How NASA’s new missile is already problematic, even before the first launch | NOW

The American space agency NASA tested one of the thrusters of the Space Launch System rocket (SLS) on Wednesday evening (Dutch time). SLS is set to become the largest and most powerful rocket ever and NASA wants to return astronauts to the moon by 2024. But the construction of this monster rocket has been plagued with problems for years and there are doubts about the usefulness of the SLS.

SLS will be about 98 meters high, comparable to the Martini Tower in Groningen. The first version must be able to carry 26,000 kilos of cargo into space and a later version even more than 45,000 kilos.

NASA sees the SLS as an important part of the return to the moon. The Artemismissions, the successor to the Apollo program, must depart by SLS. The missile was added to the announcement promoted as a kind of resurrection of the Saturn V, with which the moon travelers departed in the 1960s and 1970s.

Still, there are doubts about how useful the SLS is. “NASA wanted a new launch vehicle after the Space Shuttle, which had to be cheaper and more sustainable,” says space consultant Erik Laan in conversation with “But now they come back with a gigantic rocket, when there is actually already a somewhat reasonable commercial alternative, the Falcon Heavy from SpaceX”.

SLS design is questionable

Laan also questions the design. He cites the engines as an example. The engines of the middle rocket stage are the same as those used by the Space Shuttle, the RS-25.

“That RS-25 was built to be reused, but with SLS they are launched once and then burn up in the atmosphere. It looks like NASA has learned nothing,” said Laan.

SLS production is problematic

The project is billions of dollars off budget and many years overdue. The first launch is scheduled for 2021, but should have already taken place in 2017. This is partly due to a production process plagued by setbacks.

In 2018, NASA came with another heavily loaded report, in which it accused Boeing, one of the main producers of SLS, of poor management. The amount of manpower needed was underestimated and it would have taken Boeing nearly six months to resolve the personnel shortage.

Welding equipment was incorrectly adjusted during production (nine months delay). Contamination was found during the installation of fuel pipes due to poor cleaning of the pipes before delivery (three month delay).

The coronavirus outbreak also threw a spanner in the works, when some NASA buildings had to be closed in March due to the risk of contamination.

Part of an SLS thruster engine is being prepared for installation. (Photo: NASA)

Critics regard SLS as a job project

So why is NASA behind that much too expensive, much too late and possibly unnecessary rocket? Laan says that cynics also called the SLS the “Senate Launch System” to mention.

“Basically it’s just a job project. After the shutdown of the Space Shuttle program, the United States had a lot of people without jobs and with a new mega project you could give those people work. That of course leads to positive reactions to the senators who have adopted the plan. support. “

Future of SLS not certain

What the future of the mega-missile will look like is currently uncertain. For example, it may not be possible to finish the rocket for the first moon flights. And if it is finished on time, the question is whether anyone will want to climb on top. “On the second flight of SLS they might want to place people on it. I wonder which astronaut would want that,” explains Laan.

Yet despite all the problems surrounding SLS, NASA still has confidence in the planning. In a blog post last month, NASA top engineer Kathryn Lueders reiterates the plan to ignite a complete SLS by 2021.


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