“So you’re telling me there’s a chance!”
This famous line, spoken by Jim Carrey’s famous Lloyd Christmas character, has become bigger than the quirky, outgoing limousine driver who once traveled the world with an abandoned suitcase full of money to pursue a girl that had no interest in him.
Over the last several days, Carrey’s line has essentially been said over and over by many starry-eyed space geeks, who are pushing NASA to use inappropriate, flashy technology for President Trump's long-anticipated Moon mission. The insistence and persistence of these Star Trekkies is putting personal curiosity over America’s mission success, timeliness, and cost and must be ignored.
For years, NASA has been building the Space Launch System (SLS), the soon-to-be most powerful rocket in United States history, to service the same kind of deep space missions to the Moon and Mars that the current administration is envisioning.
NASA isn’t building it for fun: it began the project because no other rocket currently exists with these capabilities, which are needed for U.S. interests.
Nevertheless, the Star Trekkies don’t seem to want NASA to use SLS for its missions, preferring the Falcon Heavy – a flamboyant rocket featured in hefty PR pushes by their hero, Elon Musk, instead.
Never mind that unlike SLS, the Falcon Heavy was not designed for missions like the Trump administration’s upcoming Exploration Mission-1, which will feature the Orion spacecraft orbiting around the Moon. Regardless of its capabilities, they want to see Musk’s rocket do it even if it means prolonging already extended ETAs or increasing costs that have already exceeded initial expectations as a result of the pioneering nature of the project.
For a minute, these sycophants had a burst of energy when, in a March committee hearing, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine stated that his agency must consider all options to accomplish that objective. However, their glimmer of hope was shot down on April 1, when rather than telling April Fool’s jokes, Bridenstine gave more insight into the current state-of-play at NASA.
Bridenstine said that after carefully looking at all of the commercial options over two weeks – from the United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and Crew Dragon – NASA found that none of them, even collaboratively, would be capable of meeting the needs for the upcoming Moon Mission.
Call the press. The one rocket – SLS – that is capable of sending the Orion space craft, astronauts, and cargo to the Moon in one mission is the only one appropriate for use, and transitioning to others would either be impossible or add to time, risk and cost. Go figure.
Nevertheless, in Lloyd Christmas-like fashion, Bridenstine’s comments didn’t stop the Star Trekkies from running a victory lap.
Principally, this is due to one part in Bridenstine's talk, when he stated: “Here’s a solution that did work: A Falcon Heavy with a regular old Falcon upper stage and an Orion and a European service module,” he said. “That actually did work on one rocket.”
Seeing this quote without context could lead one to believe that the Falcon Heavy is a reasonable option for the upcoming Moon mission and beyond. And that’s exactly what the Star Trekkies want you to believe.
There’s a chance!” they’re essentially saying, “Bridenstine’s telling us there’s a chance!”
Headlines, like NASA chief says a Falcon Heavy rocket could fly humans to the Moon, started circulating. One author even went on to write: “Despite contrary comments made one week prior, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has affirmed – this time in no uncertain terms – that a two-week study investigating commercial options for launching the Orion spacecraft to the Moon has concluded that Falcon Heavy could be the only practical option if NASA chooses to proceed.” He continued: “Reading between the lines, Administrator Bridenstine has effectively put the expensive and delay-ridden SLS rocket on notice…”
Although it’s true that in his comments Bridenstine said it may be possible to use the Falcon Heavy for such services in the long run, after some kinks are worked out, many commentators skimmed over what he said earlier in his remarks.
“Here’s the problem: there’s a whole host of challenges that had to be addressed,” Bridenstine said. “On top of it all, we’re talking about putting a massive fairing on top of a Falcon Heavy and that massive fairing, of course, is going to create some sort of shockwaves … and those shockwaves are going to impact the side boosters on a Falcon Heavy in ways that we don’t even know.” He continued: “while that option was attractive and possible there was so much risk and so much cost and so much schedule involved that it wouldn’t accelerate on either cost or schedule.”
Everyone should hope that more competition arises in the aerospace sector and that over time, the Falcon Heavy’s capabilities extend, but to knock SLS and put creative spin on NASA’s words as it stands by this rocket that’s essential for the U.S.’s needs for the important EM-1 mission just isn’t right.
The Trump administration is not dumb and recognizes that space policy is bigger than visual optics and PR stunts. While even Bridenstine himself has complimented the Falcon Heavy on its beauty, as everyone should, the fact is that it’s simply not the right rocket to go to the Moon right now, no matter how much David Bowie music Musk puts on in the background. In fact, it wasn’t even a year ago when Musk said there’s a “good chance” it wouldn’t make it into orbit.
But the Musk fanboys can stay in their fantasy world sheltered from reality: what matters is that NASA is sticking by the SLS to ensure a productive, successful mission. At the end of the day, that’s what counts, and thanks to the leadership of Jim Bridenstine and others, the Trump administration will have yet another victory notch in its belt in no time at all.