Senior NASA representatives have acknowledged that the Space Launch System (SLS), which intends to assist humans in establishing a base on the moon, is “unaffordable,” according to a US government watchdog. When done, SLS will be the space agency’s most powerful rocket ever. But expenses are out of control.
NASA hopes that the Artemis missions, which will send people back to the moon for the first time in more than 50 years, will be greatly aided by its Orion spacecraft and its accompanying launcher, known as SLS. When done, SLS will be the space agency’s most powerful rocket ever. But expenses are out of control.
NASA hopes that the Artemis missions, which will send people back to the moon for the first time in more than 50 years, will be greatly aided by its Orion spacecraft and its accompanying launcher, known as SLS.
When SLS made its first orbit of the moon last year, the agency scored a major victory. However, the programme has long faced criticism for its ballooning expense and missed deadlines.
In a study released on Thursday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said that “senior agency officials have told us that at current cost levels the SLS programme is unsustainable and exceeds what NASA officials believe will be available for its Artemis missions.”
The exact costs are unclear
According to the GAO, NASA has invested $11.8 billion on the integrated SLS rocket’s development since 2011.
However, there is a huge disparity in the figures given for the program’s real cost, which varies depending on whether the construction of the Orion spacecraft, which came before SLS, and other ongoing expenses are taken into account.
When adding expenditures associated with creating the Orion capsule since 2006, for example, citing the Planetary Society, one estimate, taken from NASA’s Congressional Budget Statement, pegs that amount at roughly $50 billion.
The spending doesn’t end here, either. According to the article, NASA has asked for an additional $11.2 billion over the course of the next five years to further develop and construct the rocket.
According to the Planetary Society, the agency’s modest budget, which is approximately a tenth of the $27.2 billion it has asked for 2024, is mostly made up of more SLS and Orion enhancements. The planned defence expenditure for 2024 is almost 30 times more in contrast.
Private businesses like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, who are working to lower the launch costs of their own rockets, stand in striking contrast to this. According to the study, authorities have acknowledged that the program’s expenditure “needs to be improved,” but it is not yet apparent how they plan to do so.
SLS is NASA's workhorse for lunar missions
According to Brendan Rosseau, a teaching fellow of space economics at Harvard Business School, the rocket is crucial to NASA’s moon strategy in the impending Artemis mission since it is the only rocket designed to work on those missions.
NASA has prepared a series of missions that will first place astronauts on the moon before attempting to build a lunar colony during the next years.
The idea is for SLS to ferry passengers to the moon’s orbit, where they will connect with a lunar lander that will be able to take them to the moon’s surface. These missions are focused on the Orion spacecraft, NASA’s people hauler. Rosseau claims that it was made exclusively to suit the SLS booster and not another rocket.
“NASA has put a lot of effort into it. It appears that they will continue with this strategy for some time, according to Rosseau.
NASA's SLS is an anomaly
According to Rosseau, one of the criticisms of the SLS programme stems from the fact that it stands out as a “bit of an anomaly” in NASA’s most recent method of project development.
Over the last few decades, NASA has been moving away from developing its technology internally and instead prefers to award one-time contracts to private suppliers that can supply a service for a predetermined fee. This shift has been motivated by a political desire to lower the cost of space exploration. The growth of the private space sector has been greatly aided by this shift to a commercial-first approach.
After winning a $2.9 billion contract to build a lunar lander for NASA’s Artemis missions, it has resulted in fierce rivalry, with SpaceX forging forward with the construction of its own Starship mega-rocket.
Additionally, the organisation just gave Blue Origin a $3.4 billion contract to create a lunar lander for another Artemis mission. If you consider the cost, the length of time it took to create, and the issues it encountered, perhaps it is proof that using commercial services is the best course of action, according to Rosseau.
According to a statement made by Rosseau earlier, SLS’s sustained commitment may have been motivated more by a political gamble than by commercial considerations.
According to some cynics, senators and congressional appropriators with local interests wanted NASA to develop a massive rocket specifically to create jobs in their districts, he added. Nevertheless, the SLS is the only rocket in that power class that have shown its viability.
Starship’s first completely stacked launch attempt by SpaceX in April resulted in a blaze after the spacecraft failed to separate from its launcher while in flight.
NASA is working to bring costs under control, but it's not clear how
Using a four-point plan, NASA has stated that it is now attempting to decrease costs: “(1) stabilise the flight schedule, (2) achieve learning curve efficiencies, (3) encourage innovation, and (4) adjust acquisition strategies to reduce cost risk,” the study adds. The study does state, however, that NASA “has not yet identified specific program-level cost-saving goals which it hopes to achieve.”
According to the study, the agency claimed that steps had been taken to achieve those objectives, although it is unclear whether they have so far resulted in savings.
According to Eric Berger, senior space editor at Ars Technica, there are reasons to doubt NASA’s ability to save money.
Paul Martin, NASA’s general inspector, criticised a recent NASA plan to decrease the cost of the SLS rocket engines by 30% to $70.5 million, claiming that the budget omitted project management and overhead expenses.
According to Berger, the engines would still be significantly more expensive than comparable private engines. For instance, Blue Origin’s BE-4 engines can be produced for less than $20 million, while SpaceX aims to make its Raptor engines affordable at less than $1 million per.