Next Launch:

The Ugly Bargain Behind NASA’s SLS Rocket

David W. Brown
January 26, 202111:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)

On November 5, 2008, President-Elect Barack Obama’s transition team got to work.

Lori Garver, as NASA transition team lead, embarked on a cross-country tour of agency centers to understand ongoing activities and find out what NASA needed for success. For eleven weeks, she met with center and mission directors in back-to-back meetings. NASA rank and file, overall, were very accepting of Lori and her team. She had been there before, had by now clocked a career in space spanning twenty-five years, was a prominent space advocate, and had a lot of friends. She encountered occasional pushback from senior officials who were nonplussed with a new administration coming in and asking questions, but Lori had no time for that. Personnel changes could be made soon enough.

Of all NASA’s programs, the one most troubling to Lori was Constellation. Billed in 2004 as Apollo on steroids, the program was a long-term, station-moon-Mars plan for human spaceflight. NASA would build Orion, a crew capsule capable of docking with the International Space Station or carrying astronauts to the moon. The agency would also build a new lineup of rockets, called Ares. The smallest would launch Orion to the space station. The largest, the Ares V, would send astronauts to deep space. There would be Earth-moon transports, lunar landers, rovers, Mars transports, Martian landers—the works.

But by the Obama transition, billions had been spent on the program, and it just wasn’t going anywhere. The more Lori and the transition team heard, the less sense it made. Money was tight, and to cover costs, NASA would pay for Orion and Ares by ending the shuttle in 2010 and dropping the space station into the ocean in 2016 (even though NASA was, at the time, still building the thing). But Orion, designed to go to the ISS, was not scheduled to fly until a year after said station had become an expensive habitat for startled fish. Which meant . . . the plan only worked if it assumed that deorbiting the space station wasn’t really going to happen. It was political sleight of hand. This did not go over well with Lori Garver, who knew, among other things, that

You do not start lying to the president on his first day in office.

Four months after the inauguration, Lori, as incoming deputy NASA administrator, ordered an independent commission to get to the bottom of things. Led by Norman Augustine, the former Lockheed Martin CEO, the commission eventually issued a 155-page report whose findings examined every aspect of space exploration: where we go first; how we get there; why we go there; what we do there; how we pay for it. The report presented five options for how NASA should proceed. Each option, in Lori’s estimation, was excellent. And every single one of them canceled Constellation.

Cancelation, though, didn’t come easy. To Lori, private sector rocket companies like SpaceX were clearly the future, but NASA wasn’t ready to change. Down at Marshall Space Flight Center, engineers wanted to build giant rockets. That is what they did, what they had always done. I mean, what else was there? After the Augustine Commission called out Constellation, Lori was part of one meeting where a NASA official offered, in solution to the problem, that maybe they could just . . . change the name? That was his proposal!

That official, knowingly or not, called exactly what would happen. In 2010, Charles Bolden, the new NASA administrator, announced Constellation’s cancelation. But the White House, trying to reform American health care, needed all the allies it could get. Facing an angry Senate, influential aerospace contractors, and well-connected NASA center directors—all of whom wanted Constellation—the White House lost the stomach for fighting on all fronts, and especially on something as peripheral as space. The president would burn no capital killing a rocket program, no matter how wasteful it was. It was, after all, just a rocket. Healthcare was at stake.

Lori got the bad news from the president’s deputy chief of staff. The president had decided to cave on Constellation, he said. Make the most of it, Lori. Make it a win.

So, under protest, she made what she knew was a terrible deal, but the best that she would ever get. She gave Congress the Orion capsule and the Ares V heavy-lift rocket. In exchange, the administration would get, among other things, a robust “commercial crew” program, enabling the private sector to handle, eventually, launches to low-Earth orbit. The smaller Ares rocket was dead, and we were not going back to the moon. (We couldn’t afford a lander!)

The White House and Congress were thus agreed. And then the Senate went to Crazytown, legislating a litany of rocket requirements so specific that you’d think the entire chamber had completed coursework on propulsion engineering. They wanted a rocket capable of lifting 70 to 100 tons of mass into low-Earth orbit, and 130 when married to an integrated upper stage. They wanted liquid fuel engines and solid rocket motor engines. They wanted Ares I and space shuttle technology reused wherever possible. And they wanted it flying by December 31, 2016.

It was like an aerospace industry wish list—because it was.

Prime contractors pushed hard for the specifics so that existing partnerships might be preserved. Consequently, not only did the Senate want NASA to Frankenstein a rocket, but they weren’t even going to allow engineers flexibility to build the best one possible. From Lori’s perspective, it was still Constellation. All they did was . . . change the name! And worse, with the terms dictated to NASA, Congress had written an impossibility into law. There was no way that rocket would launch on time, and rocket scientists said so, but the Senate said: No, you have to. It’s right there in the law!

Well, said Lori, you could pass a law that says the sky is purple, but that would not make it so.

In the end, of course, she was right. And four years after the legislative deadline, the “renamed” Ares V—what would become the SLS rocket—has yet to launch.

Excerpted from the book:

David W. Brown. Copyright © 2021 by David W. Brown. From Custom House, a line of books from William Morrow/HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

David W. Brown
January 26, 202111:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)