Loren Thompson - NASA Space Launch System Opens Pathway To Mars

--- And Thousands Of Jobs On Earth

There's a conference next week near Capitol Hill to discuss a project that may lead to the greatest technological achievement in history -- and yet chances are, you haven't heard about it. The project is NASA's effort to develop a huge rocket and spacecraft that will one day carry astronauts to Mars. If you wanted to build a case for why our nation still has the makings of greatness, this would be Exhibit A. And if you wanted proof that such projects can be good for a country's economy, this particular project provides plenty of evidence.

The official names for the rocket and spacecraft are the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. Several of the companies involved in the effort including both prime contractors (Boeing and Lockheed Martin, respectively) contribute to my think tank, so I try to keep up with the program. In a sense, though, I've been following the Mars program since I was a kid -- decades before it was begun -- because I grew up in an America that assumed once mankind had conquered the Moon, Mars was next.

Mars was the most common setting for all those science-fiction novels I read in high school, and it was almost always Americans who were leading the way. Back then, many of us believed it was our nation's destiny to lead mankind into deep space. We now realize that the stars may be beyond our grasp -- it takes 40,000 years for light to reach the center of our galaxy from Earth -- but that makes the only other Earth-like planet in our solar system even more appealing as a destination.

If human beings are ever going to walk on the Red Planet in my lifetime or that of other baby boomers, NASA's new rocket and crew vehicle are the reasons why. The Space Launch System and Orion are the foundation of the only serious effort anywhere to return human beings to the Moon, and then begin reaching further outward. The first mission to test everything is scheduled for next year, and the first mission with astronauts on board could happen as early as 2021.

A manned mission to the Red Planet won’t come until the following decade, although President Trump might elect to speed that up (NASA currently receives one-half of 1% of the federal budget, a tenth of the share it claimed during the Apollo missions to the Moon). President Obama didn’t care much about the space agency’s manned exploration program, which shows what happens when leaders are too detail-oriented to have a vision. Like a lot of other folks these days, his idea of science was focused more on the microcosm than the cosmos.

Under continuous prompting from Congress, though, Obama at least kept open the option of one day following up all those robotic probes we send to Mars with real people. It is a daunting mission. The baseline version of the new rocket will need to lift a 77-ton payload, and the one that eventually aims for the Red Planet will lift nearly twice that -- 143 tons. Just to put that in perspective, the maximum takeoff weight of Boeing's latest 737 MAX jetliner is 88-97 tons, including fuel and passengers.

The way NASA has designed the rocket, it will gradually evolve to accomplish more challenging missions without having to undertake a redesign. Boeing's liquid-fueled core will be used on all the evolved versions, as will Aerojet Rocketdyne's four RS-25 engines. What will change with each successive variant is the upper (or second) stage and the solid-fuel rocket boosters that provide additional thrust to escape the Earth's gravity. The propulsion systems on the initial version of SLS are refined from technology previously used with the Space Shuttle -- so at least we know they work.

Superficially, the Orion crew vehicle too seems to harken back to an earlier NASA effort. It is often described as resembling the Apollo capsule that transported astronauts into an orbit around the Moon. In this case, though, looks are deceiving -- it has 50% more interior volume, can carry up to six astronauts, and is equipped with technology engineers couldn't even imagine when Apollo was designed. Orion will be safer and more habitable -- which is a good thing, because crew vehicle flights will typically last for weeks.

Initially, SLS and Orion will carry astronauts to the Moon and an asteroid to develop experience for the first Mars mission. Cis-lunar space provides a potentially fruitful staging area for Mars flights. An asteroid visit would provide useful insights if Mars missions involve the Red Planet's moons. Asteroids have other intrinsic factors justifying a mission, such as the likelihood that an asteroid impact led to the Earth's last mass-extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs. NASA has organized these missions as stepping-stones in its "journey to Mars."

The early steps in that journey will cost about four days of federal spending at current rates from its inception in 2011 through the first manned mission on Orion. But that's four days of federal spending spread out over a dozen years, and it includes everything from the launch system to the crew vehicle to the ground infrastructure to the new upper stage. Meanwhile, the program will be generating many thousands of jobs in the U.S. and dozens of technological breakthroughs.

Those jobs are spread across 49 states -- the program has 1,700 suppliers -- and currently employ over 10,000 workers. For instance, NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans where Boeing is building the liquid fuels tanks for the SLS core employs over 3,000 personnel. The SLS effort is being managed by the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, which generates many hundreds of jobs locally. And the Orion spacecraft program, which is managed from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, currently employs 3,000 workers nationwide.

That's before we even get to the economic boost NASA's new rocket and space vehicle will give Florida's Space Coast when they begin operating from Kennedy Space Center next year. Like any other big infrastructure project, NASA's journey to Mars will create lots of jobs. The difference in the space agency's case is that they will be high-tech, high-paying jobs that enable one of the greatest achievements in history. It will be an episode without parallel in the chronicle of American civilization.