SLS Unaffordable – Ars Technica

Zoom in / A Space Launch System rocket is seen heading toward the launch pad, LC-39B, in Florida.

Trevor Mahlman

In a new report, the Government Accountability Office, the federal department tasked with analyzing how well US taxpayers’ money is spent, says NASA lacks transparency about the true costs of its Space Launch System rocket program.

The new report, published Thursday, examines the billions of dollars NASA spent developing the massive rocket, which had its first successful launch in late 2022 with the Artemis I mission. Surprisingly, as part of the reporting process, NASA officials acknowledged that the rocket It was too expensive to support lunar exploration efforts as part of the Artemis programme.

“Senior NASA officials have told the Government Accountability Office that, at current cost levels, the SLS program is unaffordable,” the new report states.

Bad tools for understanding real costs

The GAO has expressed serious concerns about NASA’s decision not to measure production costs for SLS rocket components, including core stages and rocket engines needed for future launches. Instead, NASA told the report’s authors that it plans to “monitor the production costs and affordability of the SLS program by estimating the cost of production and operations for five years.”

However, the report notes that these are “poor tools” for determining the base cost of the SLS rocket program and will make it difficult for taxpayers to measure costs and the performance of NASA and its contractors over time. Furthermore, the report notes that NASA has not regularly updated its estimates of the cost of producing the rocket for five years. The report also notes concerns about future hardware development costs for NASA’s large rocket program, including the Exploration Upper Stage.

Another problem with NASA’s cost estimates is that they don’t seem to take into account delays in the Artemis missions. The Artemis 2 mission, a manned flight around the Moon, will likely launch no later than 2025. The Artemis 3 crew landing will likely be delayed to at least 2026, if not more, with additional delays to come. At least one NASA official appears to have told the GAO that these delays would not have any cost implications, which seems highly unlikely.

“Some NASA officials have told us that changes to the dates of the Artemis mission should not affect cost estimates for the SLS program,” the report reads. Other officials noted that program cost estimates are expected to rise to take into account the delay in the Artemis IV mission, which has shifted from 2026 to 2028.

How to reduce unsustainable costs

NASA officials interviewed by the GAO admitted they were concerned about the costs of the SLS rocket.

“NASA recognizes the need to improve the affordability of the SLS program and is taking steps to do so,” the report states. “Senior agency officials have told us that at current cost levels, the SLS program is not sustainable and is beyond what NASA officials believe will be available for Artemis missions.”

Officials from the space agency said they have a four-step plan to reduce the costs of the SLS rocket program over time:

  • Stable flight schedule
  • Learning curve efficiencies
  • Encouraging innovation
  • Adjust acquisition strategies to reduce cost risks

Aside from the fact that some of these goals sound suspiciously like corporate rhetoric, the report makes it clear that these goals are ambitious at the moment. “However, NASA has not yet defined specific program-level cost-saving goals that it hopes to achieve,” the authors write. “NASA has made some progress toward implementing these strategies, but it is too early to fully assess their impact on cost.”

Can NASA really control costs?

While NASA certainly deserves credit for speaking out about the excessive cost of the SLS rocket—a fact that has been pointed out by critics for more than a decade but largely ignored by NASA officials and congressional leaders—it’s not at all clear that they will. able to control costs. For example, NASA recently said it is working with the prime contractor for the SLS rocket’s main engines, Aerojet, to cut the cost per engine by 30 percent, to $70.5 million by the end of this decade.

However, NASA Inspector General Paul Martin said that claim is questionable. According to Martin, when calculating the expected cost savings for the new RS-25 engines, NASA and Aerojet included only materials, engineering support, and tactile labor, while excluding project management and overhead costs.

Even at $70.5 million, these engines are far from affordable compared to the current US commercial market for powerful rocket engines. Blue Origin manufactures an engine of equal power and size, the BE-4, for less than $20 million. SpaceX is seeking to reduce costs of a similarly powerful Raptor rocket engine to less than $1 million per engine.

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