According to a US Auditor, Each Launch of the Space Launch System Will Cost an “Unsustainable” $4.1 Billion
No one who has followed the development of NASA’s next huge rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), will be surprised to learn that it will be costly to operate. According to the NASA Inspector General, launch costs are as high as $4.1 billion each launch. That’s more than double the initial launch budget.
It’s also a ridiculous amount of money, costing $58,000 each kilogram launched into low Earth orbit assuming the predicted payload weights are accurate. Granted, SLS would potentially be the biggest launch system ever created when (or if) it leaves the ground. Therefore, it would have the unique ability to launch single payloads that had never been possible before. So, where did it all go so wrong?
SLS’s development started in 2011 after NASA retired the Space Shuttle. Lacking a system to put its own astronauts into orbit, NASA reached out to its commercial partners to help facilitate its design and construction. Budgeted initially with $7 billion, the project cost has ballooned to over $23 billion, with no end in sight. In fact, an additional delay right before the Congressional hearings pushed a critical test milestone back another two months to May. NASA administrators even preemptively cautioned that the updated date might be hard to hit.
When a large, public federal program like this encounters difficulties, finger-pointing is unavoidable. There was undoubtedly one at the House committee hearing, where NASA Inspector General Paul Martin pointed his finger directly at the committee’s members. He claimed that Congress had effectively tied NASA’s hands by compelling it to enter into “cost-plus” contracts with suppliers.
Any company working on the project would be reimbursed for their expenses and rewarded with a fee above and beyond those expenses under these contracts. The apparent problem with such contracts, as demonstrated by Lockheed Martin and Boeing as SLS contractors, is that they push contractors to invest greater resources to complete the same amount of work, hence increasing the fee they receive.
Boeing, the struggling aerospace giant that has faced a series of public relations disasters in recent years, came in for particular criticism from Martin. He lambasted their technical and project management skills and noted they were still paid a handsome bonus for their incompetence.
Politics played a role in this contract, as it did in all other contractual obligations imposed on a Federal body. The SLS system has given a lot of employment in certain critical districts for some powerful members of Congress, and if the project goes over budget to support those jobs, so be it. To anyone who isn’t directly benefiting from the government’s lavish spending on rocketry contracts, however, it appears like the government is spending billions of dollars on a rocket that will be obsolete before it even takes off.
That’s because the SLS has a big weakness that drives up the cost of a single launch into the billions of dollars: it’s disposable. The main stage is lost to the water after launch, never to be found. That’s in stark contrast to another well-known launch system, which is managed by a far more agile corporation that doesn’t have a cost-plus contract. Starship’s payload capacity is over 30% greater than SLS’s, and it’s reusable, potentially lowering the cost per kilogram launched to $10.
If SpaceX reaches its admittedly ambitious launch cost goal, there is no feasible way for SLS to compete with it. NASA seems to have already realized this, selecting the Falcon Heavy for the Europa Clipper mission (due to part to technical difficulties of the SLS), and even enlisting Starship to help land the first Artemis missions on the Moon.
In the end, as long as the government does not legally require those uses, resources in a capitalist society gravitate to the most effective and efficient use. In the case of the SLS, the government appears to have tasked NASA with developing a grossly over-budget launch system that may already be obsolete by the time it enters service. No matter how many congressional hearings are held on the subject, nothing will change.