SLS, Orion, Artemis: Mind the Gap

Okay…I’ll be that guy. 

When it comes to NASA’s space launch system/Orion/Artemis missions, it’s always seemed to me that the entire enterprise can’t represent the future of space. It doesn’t represent the future of space exploration/colonization, either. My rationale for both opinions is that the whole thing costs too much while taking too much time (which adds to the cost). Building the system, launching it, etc.–these activities add up to tens of billions beyond initial budget projections. To be sure, the NASA team should be applauded for launching something…anything…after spending so much money for so long. Is Artemis 1’s success a step towards an attainable goal? 

What is that goal, anyway? Those questions indicate that it’s time to undertake a gap analysis of NASA’s program.

NASA is a civil agency, not a commercial company. To add more questions regarding this analysis’s relevancy, it focuses on a few agency programs, not the agency’s activities and overall goals. Because NASA is a civil agency, it also presents a few challenges to the analysis. For example: NASA is a politically-driven entity, market forces don’t drive NASA’s goals, and NASA’s budget isn’t based on profits/revenues. These challenges come into play when attempting to answer the gap analysis questions. 

The characteristics within those challenges isolate NASA’s SLS/Orion program from competing while nearly indefinitely extending it, meaning that despite possible viable and less expensive alternatives, SLS/Orion is a “dead program walking.” That status can be a good thing, as the isolation theoretically keeps politicians out of program management and allows NASA to focus on mission goals. But the theory isn’t reflected in practice.

With those challenges in mind, the three overarching questions typically asked in the analysis appear to apply to SLS/Orion/Artemis (there’s no rule saying governments can’t benefit from a gap analysis). The point of conducting a gap analysis is to discover where organizations are and where they want to be while using innovative concepts and processes to get there. In essence, NASA should understand its current position, how it got there, and where it wants to go. The three questions asked are:

  1. Where is the organization now compared with where it wants to be?
  2. What lies ahead that can affect the organization either positively or negatively?
  3. Where will the organization end up if it continues on this path?

I will go into some depth to answer those questions. However, I will only cover some aspects, not everything.

Where is NASA’s SLS/Orion now compared with where it wants to be?

The quickest answer is it’s not where it wanted to be. SLS/Orion’s precursor, the Constellation program, was supposed to have achieved landing people on the Moon by 2020–15 years after the program’s start. SLS/Orion initially (and laughably) intended to launch a rocket to orbit by 2016–five years after SLS/Orion’s announcement. NASA achieved none of those goals on schedule, which puts its program behind where it publicly said it wanted to be. 

How NASA wanted the program to be considered when placed among other rocket launch companies involves some guessing and explanation. At the time of Constellation’s inception, NASA didn’t appear to acknowledge commercial rocket companies as competitors to its aims. The Ares V rocket was supposed to carry 188 tons to low Earth orbit. At the time, no U.S. rocket company had operational rockets to come close to carrying that mass, nor did they have plans to build any. Ditto for SLS later on. There wasn’t any competition.

Industry Competition

Maybe soon, however, at least one alternative will emerge in the form of SpaceX’s Starship System. Starship hasn’t launched to orbit yet and seems to be in a constant state of stage stacking, unstacking, and restacking, with some engine tests added in between. Should it finally launch to orbit successfully (and return), that will put pressure on SLS/Orion.

The two launch systems have some similarities but more differences. Whereas SLS/Orion will be one of the most expensive rockets to launch (a billion $+), SpaceX believes Starship will be one of the least expensive ($10 million?). SLS might be able to lift 120 tons to orbit, while Starship’s range has been estimated at 100-150 tons. In addition, Starship will be reusable, whereas SLS is not. Starship’s total reusability is key to low launch pricing and a relatively quick turnaround for multiple launches per day. On the other hand, SLS will be lucky to launch twice per year. 

Based on SpaceX’s use of the Falcon 9, Starship’s reusability ultimately will result in an ability to amend launch schedules as necessary, providing a reasonable degree of schedule flexibility and increasing the company’s annual launch cadence. As a result, launch customers will not have to wait as long as they once did. 

On the other hand, SLS is limited by engine supply, with no plans to use anything other than the refurbished RS-25 engines. At most, ten rockets will exhaust that supply, which seems shortsighted for such an expensive and publicly visible program. However, those ten launches could be stretched out 15-20 years, given NASA’s slow pacing. NASA currently aims for 12 years (with the next Artemis launch scheduled for 2024). That’s plenty of time for primes to pivot to something modern. But any customers looking to launch on an SLS rocket will need to anticipate long wait times for launch into their business plans. While eleven launches may seem like plenty, in an age when a single company launches over fifty rockets in a year, NASA’s launch pace seems relatively unambitious. 

Should Starship and others come to the fore, offering to launch humans into space, SLS’ future will not involve competition, as it can’t compete. It is too expensive , its projected annual launch cadence will cause headaches for schedules, and it may ultimately carry less mass to space compared to the commercial alternatives. Instead, it will serve as a gap-filler, possibly a technology demonstrator to aid the commercial companies in their quest to build less expensive but more capable rockets that can fly past LEO to the Moon. 

Industry Direction

When Constellation started, there didn’t appear to be any consideration for the rest of the industry other than its ability to build the rocket system. The primes that NASA initially relied on proved more capable of building capsule and rocket table models rather than real things, despite a history of successful past projects. While NASA worked with other space companies for Commercial Cargo/Crew, it kept SLS/Orion isolated from commercial space industry trends. One trend lead toward building and using smaller, less capable satellites. That encouraged the growth of small satellite launchers—a trend neither NASA nor its primes are interested in for SLS/Orion. 

Another trend, however, is not favorable to SLS/Orion’s future: at least three U.S. companies, Blue Origin, Rocket Lab, and SpaceX, are pursuing reusability as part of their business model. With SLS/Orion, NASA went against the trend, which limits the lifetime of the SLS/Orion programs (because of the small supply of engines). To be fair, the reusability trend didn’t exist when NASA started its SLS/Orion programs. 

One trend SLS/Orion doesn’t appear to have any interest in but should is the business of rocket engine manufacturing. There was a time when U.S. rocket manufacturers preferred to buy engines from Russia rather than build them. Still, American manufacturer Aerojet Rocketdyne provides the refurbished RS-25 engines to NASA for SLS, but the demand for the company’s other products seems…lacking? Despite Rocketdyne’s troubles, companies including Blue Origin, Rocket Lab, and SpaceX are manufacturing newer, more powerful engines, with some successfully selling those engines to other rocket manufacturers. NASA has not publicly expressed interest in adapting those engines to SLS. 

That’s at least three industry trends NASA has ignored/been oblivious to as it moves ahead with its program.

Fostering Innovation/Encouraging Flexibility

However, NASA lately seems to recognize that there’s a world of technology beyond what Lockheed, Boeing, and others have traditionally brought to launch programs. Still, NASA’s position with SLS/Orion is awkward as commercial space industry progress makes its rocket and capsule appear as anything but innovations. Its approach has been to force SLS/Orion’s cylinder into a square hole, demonstrating persistence but not intelligence. That approach might be primarily due to NASA’s structure.

NASA’s organizational structure, which is traditional top-down management, screams out stultification, lethargic decision-making, and delayed action. We see those in its management of SLS/Orion. To be clear, I’ve never worked at NASA, but I have worked for other government agencies with similar structures. Such a structure may inculcate individuals within the organization with similar characteristics as a part of its culture. There are functional subunits that appear to eschew those undesirable characteristics, but their cultures do not drive the overall NASA culture. NASA is not the only organization that embraces this type of structure.

Flexibility is not a NASA hallmark. Moreover, what flexibility it exerts is usually not associated with achieving goals, such as pushing project schedules back. For example, when the Constellation program started in 2005, NASA aimed to get people on the Moon by 2020. Orion still exists from Constellation, but despite that crossover, NASA advertises the goal of getting people to the Moon by 2025 using the SLS/Orion in its Artemis series of missions. All that is to say that NASA is once again falling behind schedule.

While NASA does work on some innovations, it’s not clear that any innovation is present in the SLS/Orion program (despite what any vice president has stated). One would anticipate NASA and its contractors to explicitly advertise the technology innovations used in SLS/Orion if they existed. The seeming dearth of such advertising indicates that billions of dollars were invested in a short-term space infrastructure—with no technological leaps upon which to build better launch vehicles.

NASA is also locked into the technology ecosphere its prime contractors used to build SLS/Orion (which may be why it’s not considering other rocket engines). The lock-in does not mean the technology won’t help NASA achieve its program goals. Artemis 1 launched, after all. But it also keeps flexibility, a key innovation characteristic, away from SLS/Orion’s development.

Where will SLS/Orion end up if it continues on this path?

Goals

Not helpful to the SLS/Orion program is the whiplash the program experienced as its goals kept being adjusted. Constellation was established “…to achieve the objectives of maintaining American presence in low Earth orbit, returning to the Moon for purposes of establishing an outpost, and laying the foundation to explore Mars and beyond in the first half of the 21st Century.” SLS’ goal was to “…expand permanent human presence beyond low-Earth orbit and to do so, where practical, in a manner involving international partners.” 

For SLS+Artemis, the goal has changed once again: “…NASA will land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon, using innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before. We will collaborate with commercial and international partners and establish the first long-term presence on the Moon. Then, we will use what we learn on and around the Moon to take the next giant leap: sending the first astronauts to Mars.”

These are all terrible goals in that, like many organizations, NASA is stuffing every little thing in them. While not asking for a “To infinity and beyond” statement, goals, mission statements, or whatever should still be short (as noted in a different analysis). The point of a goal isn’t how it’s done and by who (that’s planning); instead, a goal should state an achievable, desired end-state. In this instance, the goal would be to establish a thriving research colony on the Moon, then do the same on Mars.

Based on these shifting objectives, NASA never had a chance to achieve them because they kept moving. In the public eye, NASA is consistently terrible at meeting its short-term goals. Unless the goals don’t revolve around budget and schedule, then NASA meets its short-term goals just fine. Regarding the long-term…one must wonder when the goalposts will shift again.

Anything Learned/New While Striving Towards Goals?

Maybe? The long duration of the SLS/Orion programs means NASA became exposed to other ideas over time. For example, Commercial Resupply and Crew taught NASA that having other companies build rockets and capsules without it getting into the business of managing the building of the rocket might not only be less expensive but faster, too. If one leaves out Boeing’s lack of performance, the programs could generally be seen as quite successful for NASA’s purposes.

While those programs weren’t integral to SLS/Orion, they were an example to NASA for achieving Artemis’s mission aims differently. They inspired NASA to try something similar with the Human Landing System (HLS). NASA’s acceptance of two companies to build lunar landing systems (instead of automatically adding the requirement to the existing SLS/Orion contracts) demonstrates the administration’s ability to learn from its experiences. It may ultimately place NASA on a shorter path to fulfill its goal of getting people and equipment on the Moon.

Using that contract mechanism allows NASA to leverage what it has in its limited SLS/Orion inventories, getting the primes to focus on the systems they’ve already been working on for so long. In parallel, new companies with ideas that seem to have a good chance of success are building the landing systems necessary to accomplish the mission. While there’s no guarantee it will work again for NASA, the administration’s previous experiences with such programs give it a good reason for confidence. As a result, it should shorten NASA’s development path. 

What lies ahead that can affect SLS/Orion either positively or negatively?

Launching more often could affect the program positively. However, as seen with other programs, a higher NASA launch cadence sometimes results in fatalities. In addition, NASA doesn’t have access to many more engines, indicating limited SLS launches. That limitation may cause NASA to move more cautiously, including customer payload selection. 

If Blue Origin and SpaceX produce HLS systems on time, NASA only needs to worry about something that already seems to be working–SLS and Orion. Better for SLS/Orion, Artemis 1 is a success. Many images are floating around on social media and the web of the spacecraft and the Moon. Those images may help bump up some of Artemis’ popularity–useful when leveraging politicians to increase the civil space budget.

However, the problem is that Artemis 1 is a success. It sets the standard for the following program launches. It may cause some people in that program to become less vigilant to life-or-death “glitches” in the following launches because they may believe that “everything went right” with the first launch. With increased pressure to continue launching SLS successfully and on time, normalization of deviance may begin.

Based on NASA’s not needing to compete and generate revenue, barring a disaster, SLS/Orion/Artemis will continue until all the rockets are used up. Currently, NASA will use them all for the Lunar missions, with no bridge to move on to Mars (a part of the SLS+Artemis goal). That means that NASA doesn’t have a plan to maintain its planned Moon habitat or get to Mars past 2034. Unless NASA outlines the “and then” part of its exploration plan (and manages to keep lawmakers out of the process once it’s been decided), those systems and missions are destined to fade away like previous programs. Such an outcome is conceivable, as NASA has allowed it to happen with monumental programs before–several times.

Conclusion

Either way, whether SLS/Orion marches on through 2034 (and probably beyond) or not, the gap analysis indicates the system is not the future of space. As noted in the beginning, it costs too much. Cost overruns and program slips are nothing new to NASA. But the analysis also shows a disconnect with the overall goals and the available limited resources. The systems and mission have planned obsolescence built right in. The limit imposed on the number of launches by the RS-25 engines automatically stunts the programs’ futures. That disposability may be why NASA isn’t attempting to implement innovative technologies and is ignoring trends that could keep the program alive.

It’s not all bad, however. NASA appears to be looking for other ways to accomplish its missions. It’s already found a few for its resupply and crew missions. It’s also seen in how it’s gone about soliciting for HLS. It’s meaningful and refreshing that NASA will risk lawmaker outrage in its awarding of HLS contracts as it goes about its business.

More importantly, HLS also indicates the space agency can learn and is not as inflexible as its organizational structure indicates. It may be that flexibility helps not just maintain but grow the lunar habitat. It will be that flexibility builds the connection between the Moon and Mars. Perhaps this flexibility will allow NASA to focus budget and time on research, development, and exploration, instead of managing the building of large infrastructure projects (which seems like an underutilization of NASA’s talent pool).

Whichever future SLS/Orion succumbs to, commercial alternatives with equal or better capability may also be available.

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