Welcome to the latest edition of DeepSpace! Each week, Teslarati space reporter Eric Ralph hand-crafts this newsletter to give you a breakdown of what’s happening in the space industry and what you need to know. To receive this newsletter (and others) directly and join our member-only Slack group, give us a 3-month trial for just $5.
In this week’s analysis, there is simply too much going on to focus on any single overarching theme. NASA awarded ~$250M to fund three commercial Moon landers, Russia revealed an impossibly ambitious schedule for its conceptual crewed Moon program, and NASA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released a report that did not look kindly on the management of the Europa Clipper spacecraft’s supposed plans for an SLS rocket launch.
While it is increasingly clear that the 2020s are likely to be the most exciting period of spaceflight activity in decades, it remains equally clear that most of the world’s space exploration – despite the incredible results often produced – is poorly and inefficiently managed. Upsets may well be served by commercial hopefuls like SpaceX, Blue Origin, iSpace, and others, but we are likely set to witness another decade or so of wasteful, results-phobic human spaceflight efforts lead on a wild goose chase after NASA’s Moon return ambitions. If it ends up being anything like the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft it is being artificially locked to, the Moon return may eventually accomplish something approximately half a decade behind schedule after vacuuming up at least $10-20B of federal funding.
At the same time, the robotic exploration expertise of NASA, ESA, Japan (JAXA), China (CNSA), India (ISRO), and Russia (Roscosmos) will be thrown at a bevy of spacecraft and landers with destinations throughout the solar system.
Europa Clipper deserves better ‘sails’
As of now, Congress has “mandated” that Europa Clipper and a planned Lander follow-up both launch on NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rockets. This was a political ploy by long-time supporter John Culberson (now a former US representative) meant to gain the support of Congressional gatekeepers focused on preserving SLS and Orion-related pork that feeds into their legislative districts or states (Sen. Shelby, Sen. Nelson, and others).
Developed by Lockheed Martin with the support of the European Space Agency (ESA), the Orion spacecraft is essentially an overweight, underpowered modern version of NASA’s Apollo Command and Service Module (CSM). Despite its mediocre capabilities, the spacecraft could theoretically be useful for NASA’s crewed exploration ambitions.
Sadly, Orion has been almost inextricably linked to NASA’s SLS rocket, built (for the most part) by Boeing and Aerojet Rocketdyne. Originally known as Ares V, the comparatively downsized SLS has always been meant to launch extremely large payloads. In theory, even the early SLS Block 1 (likely the only variant that will ever fly) would be capable of delivering ~25 metric tons to Mars and 6.3 mT directly to Jupiter.
That performance would also drastically cut the amount of time it takes Europa Clipper to travel from Earth to Jupiter from 6-7 years to about 3 years.
Hilariously, despite both Europa Clipper and SLS having been in development for years and the latter being legally required to launch the former, NASA still hasn’t verified (with certainty) that SLS Block 1 is actually capable of launching EC directly to Jupiter, the only benefit of SLS being the 3 years of time saved by a direct trajectory.
Even worse, despite mission delays that pushed Europa Clipper’s launch target from 2022 to 2023, NASA has yet to actually order new SLS boosters beyond the first two, assigned to Orion missions NET 2021 and 2022.
As NASA OIG notes, according to past estimates from NASA officials, the agency would need a minimum of 52 months (4.3 years) of lead time for Boeing and Aerojet Rocketdyne to build new SLS boosters. In other words, NASA would have had to order new boosters in September 2018 (8 months ago) for Europa Clipper to have a chance of launching on SLS in 2023.
Due to all of this absurd and avoidable uncertainty, large amounts of money and time are being wasted designing Europa Clipper to essentially be launcher-agnostic, able to fly on Falcon Heavy, Delta IV Heavy, or SLS. At this rate, it’s not even clear if a third SLS will be ready to launch Europa Clipper in 2024, barring a miraculously perfect performance during its launch debut (“Artemis-1”, formerly EM-1).
Dispatch from the Moon (bureaucracy)
Earlier this week, NASA announced its first truly Moon landing-focused contracts, awarding a total of $253M to OrbitBeyond, Astrobotic, and Intuitive Machines for commercially-developed Moon landers that could be ready for lunar landings as early as September 2020, July 2021, and July 2021, respectively.
Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines aim to deliver 90 kg and 100 kg of payload to the Moon’s surface, while OrbitBeyond is targeting ~40 kg despite receiving ~$25M more from NASA. Regardless, it has to be said that ~$250M is extremely cost-effective for the 230 kg (510 lb) worth of payloads it could deliver to the Moon. For comparison, in 2015, NASA purchased a single Delta IV Heavy launch (for its Parker Solar Probe) at a cost of almost $390M
Not only does that $250M include launch costs (two or even three of which will likely end up as copassengers on Falcon 9 launches), but it includes delivery to the surface of the Moon.
Additionally, an unknown proportion of that funding has clearly been directed towards the development and maturation of unflown and (mostly) unbuilt lunar landers, all of which could potentially offer even more affordable lunar delivery services once development is finished.
Finally, Russian space agency Roscosmos apparently has plans (or at least a Powerpoint) to land cosmonauts on the Moon as early as 2030. To accomplish that incredibly ambitious feat, Russia would effectively need to develop three entirely new rockets – two of which are far larger than anything Russia has built since the fall of the USSR – and a brand new crew and deep space-capable spacecraft (Federation).
The ambition is undeniably inspiring and could create a truly fascinating race-that-isn’t-really-a-race back to the Moon. However, the reality is that Russia as a country and economy is struggling, and those difficulties are obvious in Roscosmos – woefully underfunded and eternally tossed about as a political puck and source of easy embezzlement.
A Soyuz spacecraft launched to the ISS last year was found to have a literal hole in it, the likely result of sloppy manufacturing and nonexistent quality control. A few months later, a Soyuz 1.2 rocket failed mid-flight while launching a trio of astronauts, triggering the first human spaceflight abort/failure in almost two decades.
All three astronauts were safely recovered but those two failures alone suggest that Russia has some soul-searching a budget-tweaking to do before it has any chance of successfully (let alone safely) undertaking its ambitious lunar program.
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