NASA's new mega-rocket has a hefty price tag

NASA's new moon rocket, the massive Space Launch System (SLS), is now ready to launch. For space enthusiasts who have had to make do with renderings of the powerful rocket for years, seeing SLS on the pad is unreal. And those digital images and animations have evolved over time, as have the deep-space rocket's intended function and destinations. NASA began working on the SLS in 2011, shortly after canceling its Constellation moon program, which would have used an Ares rocket to transport Orion to the International Space Station (ISS), the moon, and eventually Mars.

The enormous rocket's construction cost $10 billion at the time, with a first flight scheduled for late 2016. However, development expenses, funding concerns, design revisions, political obstacles, and other roadblocks pushed the rocket's initial launch to 2017, then 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, and eventually 2022. Over the decade-plus of SLS development, a lot has transpired in space, including the advent of commercial cargo and commercial crew trips to the ISS, SpaceX's introduction of reusable rockets, and the exponential growth of new private space enterprises. So far in 2022, 37 launches have taken place from KSC, with the vast majority of them carried out by SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk announced the company's concept for its next-generation deep-space transportation system, a massive rocket-spaceship combo known as Starship, in 2016, the same year that SLS was due to fly for the first time.

Musk has stated that when construction is completed, the spaceship will be the most powerful launch vehicle ever created.

Eventually, he hopes that hundreds of Starships will land a million people on Mars in the following decades. So yet, just a few of the company's Starship prototypes have taken off, and none of them have flown in orbit. However, a full-stack Starship orbital test flight is scheduled for before the end of the year. If that flight is successful, SpaceX would have brought its super heavy-lift spacecraft from concept to orbit in significantly less time than NASA did with the SLS. SpaceX's ambition is to develop a full fleet of Starships and launch several spacecraft on a daily basis at a cost of roughly $1 million each launch. NASA sees significant promise in Starship, having selected it as the lunar lander for Artemis 3, which intends to land people near the moon's south pole in 2025 or 2026.

In comparison, the Artemis program structure, along with development timetables for a full SLS/Orion stack, places the NASA rocket on a two-year launch cycle. SLS is also not designed to be reused. Except for Orion, the entire vehicle is built on space shuttle technology. The core stage of the SLS has the same orange hue as the shuttle's main fuel tank, with the same diameter, however, the SLS tank is taller to allow larger quantities. SLS's two solid rocket boosters are likewise larger versions of shuttle equivalents. The rocket's primary engines are leftover RS-25 engines manufactured for and used on prior space shuttle flights.

A study issued in November 2021 by NASA's Office of Inspector General details how much development expenses for SLS climbed between its initial iteration and today, as well as how much each SLS launch will cost. According to the report, NASA will spend $93 billion on the Artemis program between 2012 and 2025, with each SLS/Orion launch costing around $4.1 billion. What happened to all that money? And, if Starship is more powerful, competent, less expensive, and launches more frequently, would SLS become outdated the instant Starship is operational?

The quick answer is yes. The long answer is yes, but with some crucial qualifiers. For one example, the development of SLS has involved many diverse partners from all throughout the United States and the world. A map on NASA's website shows collaborating contractors from every state in the United States, as well as over 20 European partners. A portion of the $93 billion Artemis program cost is given to these firms and their employees. Keeping those aerospace sector jobs alive has become an annual priority for many members of the United States Congress looking to improve their political standing with voters and district aerospace businesses. This contributes to the long-term viability of SLS and the Artemis program.

Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver described the symbiotic back-scratching that occurs between Congress and the aerospace sector as "a self-licking ice cream cone" in her latest book "Escaping Gravity" (Diversion Books, 2022), and it dates back to the space shuttle period and before. (Of course, this trend isn't limited to the space sector; funneling employment of various kinds to constituencies is a time-honored legislative tactic.)

So, what's the solution? SLS will not be phased out anytime soon. Even though the next Artemis mission is two years distant, the launch vehicles for Artemis missions 2 through 4 are currently being constructed (or more). But there is an argument to be made for the Artemis program as a whole. If the goal of NASA is to advance humanity's exploration of space, and assuming that directive is supported by the general public, it behooves society to pool its resources for that endeavor into a publicly controlled agency rather than relying entirely on a private company, or person, with the ability to shape that endeavor however they see fit, even if that results in an imperfect process riddled with inefficiencies.

The bonding that develops when so many people are invested in a program as huge as Artemis should not be overlooked. Hundreds of people turned out in March for the maiden SLS rollout to the launch pad. Hundreds of thousands of people have descended to the Space Coast for the Artemis 1 launch, and they aren't just there to witness a giant rocket.

People from many walks of life around the country have dedicated their careers to making SLS a reality. The Apollo lunar missions are a distant memory for some and an awe-inspiring historical marvel for the majority. Artemis is rekindling that sense of adventure in a way that has made people feel involved in the program's success. People have a strong attachment to Artemis. When NASA declares, "We are going," it isn't referring to a select group of exceptional astronauts. They're mentioning us. We are returning humans to deep space. We are returning humanity to the moon. We are. We're all in this together. And we're doing it as a group.

So, is the SLS and the Artemis program as a whole worth it? Maybe. If Artemis does what it has set out to do over the next ten years or so, then "maybe" may become a "definitely." When SpaceX's Starship launches as frequently as the firm expects, it's feasible that Artemis, like Apollo, will be canceled. But, perhaps, the creation of a brave and robust space industry will cement SLS's obsolescence, allowing a new age of human exploration to grow, rather than another 50 years of human spaceflight stasis in which humanity never explore beyond low Earth orbit.

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