Build the Mighty Kong!
New SLS Could Get us Dreaming Again
A funny thing happened on the way to the planets: we stopped going.
The long-term scientific, economic, technological and humanistic damage caused by the myopic political abortion of the Apollo program is probably too great to ever be accurately assessed.
Unlike almost anything else the U.S. government has ever done, space exploration inspired a nation already comprised of dreamers to dream as it had never done before. It demanded our very best and, whether in moments of triumph or failure, it brought out the very best within us. When Richard Nixon abandoned the Moon, the nation was largely forced to abandon its dreams. In the 39 years since Gene Cernan became the last (so far) human to walk on the Moon, we’ve lost the dreams of two generations while we’ve flown languorously around the home planet in the relatively safe harbor of low Earth orbit – an exploratory distance, as my friend Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson likes to point out, roughly equivalent to the distance between New York and Boston.
In a purely material sense, the U.S. government has probably never made another investment that paid off as big as its investment in space. A vast amount of the technology that drives the world today can directly or indirectly trace its DNA to the decision that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the earth.1
What is most amazing, really, is that so few people understand how the pursuit of these dreams drove the creation of the technologies and knowledge that populate our world today. Certainly those who made the decisions to bet on the future knew why they were doing it:
We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.
The growth of our science and education will be enriched by new knowledge of our universe and environment, by new techniques of learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home as well as the school.
. . . a great number of new companies, and tens of thousands of new jobs. Space and related industries are generating new demands in investment and skilled personnel. . .
It’s not my purpose here to expound on the countless benefits of space exploration; if you’re reading this, you’re almost certainly a believer already.
Rather, I’d like to both applaud and reflect upon the recent announcement that NASA will submit to the will of the American people (as articulated by our duly elected representatives in Congress) to build a very large Space Launch System (SLS) so that human exploration beyond low Earth orbit might get rolling again sometime in our lifetimes.
First, there’s no doubt that a rocket such as the SLS can enable us “to boldly go” once more. With a planned throw weight of 129,000 kg to LEO, this bad boy should not only enable expeditionary settlement of the Moon, but also provide the means for humans to get to Mars and other destinations as well. We will, relatively soon, be able to stop lamenting the 39 lost years since Apollo 17 and start celebrating the footsteps of new generations of explorers.
Surely, such a rocket deserves a better name than SLS. Admittedly, naming things has never been NASA’s strong suit – but, in this case, we’ll forgive them - if they’ll just build the damn thing. Since all the cool mythical names have long since been used up, I’m going with “The Mighty Kong” until someone comes up with something better.
Second, we need to pause and reflect upon what has happened here. The will of the people has triumphed through our elected officials. Congress took the proverbial bull by the horns, confronted the administration on its plan – which was really no plan at all – and made the right thing (well, one of the right things) happen. I know that there will be plenty of cynics out there who will view the Mighty Kong as a jobs program pushed by representatives with space industry in their districts. And, to be honest, even if that’s all it was, I’d support it as a much smarter jobs creation program than anything else that government has done since the beginning of whatever you call this economic mess we’re in.
Bailing out rich investment bankers or failed automakers might count as a diving catch, but the hundreds of billions of dollars spent to date on non-value-added nonsense like the American Recovery Act could never create the jobs, innovation, industry and growth that will be created by spending the $18 billion allotted for the SLS launch vehicle. And while, $18 billion sounds like a lot (well, it is a lot), it’s only 2.1 percent of what is being spent on the American Recovery Act.
Smug political trivialization does a great disservice to those who have worked to get the deed done. I know many of these senators and representatives and, yes, some of them (not all) have space jobs in their districts. That means that they’ve met the men and women who keep the dream alive. And they’ve seen the products of their labors and the fierce pride in their eyes.
Anyone who has spent any time in this business will tell you that there is magic and wonder in it that is infectious. Of course, the elected representatives of the people who comprise our industry are going to become equally infected and unabashedly supportive of space exploration. How could they not?
Third, it must be said, capability without purpose is a bit cart-before-horse. Just saying “We’re building the Mighty Kong, and it’s going to let us explore cool places” is not as compelling as saying “we’re going to do X, Y and Z, and the Mighty Kong is going to get us there.” We need to be able to provide a direct answer to the journalist’s time-tested, Five-W’s interrogatory: Who, is going Where, to do What, Why and When? SLS may be theHow, but that’s not enough of an answer.
What, specifically, are the missions of our space exploration program? It remains a fundamental weakness in the administration’s approach to NASA that it has not given the agency clear marching orders. Vague waffling about technologies, asteroids and who-knows-what other destinations is not going to cut it, once the men and women of the space industry start cutting metal.
Subsequent administrations could throw away our investment in the Mighty Kong as easily as this administration threw away more than $9 billion worth of Constellation hardware – unless there’s a real plan, and we’re really performing.
Back to the Moon. Out to an asteroid. On to Mars. Specific goals. Within specific timeframes. Someone needs to lay it out clearly, program it and plan it – and start letting contracts. If the administration will not, then perhaps it will again fall to those bipartisan champions in the Congress. A compelling exploration plan must be there to guide our efforts before the Mighty Kong starts flying.
Fourth, we really need to get this rolling, because we need to start thinking big again. There’s something vaguely unsatisfying about building the Mighty Kong out of recycled Space Shuttle components. Figuring out how to do that might be cheaper than starting from scratch, but it is also less demanding. New inventions, new materials science and new technologies flow from doing things that have never been done before. Not from reconfiguring old parts.
Surely we’re going to have to be creative; there will be benefits from that. And, the mere act of returning to human space exploration will inspire new generations. But the Holy Grail of a Single Stage to Orbit spacecraft with useful mass fractions is still out there. The intermediate boundary of a heavy-lift two-stage-to-orbit vehicle has yet to be breached. The development of each, in turn, would yield far greater technologies than will the cobbling together of the Mighty Kong.
This is where the value proposition for space must be better understood outside our own industry. Yes, doing major new space technology programs will be far more costly than building the Mighty Kong. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, because the return on investment is also far greater. And nor should government systems be the only thing we consider. How can our burgeoning commercial space companies add capability to the overall exploration effort? Every bit of capability that the commercial sector can provide should be taken into the equation.
I might add that this need not be a binary outcome equation. A clever country would be building the Mighty Kong now, while marshaling its commercial resources and simultaneously pursuing an advanced technologies track that would lead to revolutionary new systems . We need to be conscious of the fact that a chemically propelled trip to Mars, even with a big boost from Mighty Kong, still takes six months, while a nuclear propelled trip could take as little as 39 days. Someday, someone is going to figure out warp drive. The longer we wait to get started, the further into the future it will be.
But to return to the moment, let’s celebrate the fact that the Mighty Kong is to be funded, planned, built and turned into a no-kidding space exploration machine. The view from here is: SLS can provide a galvanizing core around which the entire world can rally its exploration ambitions, plans and resources.
Let’s build the Mighty Kong, boldly go - and never look back.
Elliot Holokauahi Pulham
Chief Executive Officer
1. President John F. Kennedy, Speech before Congress, May 25, 1961
2. President John F. Kennedy, Speech at Rice University, Sept. 12, 1962