How the Space Launch System Will Work

The Senate Launch System?

The Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle being assembled and tested at Lockheed Martin's Vertical Testing Facility in Colorado
The Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle being assembled and tested at Lockheed Martin's Vertical Testing Facility in Colorado
Photo courtesy Lockheed Martin/NASA

Someone once described a camel as a horse designed by committee. The Space Launch System is a camel designed by NASA to specifications set down by Congress, with legs from Canoga Park, Calif.; withers from Brigham City, Utah, Huntsville, Ala. and Titusville, Fla.; and a hump and a head from New Orleans.

That adds up to a lot of jobs for a lot of constituencies, but does it make for the best possible spacecraft?

From the beginning, the SLS has been as much a political football as a vehicle to the stars. Ever since the Obama administration announced in February 2010 that the Constellation Program was cancelled and would not be replaced for five years, the clock has been running in a scrimmage between the White House and Capitol Hill. Ultimately, the congressional blitz proved to be too much for the administration, and it punted -- first by agreeing to take the Orion crew capsule out of mothballs, then by proposing an Ares-inspired knockoff to serve as the lift vehicle.

Nor did the pressure end there. Instead of merely approving agency goals and funding, members of Congress went further, directing NASA on what kind of vehicle to design and even which parts and vendors to use. Moreover, their requirements even included contracts and contractors to be retained without a bidding process [source: Simberg, "3 Questions"; Simberg, "NASA's Space"]. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican and ranking member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, and Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat and chairman of the commerce committee's science and space subcommittee, played influential roles in this process and in pressuring NASA to comply with it quickly. NASA Mission Control is located in Houston, Texas, and Florida is home to the agency's launch facilities.

Given the august body's heavy hand in the project, its derisive nickname, the Senate Launch System, was inevitable. 

Some critics have characterized the new program as a job-retention plan dressed up in a spacesuit. They point to how Sen. Richard Shelby -- ranking member of the NASA appropriation committee, whose home state of Alabama houses the Marshall Space Flight Center -- reversed his call for competitive bids on solid rocket booster contracts after two Huntsville-based firms began working on a competitive SRB design [source: Simberg, "3 Questions"].

Defenders of the Space Launch System have argued that it is a solid, versatile design; more lukewarm commentators have expressed relief that America is keeping its hand in the space game and tepid enthusiasm for the program's use of existing personnel and technologies, which some argue will keep costs down.

In response, critics point out that retaining a legacy workforce with long years of seniority and accrued benefits will in fact cost more than hiring new workers, citing a report by consulting agency Booz Allen Hamilton. The report also found that NASA's current budgetary data, while adequate for short-term planning, will poorly predict the project's long-term fiscal needs, casting a pall over a program on which NASA is expected to spend $18 billion over the next six years [source: Chang].

As we'll see in the next section, the program's lack of a clearly defined mission or timeline has only lent ammunition to that fusillade.