Saturday, December 6, 2014

SLS - Show me the money...

Illustration: MCKIBILLO
Ah, 'The Right Stuff' - one of my all-time favorite movies. Even as a kid, I would watch this movie over...and over...and over...and over...until one day the VHS cassette needed to be replaced. Yes, I wore out the tape. I still love it, and if you've never watched it, I highly recommend you do so. Though it is filled with many memorable lines, the ones below seem as apropos today as back then:

Gordon Cooper: "You boys know what makes this bird go up? FUNDING makes this bird go up."
Gus Grissom: "He's right. No bucks, no Buck Rogers."

Without sufficient funding, a rocket won't make it one inch off the ground, much less beyond low Earth orbit (LEO). I fear this fate awaits SLS. I truly hope I'm wrong, but my gut is telling me otherwise. Unless Congress sees fit to give more money to NASA (they currently receive less than 1/2 of one penny from every tax dollar), I feel that SLS is doomed.

Sidebar, Your Honor: I think this pittance NASA (along with other scientific endeavors) receives is not only a national embarrassment, but is also indicative of America's decline. We're spending money on the wrong things...and government waste is appalling. I recall seeing a poll on a conservative news site asking about how people would restructure tax allocations (they could choose between 'cut', 'stay the same', or 'increase'), and - unsurprisingly, since it was a conservative site - the prevailing opinion was to CUT allocations across the board...*except* for the military and NASA. In fact, a majority of respondents indicated NASA should be given a budget increase. So, if liberals (generally classified as 'pro-science') and conservatives (generally classified as 'anti-tax') both think that NASA's budget should be increased, why hasn't it been?

Anyway, back to SLS. As things currently stand, EM-1 (the first full-up flight of SLS and Orion) is slated to launch some time in late 2018, which represents a slip from the original 2017 launch time. EM-1 is supposed to take a similar path as Apollo 8 - an orbit or two of Earth before shooting a figure-eight around the moon and back to a splashdown in the Pacific. Unlike Apollo 8, however, EM-1 will be unmanned. Though I understand why there will be no crew aboard - it's SLS's first flight, and NASA is reluctant to send a crew up on an untested rocket - that means the US will have no manned national space flight until EM-2...which won't launch until at least 2021. Considering the last Space Shuttle flight was in 2011, that gives America a 10-year gap in manned spaceflight. The world's greatest space program is going to be reliant upon the Russians and/or commercial partners to get our astronauts into space until at least 2021. Unconscionable.

When a reporter asked Mark Geyer (NASA Program Manager - Orion) if NASA had a budget increase, could the schedule be accelerated, he gave the only real answer he could: "We're blessed to receive the money we do." Though I know he couldn't say anything else, I would have loved to see him give an impassioned speech about the benefit NASA provides to the country and that people need to contact their representatives and senators to lobby for a budget increase. Though I'm a huge fan of SpaceX, and our other commercial partners, there's something special about NASA being *my* space program. I'm an American, with pride in what my country can do when we put our national will towards something, and this weakening of our spirit of exploration saddens me.

However, since multiple signs point to further slippage in the flight manifest, I feel it's wishful thinking to put much faith in the 2021 projection. In fact, there are some naysayers that feel SLS will *never* launch. Though I can see that as a possibility, I've been to NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility and Stennis Space Center...and those people are working hard to get SLS ready for its debut...and I, for one, believe SLS will launch...perhaps not on-time, but it *will* launch. If - and that's a BIG 'if' - SLS never flies, it won't be for a lack of passionate, talented, and hard-working people. No...the blame will lay squarely on the shoulders of the ineffectual partisans that we, the US people, continue to elect and send to Washington.

If you value our national space program, please make sure your representatives and senators know how you feel. Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below.