Noting the curious controversy over NASA’s planned heavy lift Space Launch System, Josh Barret wrote an analysis of the argument and a full-throated defense of the SLS in Space Alabama on Thursday. The piece, which is well worth reading for anyone who follows the intersection between space and politics, is a point by point refutation of the arguments offered by SLS critics. Naturally, some of those critics are not taking things well.
Rand Simberg, a space blogging, a self-described “recovering aerospace engineer” and an opponent of the Space Launch System suggested that Barret’s description of the SLS as the “spiritual successor” of the Saturn V was an example of “the fundamentally religious nature of the rocket worship.” Not since radical anti-nuclear activist Dr. Helen Caldicott suggested that a psych-sexual basis existed in the possession of nuclear weapons in her book “Missile Envy” has such a creative turn of phrase been used to attack a piece of aerospace hardware. Simberg follows with a meandering and somewhat misleading, but well worth reading “fisking” of the Barret piece.
A perhaps more coherent critique of the Space Launch System was offered by veteran space journalist Eric Berger, who writes for Ars Technica. Of the Barret piece, he tweeted, “Well-written defense of SLS rocket by @joshWAAY31. My concern is we can’t afford the “old-school” approach anymore.” He added, in another tweet, “If Congress doubles NASA’s exploration budget, SLS is a great rocket to explore space. Absent that we should look to cheaper alternatives.”
NASA spends about $4 billion or so on space exploration each year, mainly on developing the Space Launch System and the Orion deep spacecraft with a little left over for technology development. The addition of another $4 billion would bring the space agency’s budget to just north of $23 billion, not an unreasonable sum. The extra money could be used to develop habitats and landing vehicles, plus the development of propulsion, recycling, and other technologies.
Proponents of the current Journey to Mars plan suggest that the money will be freed up once the International Space Station reaches the end of its operational life in 2024. On the other hand, a new president might start adding the money earlier, given a mandate to reorder federal priorities. Of course, the addition of money might also be accompanied by a change of direction, say back to the moon, as many, including lunar scientist and space advocate Paul Spudis suggested.