One of the biggest criticisms of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft is that they will be too expensive to fly. Namely – while the big rocket and bulky capsule appear to be more than capable vehicles that could form the core of a deep space exploration program – will there be any money left after production for NASA to actually start exploring? Until now, this has been a question on which the space agency only gave vague guarantees.
But on Thursday, when Ars sat down to interview NASA’s Bill Hill at the Michoud Assembly Facility, where the SLS core stage and Orion are assembled, the NASA executive was notably forthcoming. “We’re just way too expensive these days,” Hill acknowledged. “It’s going to take some different thinking and maybe take a little bit more risk than what we want to do today.”
Hill should know. As deputy associate administrator for reconnaissance system development, he is the NASA Headquarters official responsible for the development of SLS, Orion, and the ground systems at Kennedy Space Center. Hill said he has given managers of each of those three programs some targets for production and operating costs once the vehicles leave the development phase and go into production.
“My top number for Orion, SLS and the ground systems that support it is $2 billion or less,” Hill told Ars. “I mean, that’s my real ultimate goal. We were at about three plus, 3.6 billion [dollars] during the final days of the space shuttle. Of course we flew six or seven missions there as well. I think we will actually have to come down to less.”
Ars has learned that the agency’s ultimate goal for annual production and operating costs is about $1.5 billion.
With the first test flight of SLS and Orion as early as fall 2018 — and a second flight not until the early 2020s — the programs will remain in the development phase for at least the next five to seven years. However, by the mid-2020s, NASA would like to fly the SLS rocket at least once a year — sometimes with Orion, other times with scientific payloads for the outer solar system or hardware for human spaceflight. By the late 2020s, Hill said, NASA would like to reach a flight rate of two SLS launches per year.
These are ambitious targets in terms of cost and flight speed given the size of these programs. But if the space agency could meet them, it would go a long way toward addressing two of the biggest concerns about SLS and Orion: their running costs and slow airspeed. Low air fares, independent reports from the National Research Council and others warned, are simply not sustainable in the long run.
Production and operational costs
Production costs are costs associated with the manufacture of the launcher, including materials, production labor, factory testing and inspection, and integration performed at the production sites. Operational costs are the costs associated with the operation of the launch vehicle after completion of fabrication, including green run testing, transportation, launch site assembly, flight operations, post-flight analysis, and support engineering.
Production and operational costs — P&O in NASA’s acronym-laden jargon — of $2 billion or less would leave a significant amount of money in NASA’s budget for human missions to the moon’s vicinity, to its surface, or eventually manned missions to Mars. In fiscal 2016, NASA received $3.7 billion for exploration systems development, primarily the budget for SLS, Orion, and ground systems. The number is likely to grow to $4 billion before the end of the decade.
If it could eventually spend half of that on deep space habitats, landers, surface living quarters, and countless other systems, the agency could have the beginnings of a viable deep space program. Such a program could become even more robust by the late 2020s, when NASA’s human exploration program could potentially add a large chunk of the International Space Station’s $3 billion budget for space missions.
These remain big ifs, of course, as NASA struggled to control these production and operational costs during the space shuttle era. However, beyond the small conference room where Ars met Hill, on the massive floor of the Michoud missile factory, there were some signs that the agency was trying to contain costs where possible. In this large facility where the agency once built the large external fuel tanks for the space shuttles, NASA now assembles the larger, still “core stage” of the space launch system rocket, the backbone of the rocket that contains its liquid hydrogen and oxygen. , avionics and main engines.
During the space shuttle days, about 1,200 people worked at 40 stations to assemble the shuttle’s external tank, which was a relatively simple design compared to the SLS core stage. Today, about 400 people at Boeing, the main SLS contractor, work at a handful of stations to assemble the core stage. It represents a sign – a small but tangible sign – that NASA could still quell the cost of its large rockets and spacecraft.