NASA’s big piece of trash: SLS

Pamela L. Gay, Ph.D.
7 min readAug 30, 2022

Reuse, renew, recycle. These are becoming themes for our modern, broken supply chain having, climate crisis experiencing, plastic riddled world. Upcycling of clothes, and repurposing of furniture — these are the way of things. There are days when it feels like a moral obligation to stop any chemicals, gasses, byproducts or unnecessary waste from making its way into our environment.

Reuse, renew, recycle; it’s just the right thing to do, no matter what it is you do.

Even if what you do is explore space.

About 7 years ago a rocket went up and then politely returned to Earth in a manner that would allow it to be reused or at least repurposed into a monument to its success. That historic rocket was a New Shepard from Blue Origin, and along with SpaceX’s Falcon 9, it shepherded in a new era of reusable rocket stages. Today, just about every spacefaring nation and commercial space agency is working on its own reusable rockets. Long term, this is going to reduce the cost of space travel while also reducing the amount of material that is burned up like trash in the atmosphere or dumped (like garbage shouldn’t be) into the ocean.

The giant exception to this plan to reuse and recycle is the NASA-funded Space Launch System. Standing just shy of 100m, this heavy-lift rocket is a tad smaller than the Saturn V, and can only launch 80% as much mass to low Earth-orbit. It is designed to be able to launch humans and cargo to the Moon and Mars, and will take its place in history as a slightly smaller and faster cousin to the Saturn V; a shorter and faster cousin that does less while costing more per launch.

Image credit: MailOnline

(When you hear folks saying “SLS is the most powerful rocket ever built,” they are referring to its thrust, which is 15% greater than Saturn V’s thrust. This means it can launch less mass in total, but can launch that mass to a higher speed.)

Each SLS is also going straight into the garbage. Put simply, SLS is the single-use disposable rocket I don’t think anyone actually wants.

To be fair to NASA, they are trying to upcycle leftover Space Shuttle bits for the first 4 Artemis series launches of SLS.

The Space Launch System, SLS for short, was an “OMG the US doesn’t have a launch vehicle” plan that was…

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Pamela L. Gay, Ph.D.

Astronomer, technologist, & creative focused on using new media to engage people in learning and doing science. Opinions & typos my own.