This past week rewarded us with a panel discussion Removing the Barriers to Deep Space Exploration. The subject of the panel turned out to be the SLS heavy lift rocket and the Orion spacecraft. Surprisingly, in spite of the title of the panel, the discussion was not about cancelling SLS and Orion to allow funding to go to the robotic precursor missions, exploration technology development, and affordable space infrastructure needed for actual deep space exploration that have largely been squashed by the SLS/Orion pair. In fact, the discussion really didn't seem to be about barriers to deep space exploration at all. Instead, it seemed like a snugglefest of love for the expensive capsule and even more wildly expensive rocket. This may be a bit less surprising when one realizes that the speakers were a NASA official whose portfolio includes SLS and Orion and vice presidents of ATK, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Aerojet Rocketdyne, the main contractors that are building the SLS and Orion, and have been since 2005 (originally in the Ares/Orion variation).
One of the messages that the panelists sought to drive home was that SLS will be a wonderful launcher for ambitious robotic space missions such as NASA science missions and NRO spy satellites. How generous for the SLS advocates to suggest that the NASA government rocket should compete with the U.S. launch industry. Back in 2009 I wrote a post here called Constellation: Launching Science or Leeching Science based on the National Research Council's Launching Science: Science Opportunities Provided by NASA's Constellation System document evaluating the opportunities and dangers presented to NASA science by Constellation, mainly by the Ares V rocket. I won't go into all of the details again, since the linked blog post and the report itself cover the ugly details, none of which have changed for the better. The JWST is still absorbing a huge chunk of the NASA robotic science budget, that budget is still under great stress from general government-wide trends and the cost of the HLV and Orion, and still NASA and other space agencies seem to have crushing problems when developing large, ambitious space missions.
The danger is real: if it ever becomes operational and then allowed to compete with the U.S. launch industry with the backing of parochial Congressional interests, the SLS could cause serious harm to NASA science or even U.S. defense and intelligence capabilities by pushing them towards huge, unaffordable spacecraft beyond even JWST that they have no infrastructure to develop. No wonder it's called a monster rocket.