Even NASA admits that the SLS is unsustainable

If you have been following the sad saga of the Space Launch System–the rocket that NASA is depending on to get America back to the moon–you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the General Accounting Office is a critic of the rocket.


Everybody sane is a critic of the rocket.

But it was a bit of a surprise to see that even NASA, which has poured about $50 billion into a rocket (and space capsule) that costs more than $4 billion dollars a launch, has admitted that it cannot sustain the program unless its budget skyrockets to a level that seems unlikely. So far SLS has launched once. We got some extremely nice pictures out of it. (That cost estimate is higher than NASA’s because it includes more than the hardware itself).


The SLS is the core piece of hardware that NASA plans to use to jump-start our return to the moon more than 50 years after our first landing there. It is also the most ridiculous program in American history.

It’s impossible to overstate how insanely expensive this program is, and I say this as a space enthusiast. With the exception of the Orion capsule, the rocket was supposed to use recycled equipment from the Space Shuttle, modified for its current purpose. The rocket engines are literally the same as those used on the Space Shuttle, repurposed to be single-use and disposable. The solid rocket boosters are extended versions of those used for the shuttle.

Ostensibly this was supposed to reduce costs, although the real purpose of doing so was to satisfy Senator Richard Shelby who as much as anybody designed the rocket to ensure the flow of billions into his state. In NASA’s defense–and they deserve little defense given how badly they have mismanaged an already stupidly conceived project–they likely would have chosen a different path to the moon if not bullied by Congress.


The SLS is a perfect example of how ridiculous the old space-industrial complex has become. As we saw with Boeing’s ill-fated attempt to build a manned capsule to bring astronauts to the ISS, SpaceX runs circles around its competitors without breaking a sweat. The old way of doing things doesn’t work for anybody except the politicians and massive corporations.

NASA has downplayed the actual costs of the program and done everything it can to hide the inefficiencies–even when it has accepted recommendations from the GAO it simply ignores them in practice. SLS appears to be little more than an excuse to spend money, with the ancillary benefit that men may someday go back to the moon.

While NASA certainly deserves credit for talking 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 is not at all clear that they will be able to control costs. For example, NASA recently said that it is working with the primary contractor of the SLS rocket’s main engines, Aerojet, to reduce the cost of each engine by 30 percent, down to $70.5 million by the end of this decade.

However, NASA’s inspector general, Paul Martin, said this claim was dubious. According to Martin, when calculating the projected cost savings of the new RS-25 engines, NASA and Aerojet only included material, engineering support, and touch labor, while project management and overhead costs are excluded.

And even at $70.5 million, these engines are very, very far from being affordable compared to the existing US commercial market for powerful rocket engines. Blue Origin manufactures an engine of comparable power and size, the BE-4, for less than $20 million. And SpaceX is seeking to push the similarly powerful Raptor rocket engine costs even lower, to less than $1 million per engine.


Those of us who are nostalgic for the days of Apollo should admit that its cost was as astronomical as its goal–far more than the Artemis program in inflation-adjusted dollars.

But it was also a defense program (beating the Soviets to the moon was as much about deterrence and national prestige as actually getting there) and had a hard timeline. SLS has blown through every deadline imaginable and is supposed to kickstart the space economy–and experience shows that there are far cheaper ways than NASA is pursuing.

The SLS is yet another example of late-stage empire behavior–in an earlier effort we pursued stretch goals with total focus. Now we have modest goals which are simply excuses to spread the dough around. Presidents routinely make grand promises in a vain attempt to duplicate Kennedy’s legacy while forgetting about their promises within 5 minutes. The “goal” is nothing more than an excuse to pad NASA’s budget.

We have no idea if Elon Musk can make his Starship accomplish his own stated goals, but we do know that he is spending far less in the pursuit of doing far more–and paying for it himself. He is a character out of Heinlein, and NASA is run by the bureaucrats nastily portrayed by Ayn Rand.

One thing about which I am confident is that were there a space race between Elon Musk and NASA to land men on Mars, it would be far safer to put my money on Musk. Not because he is a magician, but because he is focused on achieving the goal at an affordable cost and a fast pace.


And if the bureaucrats who are slowing the pace of progress would just get out of the way he would achieve the goal even faster.


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