or trauma center-like repairs.”

    The issue surfaced again this week in a letter from Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and three other senators to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees NASA’s budget:

    “It is also imperative that we develop a logical transition plan from the Shuttle
    to any replacement vehicle to make certain we do not jeopardize our nation’s access to space station…”

    “… The current upgrade strategy is based on the premise of flying the Shuttle until only 2012, although most experts – including all of the witnesses at last fall’s hearing – maintain that the vehicle will not be retired for another decade or more. We support a recent NASA directive to identify upgrades and supportability investments that may be required to fly the Shuttle fleet safely through 2020. This is a small step in the right direction. We are anxious for the results of this “2020 Assessment” so that its results will be reflected in next year’s budget. It is clear that whatever priority upgrades are identified, funding will need to be restored to the Shuttle upgrades program if the Shuttle is to be operated safely for at least two more decades.”

    Moreover, NASA is running a series of studies aimed at identifying potential business models for the possible privatization or commercialization of Space Shuttle Operations. The process used would be competitive sourcing, a key component of President Bush’s Management Agenda. Concern has been expressed on Capitol Hill that these studies do not have a firm model of what Second Generation launch system would look like as they go through their deliberations.

    When asked about how the Shuttle and Second Generation launch systems would overlap – and if there was a requirement upon Second Generation architecture to do so, (or if NASA had any firm transition plan) Smith could not give a direct ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. Instead, he gave a long answer which, summed up, said that it is good that NASA is doing various studies.

    The representatives from the three teams were then allowed to describe various aspects of their participation in the SLI Architecture Review.

    Michael Coats, from Lockheed Martin Space Systems said: “We are looking at several architectures.” Coasts said that Lockheed Martin is studying the separation of crew and cargo transport. “We would take crews only on vehicles designed for crews. There is no reason that cargo cannot be taken up autonomously without crew.” Coats also said that he feels that a crew escape system, sharp bleeding edges on wings that improve cross range are among the things that are needed in any new Second Generation launch system concept. The secret to achieving a $1,000 per pound payload cost is operations and maintenance – the efficient turnaround of the vehicle between flights.

    Kevin Neifert from Boeing, said: “We have three roles in SLI. The first is architecture development. We evaluated ‘millions’ of systems to select 5 that meet DoD, NASA, and commercial needs. Second, we are a technology developer working on the most pressing SLI needs – tanks and wings, lower cost/higher strength, automated approach. Rocketdyne is working on new powerful and friendly engines to meet SLI needs. Third, we are working on the X-37 spaceplane that is under construction at our Phantom Works. This vehicle will allow NASA to flight text key technologies and will put back $12 in cost reduction for every dollar spent on it.”

    Antonio Elias from Orbital Sciences Corp. said “OSC and Northrop Grumman have been working together since the fall of 1998 on what should replace the Space Shuttle.” He went onto say ” We advocate 4 fundamental ideas in this area: 2 stages to orbit, separation of crew/cargo into separate flights, the use of crew transport element as a launch escape vehicle (similar to Apollo and Soyuz ) and the challenge of whether we need as much return capability in the future as the Shuttle provides today.”

    The Orbital/Northrop Grumman concept favors a small space plane which would carry 4 to 5 people. This concept would only require a qualified pilot and features an automatic landing system. The space plane would be built by OSC and would be launched by a two stage full reusable booster built by Northrop Grumman. The spaceplane (or “Space Taxi”) could also be used as contingency crew return vehicle. While it would not be as capable of sitting on orbit awaiting use, it could be used in a manner similar to the current Soyuz approach where a crew arrives in one vehicle and then returns to Earth in an older vehicle.

    Elias went on to say “we believe that size and complexity of a spaceplane is such that while its development will have to be financed by government, actual operations can be done by private industry. This could be a great opportunity for commercialization.”

    There is a fourth element to this team’s approach: the possible use of a spaceplane as a mode of alternate human access to space. Elias showed an image of his team’s spaceplane mounted atop an EELV (Evolved Expendable Launch vehicle). “We could use this additional capability in a contingency situation if the primary system is grounded for some reason.”

    Editor’s note: it is widely known that this “space taxi” concept was widely favored by OMB staff several years ago. This first emerged as an OSC contribution to the CCTV “Crew /Cargo Transport Vehicle” study. It is also widely rumored that this concept is favored by NASA comptroller (and former OMB official) Steve Isakowitz , as well as former Comptroller (and now NASA consultant) Mal Peterson, and NASA Chief of Staff Courtney Stadd.

    An (unsuccessful) attempt was made during the FY 2001 NASA budget cycle start the phase out of the development of the X-38 based CRV (Crew Rescue Vehicle) and replace it with the CCTV. The CCTV was to assume the CRV’s emergency return function as well as the ISS crew carrying responsibilities of the current Space Shuttle system.


  • 10 August 1999: NASA Briefing: 2nd Generation RLV: Space Access Requirements

  • August 1999: NASA Briefing: NASA Space Transportation: The Next Step

  • 22 July 1999:   Crew/Cargo Transfer Vehicle Preliminary Requirements, Space Transportation Architecture Studies Phase III, NASA Code AE, Office of the Chief Engineer

  • 27 October 1999: Space Transportation Architecture Studies: Future of Earth-to-Orbit Spaceflight. Hearings before the House Committee on Science’s Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics
  • Doug Young, Northrop Grumman said that his company had contributed to the overall architecture (with OSC) with a focus on IVH – Integrated Vehicle Health and Maintenance. He also said that his company had been supported by Andrews Space and Technology (the only mention of any small company in the entire press briefing). Young said that his company had been leveraging its various capabilities – GN&C, sensors, and simulation with OSC. They have also been looking at the development of subscale liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen systems using non autoclaved cured composites. AS for automation, while not directly linking it to the topic of the day he did say that the Global Hawk, now used in Afghanistan, had just made an automated flight from California to Australia landing less than one foot from its intended target.


    When asked how SLI is dealing with ISS crew requirements – which could range from 3 to 7, Smith said that SLI requirements had been set at 3 crew up and 4 crew down. “We’re not stopping there. We are looking at a range from 3 – 7 people.” Smith said that SLI is looking at how many vehicles NASA might need to buy – and if NASA might use a mix of new vehicles and Soyuz spacecraft to meet crew return requirements.

    Smith said that NASA is working with companies to do a trade study and look how NASA would meet ISS requirements with a single vehicle – or if two vehicles might be required. This study will conclude in May with the options brought to senior management. Smith added that the studies include a range of options. He said that assuming that there is a human pilot is a “design solution” and that there may be options whereby automation can be used instead.

    When asked if Russian engines might be considered, Smith said “we believe there is room “and that several companies have expressed interest in this.

    Kennedy Space Center is currently the predominant space launch site for NASA. When asked if the SLI program saw this continuing, Smith would not commit (again saying that assuming that KSC would be the launch site is a ‘design solution”). He did say, however, that KSC would be “the most promising place”. “They certainly have the infrastructure there. I would see KSC as the key focal point.”

    The question of jobs came up. The Boeing representative rattled off a list of Boeing activities in Alabama. “I continue to look at putting work there.” He said. The Lockheed Martin representative said “we look at placing people where it makes the most sense” while admitting that most of his people are currently in Denver.

    When asked what the role of Stennis would be Smith said “that is an easy one. We will use Stennis as the lead to make al propulsion tests for our program.”

    The briefing closed with a question of where the funds for the development of a Second Generation launch system would come from. “Do you have development funds in the 2007 budget?” Smith was asked. Smith answered the question partially saying that “this is a decision that NASA’s leadership is going to have to make” and “we do not have the full cost estimates.” Smith closed suggested that SLI efforts seek to raise “all boats in the water.”

    In other words there is no funding allocated for the actual development of whatever SLI eventually comes up with.

  • SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.