Do we need a Space Launch System?
That's the question posted by author Grant Bonin in an article posted on The Space Review.
Bonin is a member of the research staff at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies.
The new Space Launch System (also pejoratively termed the “Senate Launch System”) has the political benefit of sending billions of dollars to former shuttle contractors, and preserving some NASA shuttle jobs. But aside from being a jobs program, SLS can be expected to accomplish little. In the best case, it will probably fail entirely, and in so doing will merely be wasteful; but in the worst case, there is the possibility it might succeed, and lock NASA into using 1970s technology for the indefinite future, while also marginalizing the involvement of commercial launch providers. Under such conditions, a “post-shuttle era” would never really come.
In considering a new rocket for NASA’s (as yet unspecified) future missions, it is worth asking: what is necessary and sufficient for enabling reliable, affordable, and increased human space activities? Is there actually a sound engineering or economic case to be made for a new heavy lift launch system? Or can we accomplish just as much or more with the rockets we already have?
One major conclusion he reaches:
Even for exploration missions, such as to near Earth asteroids, the Moon, or Mars, smaller launchers are similarly equal to the task, with the proviso that at least orbital rendezvous and docking is necessary. Fortunately, NASA has been doing rendezvous and docking for decades, and at this point can comfortably consider it something they’re good at.
Bonin's closing paragraph:
But in this regard, the agency is beholden to Congress. If the United States actually cares about developing space—not just exploring it or studying it, but developing it in earnest, with the end goal of having a large number of people living and working in space—it would mean being able to launch crew and cargo economically. The way to accomplish this is more activity and more competition, with as much commercial involvement as possible. A heavy-lift “Senate Launch System” is not consistent with these objectives, which really just affirms what we already know: that space development is not actually that important to Congress. But hopefully, at the behest of commercial efforts, a day will come when human space activities will flourish regardless of what’s important to Congress.