United Launch Chose SLS Pork Over Real Technological Progress

United Launch Alliance made short-sighted decisions to keep taking Space Launch System (SLS) Pork over making real technological progress. The SLS is a Shuttle-Derived Launch Vehicle. The shuttle was politically compromised 1970s technology that flew from 1981 to 2010.

NASA has been funded SLS for $1.4 billion to $2.2 billion per year since 2011. United Launch Alliance (ULA) is a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Boeing Defense, Space & Security that was set up in December 2006.

ULA operates the Atlas V and Delta IV launch vehicles. Lockheed Martin’s Atlas V family was built around a Common Core Booster powered by the Russian-built RD-180 engine. Boeing’s Delta IV family was built around a Common Booster Core powered by the Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne RS-68 engine. The joint venture eliminated competition within the USA for launch until SpaceX became successful. Boeing and Lockheed merged so they would not have to compete against each other for NASA and military launches.

The Atlas V and Delta IV rockets were developed under the EELV program, with the first launches of both occurring in 2002. ULA also has the Delta IV Heavy rockets will keep launching heavy payloads.

ULA got a no-competition $11 billion US Air Force block-buy of 36 rocket cores for up to 28 launches, awarded in Dec 2013. This was in spite of costing five times more per launch.

In 2010, ULA could have started building gas stations in space and orbital refueling. The engineers who suggested developing this well-known but undeveloped technology were almost fired and NASA and engineers were told not to mention fuel depots. Gas stations in space would mean that existing cheaper rockets could perform the SLS missions. This would threaten the $2 billion per year of SLS funding.

SLS is part of decades of wasteful and wasted spending in space technology. Now we learn of other ways that technological progress in space capability were actively suppressed.

This gave ULA $17 billion from 2011-2019 in SLS funding and which may result in a hold down test firing in 2020 and perhaps a launch in 2021. The test-firing and launch will need another $6 billion through 2021. The Space Shuttle cost about $200 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars for 133 launches.

SLS will go into the dustbin of history when SpaceX launches an unmanned Super Heavy Starship to the moon. ULA will be crippled once they lose the billions per year from SLS.

In 2019, SpaceX now has a project with NASA to develop orbital refueling. This will be used to have two rockets meet in space and have the fuel transferred from one to the other. This can also be used to transfer fuel to a fuel depot.

SpaceX will takeover with larger and better reusable rockets and with refueling and fuel depots. Space capability will go up 100 times or more and SpaceX will create vertical businesses that are thousands of times more valuable than just the launch market.

There were larger prizes beyond launch. ULA ignored them just so they could take $3 billion per year to do no real development. They were getting $2 billion per year for the big rocket programs and another $1 billion for being the only ones with critical heavy launch capability with the Delta IV.

Tweets that Show the Suppression of Fuel Depot Technology

History of Pork and Waste

Here is a quote from a 2008 report after the Constellation Program already had spent about $6+ billion from 2005-2007.

In 2008, the Constellation Program and its projects made significant progress well beyond artists’ concepts and PowerPoint presentations. Since its initiation in 2005, the Constellation Program reached the end of formulation and entered into the development phase.

Prior to the SLS there was the Constellation Program to try use Shuttle rocket technology for a dumb booster rocket. constellation was canceled because it had only performed one bad test after getting about $12 billion from 2005 to 2010. The program review shows the contractors saying that they could not be blamed for failing for falling behind schedule because the budget was cut from $14-16 billion down to a mere $12 billion.

Constellation had Boeing, Pratt and Whitney and ATK and about 200 other companies as contractors.

The Constellation plan over 20 years was to spend about $100 billion on it. This was replaced with SLS which was projected to cost about $35-41 billion from 2011 to 2025.

NASA (ESAS study) indicated it would maximize the use of old shuttle hardware and established technology in order to reduce cost and minimize risk. This was flawed reasoning. It was vastly more expensive to try to use Shuttle technology than starting over.

NASA retired the Space Shuttle in 2010 to make resources available for the Constellation program and then the SLS program.

17 thoughts on “United Launch Chose SLS Pork Over Real Technological Progress”

  1. “If you are an American taxpyer then you’re paying for this boondoggle.”

    Compared to all the other boondoggles we are paying for?

  2. OK so being charitable to you the fully amortized cost of a Vulcan launch is 1/3rd of a new Vulcan launch + upper stage. This is probably some number much greater than zero.

    By the same charitable metric the fully amortized of BFS + BFR is zero.

    Vulcan is economically dead on arrival and no wall of quotes from you can change that.

  3. In m country this is called treason. I think that if US would put to jail couple of those guys and politicians involved, the shenianignas like this would stop. This worked in my country anyway.

  4. This is sad to read. And quite sad that this went on for such a long time, effectively postponing advances in manned spaceflight by decades. We’re lucky to have SpaceX, because without them, this would have continued another 20 years, and then maybe at some point in the far future the SLS might have even flown once or twice. It would have been a sad state of affairs. So glad that we have starship/super heavy being developed right now.

  5. So in a few years, if they stay on schedule, they will begin testing a rocket that’s less efficiently reusable than SpaceX’s current Falcon, just as SpaceX is retiring Falcon completely for it’s MUCH more efficient much lower cost fully reusable Starship/Superheavy.

  6. …He said the Vulcan’s engines represent two-thirds of the cost of the stage. Under ULA’s approach, the engines will be recovered and reused after every flight. SpaceX’s design calls for recovery of the entire rocket stage. Depending on the weight of the payload and the requirements of its orbit, that cannot be done on every flight.
    “It boils down to as simple as this: is it better to recover 100 percent of the value of the booster some of the time or only two thirds of the value of the booster all of the time?” Bruno said reporters during a roundtable discussion.
    “Well, that depends on how often you get a big, heavy payload. We’ve each made market forecasts, and if we’re right, our solution will be economically advantageous. If I’m wrong and they’re right, then theirs will.”

    …The least powerful version of the new rocket, one without any solid-fuel boosters and an advanced upper stage known as ACES, is expected to sell for less than $100 million. The base version of ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket currently goes for about $109 million, Bruno said, while a heavy lift Delta 4 sells for about $350 million.

    … A commercial version of the company’s Falcon Heavy rocket, which debuted in February, has a list price of $90 million, but that apparently assumes all three core stages are recovered for reuse. That version of the rocket, according to the SpaceX website, can boost eight metric tons, or 17,600 pounds to geosynchronous transfer orbit.


  7. Pretty sure that recovering the whole stage is a better approach but that the discussion is demonstrably moot.

    Being charitable I would say that four years from now Vulcan might be able to compete with a F9 in terms of cost. Then again Four years from now Musk will have BFR, BFS, and probably 100% re-usability.

    And Vulcan’s partial re-usability with refurbishment will not be able to compete with 100% re-usability.

  8. The ULA, and most other government launch providers, are the equivalent to the opponents in video game tutorials.

  9. I don’t think so, any part discarded is an additional expense, the main benefit of the ULA’s system is a higher payload to orbit on a smaller vehicle. That extra expense will likely make them more expensive than larger fully reusable rockets.

  10. It is actually a not easy question to answer if it makes more sense to recover the whole main stage, or only its essentials. Several gives and takes. The fact that the Musk has chosen one path, does not make it necessarily the best.

  11. SpaceX has already demonstrated a system of recovering and reusing a rocket though. We don’t know exactly how much cheaper it has worked out to be, but their launch cadence and turn around on them suggests at the very least it is reliable.

    Vulcan seems like a “Oh shit, they made reusable rockets actually viable, better get something of our own”, and they went with the simplest and most obvious solution.

  12. Yet the Vulcan Rocket that they are building is nothing to laugh at.

    Also announced during the initial April 13, 2015 unveiling was the ‘Sensible Modular Autonomous Return Technology’ (SMART) reuse concept. The booster engines, avionics, and thrust structure would be detached as a module from the propellant tanks after booster engine cutoff, with the module descending through the atmosphere under an inflatable heat shield. After parachute deployment, the module would be captured by a helicopter in mid-air. ULA estimated that this would reduce the cost of the first stage propulsion by 90%, with propulsion 65% of the total first stage cost.[24]


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