Updating: After this story was published, NASA released the following statement at 11 p.m. ET Monday regarding the internal study:
NASA is conducting an internal study on the timing and sequence of lunar missions with available resources, and with guidance that SLS and Orion will transport the crew to the Gateway. The backbone for NASA’s Moon to Mars plans are the Space Launch System rocket, the Orion spacecraft, ground systems at the Kennedy Space Center, Gateway in lunar orbit, and human landing system. We are currently also reviewing various elements of our programs to find efficiencies and opportunities to reduce costs, and this exercise is ongoing. This also includes discussions with our industry partners. Budget forecasting and agency internal evaluations are common because they help us with long-term planning. The agency expects to take full advantage of its powerful SLS capabilities, and this effort will improve current construction associated with conducting the development, production and operations of NASA’s Artemis missions.
The original story appears below.
Original story: NASA is conducting an internal assessment of the affordability of the Space Launch System rocket, two sources have told Ars Technica.
Concerned about the outrageous cost of the program, the NASA transition team, appointed by President Joe Biden, launched the investigation. The analysis is led by Paul McConnaughey, a former deputy center director at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, as well as the chief engineer.
The SLS missile program has been managed by Marshall for more than a decade. Critics have derided it as a “jobs program” designed to retain workers at key centers such as Alabama-based Marshall, as well as those at primary contractors such as Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Aerojet Rocketdyne. Such criticisms have been compounded by frequent schedule delays — the SLS was originally set to launch in 2016 and the missile is now slated to launch no earlier than 2022 — as well as cost overruns.
For now, cost appears to be the driving factor behind White House concerns. With a maximum cadence of one launch per year, the SLS rocket is expected to cost more than $2 billion per flight, in addition to the $20 billion NASA has already spent developing the vehicle and its ground systems. Some of the incoming officials do not believe that the Artemis Moon program is sustainable with such launch costs.
McConnaughey leads the study for Kathy Lueders, NASA’s chief of human spaceflight. Even before the start of the study, McConnaughey had insisted that the SLS program become more cost-effective. One goal of this analysis is to find ways for the large NASA rocket to compete effectively with privately developed rockets as part of the agency’s Artemis Moon program.
For example, while SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket doesn’t have as much lift capacity as the SLS rocket, it has the advantage of being already in service and costing about a tenth per flight. Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance are also developing heavy rockets intended to launch components of a human landing system into orbit around the moon.
Perhaps most importantly, SpaceX is continuing a test flight campaign of its Starship Launch System, which could make its first orbital flight in the next 12 months. This is a launcher that can potentially outperform the SLS rocket, is reusable and costs a fraction of the price. If SpaceX manages to get Starship into orbit, there would be little technical justification for continued government subsidies for the less capable SLS booster, which is replaceable and costs much, much more.
Proponents of the SLS missile are not blind to this. Some believe that SpaceX will not succeed with its Starship program, and indeed numerous technical challenges remain. Others think NASA could find ways to make the SLS rocket more competitive, and that’s one point of this study.
However, another reason for the new analysis is to assess whether NASA really needs the SLS rocket as part of the Artemis program. Companies are already planning to bring the lunar lander to the moon with private rockets. The main task for the SLS rocket is to launch Orion, with crew, to the moon. Launching Orion could also be possible with private rockets, or the crew could simply launch on SpaceX’s starship, eliminating the need for Orion itself.
While the Biden administration is committed to continuing the Artemis program launched under President Donald Trump, it has other priorities for the space agency, most notably ramping up Earth science activities to better understand climate change. If the Office of Management and Budget no longer has to spend $3 billion a year to “develop” the SLS missile and its ground systems, the White House will at least look into the possibility.
A first step could be to delay or end work on an upgrade for the SLS rocket, sources said. After NASA completes the first iteration of the Space Launch System rocket, the plan is to upgrade it to “Block 1B,” the bulk of which will be an upgraded second stage. This piece of hardware is known as the Exploration Upper Stage. In the FY 2021 budget bill, Congress allocated $400 million to develop this phase.
However, some senior NASA officials would at least like to pause work on this upper stage. It is premature for them to work on an improved rocket while the first version of the SLS rocket has not yet been proven, especially if Biden space officials determine that the SLS rocket will play only a limited role in future exploration plans. A source said the Biden White House will fly SLS only a handful of times, halt work on the Exploration Upper Stage, and plan Artemis’ future around commercial launch vehicles.
All of this remains in flux, though, and the US Congress will have a big say in whatever the future holds for NASA’s deep-space exploration programs.