Why NASA’s $4.1 Billion Moon Rocket Launch Cost Could Destroy It

It will probably It won’t surprise anyone who has closely followed the development of NASA’s next giant rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), but it will be expensive to use. Like, really expensive — to the tune of $4.1 billion per launch, according to NASA’s Inspector General. This is more than double the launch cost originally planned.

It’s also an absurd amount of money, amounting to $58,000 per kilogram launched into low Earth orbit if the expected payload weights are to be believed. Certainly, SLS would potentially be the largest launch system ever created when (or if) it leaves the ground. Therefore, it would have the unique ability to launch unique payloads that had never been possible before. So where did it all go so wrong?

Development of SLS began in 2011 after NASA retired the Space Shuttle. Lacking a system to put its own astronauts into orbit, NASA contacted its commercial partners to facilitate its design and construction. Originally budgeted with $7 billion, the cost of the project soared to over $23 billion, with no end in sight. In fact, an additional delay just before the congressional hearings pushed a critical stage of the test back another two months to May. NASA administrators even preemptively warned that the update date might be hard to come by.

Whenever a large public federal program like this runs into trouble, it is inevitable that it will be singled out. There was certainly at the House committee hearing where NASA Inspector General Paul Martin pointed the finger at committee officials. Congress, he said, had, in effect, tied NASA’s hands by requiring the agency to enter into “cost-plus” contracts with suppliers.

These contracts mean that any company working on the project would be reimbursed for their expenses and rewarded with compensation on top of those expenses. The obvious problem with such contracts, as has been painfully evident with SLS contractors Lockheed Martin and Boeing, is that they incentivize contractors to incur more expense to perform the same amount of work, thereby increasing the fees they receive.

Boeing, the struggling aerospace giant that has faced a series of public relations disasters in recent years, has come under particular criticism from Martin. He castigated their technical and project management skills and noted that they still received a handsome bonus for their incompetence.

Stackable SLS for Artemis 1.Credit: NASA/Cory Huston

As with all these contractual mandates entrusted to a federal agency, politics certainly had something to do with it. The SLS system has provided many jobs in some critical districts for some influential members of Congress, and if the project goes a little over budget to support those jobs, so be it.

But to anyone not directly benefiting from the largesse around these rocket contracts, it just seems like the government is spending billions of dollars on a rocket that is already obsolete before it even leaves the ground.

That’s because the SLS has a huge weakness that pushes its one-time launch cost into the billions – it’s expendable. After launch, the main stage is lost in the ocean, never to be recovered. It’s a stark contrast to another well-known launch system that happens to be run by a much more nimble company without a cost-plus contract. Starship has almost 30% more potential payload capacity than SLS – and it’s reusable, which could bring the cost per kilogram launched down to $10.

If SpaceX meets its admittedly ambitious launch cost target, there is no feasible way for SLS to compete. NASA seems to have figured this out already, selecting the Falcon Heavy for the Europa Clipper mission (partly due to the technical difficulties of the SLS), and even enlisting Starship to help land the first Artemis missions on the Moon.

Wondering why NASA is still working on the SLS? Here are some answers.

Ultimately, in a capitalist society, resources are destined for the most effective and efficient use, as long as the government does not contractually impose those uses. In the case of the SLS, the government appears to have tasked its space agency with developing a massively over-budgeted launch system that may already be obsolete by the time it enters service. That’s not going to change, no matter how many congressional hearings on this.

This article was originally published on Universe today by Andy Tomaswick. Read the original article here.

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