Boeing's senior executives arrived at NASA headquarters two weeks ago for what they knew was a tense meeting. The rocket they are building for NASA has fallen behind the budget by billions of dollars. Worse, there was no question that he was ready for a launch scheduled for June 2020.
According to one estimate, the launch of the rocket would not have occurred until November 2021, and NASA leaders were furious. According to people who spoke under the seal of anonymity, one had to be frank in sensitive negotiations. President Trump and Vice President Pence wanted NASA to make a bold flight before the 2020 elections: send an unmanned capsule around the moon, a precursor to the eventual return of American astronauts to the lunar surface.
But the latest delays would have pushed the flight well beyond the elections.
"We do not do that," NASA director Jim Bridenstine told Boeing's team. "We will create an alternative solution. All options are on the table.
This meeting, reported here for the first time, is the story of the bomb launched by Bridenstine on March 13 in his testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. He said that although NASA still firmly supports the massive rocket known as the Space Launch System (SLS), the agency would consider abandoning it and instead using available rockets in the Trade for the mission called Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1).
Bridenstine's comments at the Senate hearing sparked a political maelstrom – Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), Angry, chairman of the credit committee and chief benefactor of SLS. Critics say the latest machinations are another example of how political pressures have been sustaining the lucrative rocket program for years, as it has maintained congressional support, regardless of costs and delays.
In the space world, the announcement of Bridenstine has triggered a shock wave. This meant not only a radical change in NASA's plans for the return to the moon, but also a blow to NASA's flagship rocket program and its main contractor, Boeing. The announcement came as the company was under review for managing the crash of two of its commercial aircraft, which killed 346 people.
Bridenstine's announcement prompted critics of the program to question whether NASA really needed a heavy-lift rocket. The private sector is already producing such rockets. And although they are not as powerful as the SLS, they cost less by plane, with reusable boosters.
Trump's latest budget request indicates that a commercial rocket, not the predicted SLS, would be used to send a robotic probe to Jupiter's Moon Europa.
The request also indicates that commercial rockets would be used to install a new lunar orbit outpost called Gateway. Bridenstine said last week that commercial rockets could also send astronauts to the bridge – another presumed function of the SLS. And NASA has abandoned a very risky mission of transporting an asteroid into a lunar orbit to inspect it by astronauts launched via the SLS.
"It's a rocket looking for a mission," said Lori Garver, who served as deputy administrator of NASA under President Barack Obama.
For years, Boeing has long been criticized for running the program. Last year, a report from NASA's Inspector General was released. weakening in his critics of society, claiming that she has already spent $ 5.3 billion and should spend the money remaining early this year, three years too soon, without delivering a single rocket step . According to the report, Boeing's problems resulted in a delay of two and a half years and cost overruns of $ 4 billion.
"Boeing officials have consistently underestimated the scale of the work to be done and therefore the size and skills of the required workforce," the report says.
John Shannon, head of Boeing's SLS program, said the company recognized the widespread problems, but had recently shown progress.
"We are late and I totally agree with that, but we are online and the team is doing extremely well," Shannon said. "I am confident that we will have an incredible capacity by the end of the year and I am looking forward to getting there."
In 2017, the agency's oversight body announced in an audit that NASA had spent more than $ 15 billion on SLS, Orion and the necessary ground systems between 2012 and 2016. The total of these expenditures would reach 23 billions of dollars.
The construction of the Orion rocket and spacecraft is allocated so that each state has jobs related to the program. In total, SLS supports around 25,000 jobs nationwide, with a total economic impact of $ 4.7 billion, according to NASA.
This helped the rocket win the support of Congressmen, but also fueled critics who dubbed it the "Senate Launch System." In addition to the main contractor Boeing, the main contractors are Aerojet Rocketdyne, Northrop Grumman and United Launch Alliance.
No state has benefited more than the state of Shelby, Alabama, home to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. The program created about 13,000 jobs and injected $ 2.4 billion into the state economy.
So, when NASA's director launched the idea of putting the rocket out of the way, Shelby issued a statement in which he declared: "Even though I am in agreement for say that the delay in the launch schedule of SLS is unacceptable, I firmly believe that SLS should launch the Orion. "
In private, his staff angrily reprimanded NASA officials.
The next day, Bridenstine reiterated his support for the SLS program in a blog post, claiming that the agency was "determined to build and fly SLS". The next day, he tweeted: "Good news: @NASA and Boeing teams are working in overtime to speed up the launch schedule for @NASA_SLS."
"On budget … and unenforceable"
The SLS was born in the ashes of a previous rocket program. Called Constellation, the program appeared under President George W. Bush and would send the Americans to the moon and then to Mars. One of the elements of this plan was the creation of a new heavy-weight rocket, the Ares V, a modern successor of the Saturn V. It would project a new capsule, Orion, on the moon.
When Obama took office, the Constellation program was in trouble and the administration officials called it "budget overruns, delays, timelines and" unenforceable "."
Obama killed Constellation in 2010 and ordered NASA to target an asteroid and Mars instead of the moon. But the movement again angered Shelby, whose state is home to the Marshall Spaceflight Center, where much of the work on Constellation would have been based.
"The NASA president's proposed budget for NASA begins the death march for the future of human American spaceflight," he said at the time. "If this budget is passed, NASA will no longer be an agency of innovation and hard science.It will be an agency of chimeras and fairy speeches."
Although the administration ended Moon's plan, she felt it was politically impossible to remove all the projects that were already unlocking billions of dollars in the coffers of big aerospace contractors.
"The NASA president's proposed budget for NASA marks the beginning of the death march for the future of American human spaceflight," said Shelby at the time.
Shelby, Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) And Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.), A quartet of powerful senators with NASA space bases in their country, have protected the heavy weights. lift the rocket and the Orion capsule. They pushed for the adoption of legislation mandating the construction of a heavy transport rocket and even dictating its design, including the use of existing space shuttle equipment.
After the cancellation of Constellation's lunar mission, the precise goal – the actual destinations – of the SLS and Orion became murky. The SLS clearly existed to launch Orion. But where?
Throughout this process, the Big Rocket and Orion have crawled toward completion. NASA has spent more than $ 3 billion a year on SLS and Orion. Both programs have experienced delays.
The SLS has taken so long to build that it has no doubt become obsolete technologically, according to industry officials. Much of the material comes from the space shuttle, developed in the 1970s.
Meanwhile, Boeing, Lockheed and Northrop Grumman are facing relatively new competitors, such as SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, and Blue Origin, founded by Jeffrey P. Bezos (owner of The Washington Post). SpaceX has disrupted the pitching sector by building essentially reusable rockets and selling them at a discount: $ 62 million for its Falcon 9 and $ 90 million for its Falcon Heavy.
In contrast, NASA officials said that each launch of the SLS, a much more powerful rocket, would cost around $ 1 billion.
Garver, the former assistant administrator of NASA, said those programs had, at the very least, created jobs for NASA's aerospace companies and centers.
"Since the goal was to employ people and keep existing contracts – they were delivered," she said in an email.
Aspirations of deep space
Since he's been narrowly confirmed as NASA's director a year ago, Bridenstine is a strong supporter of SLS, a commitment he has reiterated during the year. hearing before the Senate last week. He congratulated SLS and said that it remains "a critical capability" for the US space program.
The SLS is supposed to be the backbone of NASA's aspirations in deep space. But he still has not flown and the Trump administration is in a hurry to go to the moon.
At a hearing in the Senate last week, Bridenstine said NASA wanted to stick to its launch plan by June 2020 at the latest.
"Sir, if we tell you and others that we are going to launch in June 2020 around the moon … I think that can be done. As an agency, we need to look at all options to achieve that goal, "he said.
To meet the 2020 schedule, Bridenstine said the agency was considering changing the mission's profile, bypassing SLS for a pair of commercial rockets. Instead of launching Orion on a direct trajectory to the Moon, he would examine the possibility of flying it in orbit around the Earth. Then, on a second commercial rocket, NASA would launch a propulsion module. The Orion spacecraft would dock with it and the propulsion module would pull Orion to the moon.
Bridenstine's blog calls this option "non-optimal or durable" and indicates that the involvement of two rockets is "additional complexity and undesirable risk".
Boeing said it was considering ways to accelerate work on SLS, including bypassing a multi-month test program for the first stage of the rocket that was to be conducted at the Stennis Space Center and sending it directly to Kennedy Space Center.
Earlier this month, Jody Singer, director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, acknowledged that the program was a problem and that its inaugural launch should be delayed. according to SpaceNews.
It did not bother Shelby, who introduced Singer to lunch.
"As chairman of the credit committee, I have a passing interest in what NASA does," he said, according to the news website. "And I also have a little parish interest in what they do in Huntsville, Alabama, Jody, you keep doing what you do, we will continue to fund you."