Monday, October 26, 2015

Stars and Stripes

September 14, 2011 ... Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) reveals the “Monster Rocket” design while NASA Administrator Charles Bolden watches.

It's been over four years since Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) revealed their design for the Space Launch System.

The image released that day made the SLS look like the Apollo-era Saturn V, even though its center core was based on the Shuttle's external tank. The tank was insulated with a cream-colored polyurethane-type foam that would discolor and eventually turn orange over time. There was no reason to think the SLS tank would be painted to look like a Saturn V; my thought at the time was that the paint scheme was to placate the congressional politicians who want to pretend they're doing Apollo again.

Derided by critics as the Senate Launch System, it seemed designed with the primary goal not of humans exploring the solar system, but to protect the jobs of those working for contractors in the districts and states of House and Senate space committee members.

The 2010 NASA authorization act created the SLS, mandating that NASA use existing Space Shuttle and Constellation contractors and their work force. One such contractor was Utah-based Alliant Techsystems, commonly known as ATK, which built the Shuttle's solid rocket boosters. ATK completed a merger in February 2015, and is now known as Orbital ATK.

The 2010 act mandated that the first uncrewed SLS test flight be conducted by December 31, 2016. In August 2014, NASA announced that the launch date had slipped to the end of 2018.

NASA announced on October 22, 2015 that it had completed the Critical Design Review for SLS, and for now is on schedule for its November 2018 completion date.

The press release was accompanied by a new artist's concept of the SLS. The Saturn V paint job is gone, replaced as expected by the orange polyurethane form.

A new artist's concept of the Space Launch System released on October 22, 2015. Click the image to see it at a larger size. Image source: NASA.

But an unexpected flourish had been added to the Orbital ATK solid rocket boosters.

Racing stripes.

They serve no purpose, of course, other than to look sporty.

The cynic in me wonders how much extra NASA will have to pay Orbital ATK for the stripes.

They also seemed hauntingly familiar.

After a couple days of contemplation, I remembered where I'd seen them before.

On the ATK Liberty.

2012 conceptual images of the ATK Liberty. Original source: ATK via

Liberty was a last-minute effort by ATK to win a commercial crew contract, even though it had not competed in earlier rounds of the competition. The design proposed using a single-stage solid rocket booster similar to the cancelled Constellation Ares I. The independent Government Accountability Office issued a report in August 2009 concluding that Constellation lacked “a sound business case.” The report found “significant technical and design challenges” with Ares I, including vibration during launch and the risk of hitting the launch tower during liftoff. Unlike a liquid-fueled booster, a solid-fueled stage cannot be turned off once lit.

When ATK didn't get a commercial crew contract, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), whose district includes ATK, alleged that President Obama and NASA Administrator Bolden conspired to give one contract to SpaceX due to a supposed personal relationship with founder Elon Musk. Bishop provided no evidence, of course, just a smear.

Despite promises to press on, in January 2013 an ATK official stated the company would not proceed with Liberty unless it received $300 million in external funding from a government agency, either the United States or overseas.

But ATK, now Orbital ATK, has known all along it had a guaranteed funding pipeline from the Space Launch System.

And so the Liberty-style racing stripes have returned, albeit with different colors.

Maybe Orbital ATK can bring back this little girl to explain why SLS needs racing stripes.

A 2012 ATK public relations film promoting Liberty. Video source: ATK YouTube channel.

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