For the second time in a week, NASA scrubbed the launch of the Space Launch System designed to return Americans to the moon. First conceived in 2010, and initially scheduled to have its first test flight in 2017, the rocket is now scheduled to take off no earlier than late September, and possibly much later. NASA, for its part, is hoping Americans will overlook a decade of expensive failure and pray for the best.
They shouldn’t. The SLS’s path to the launch pad should never have happened. Conceived as a means to maintain US aerospace employment, and based in part on older rocket designs and parts, the project has siphoned funds and energy.
Some proponents argue that the SLS launch marks the beginning of a “renaissance” for the US space program. It’s the first mission of NASA’s Artemis program, designed to land Americans on the moon mid-decade and eventually lead to a permanent lunar base. All of that will require a working and successful SLS, and this mission - Artemis I - would stress test its capabilities and send Orion, a vehicle that will eventually hold astronauts, on a trip around the moon. It sounds groundbreaking, but the reality is that private-sector space companies have been pushing boundaries for more than a decade while the SLS lingered through delays and blown budgets.
The last humans to visit the moon’s surface arrived via the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Congress canceled an additional three missions due to cost, safety and waning public and policy-maker interest. Instead, NASA pursued the space shuttle, the International Space Station and a rich robotic exploration program of the Earth and beyond.
Then, in the 2000s the George W. Bush administration chose to invest in Constellation, a hugely expensive program designed to lead to a permanent human presence on the moon. But costs quickly spiraled out of control, and NASA and its congressional patrons seemed incapable and uninterested in controlling them.
For example, as a cost-saving measure, Constellation’s crew launch rocket - the Ares I - would draw heavily from existing, proven Space Shuttle systems and components, including the solid rocket boosters. But the cost-saving never emerged. In 2009, NASA estimated it would cost $24.5 billion to develop Ares I. Meanwhile, in California, a scrappy startup called SpaceX was completing development of its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft. NASA invested $396 million in those new craft, both of which now fly missions for the space agency.
In 2010, President Barack Obama canceled the Constellation lunar program (including the Ares I), arguing “we’ve been there before.” The plan was to visit an asteroid, then proceed to Mars. Congress wasn’t on board with canceling the jobs that the Constellation supported. So it added a provision to NASA’s 2010 authorization requiring the agency to “extend and modify” existing contracts for Constellation and the space shuttle into contracts to build the SLS and the Orion crew vehicle that’s riding atop it today. The goawas to maintain a workforce totaling in the thousands along with their skills and capabilities.
But early on, NASA made it clear that the SLS would only fly every two to four years, calling into question whether engineers could really be kept sharp and the missions safe with such a low frequency of launch. In the 2000s, the space Shuttle was launching three times per year (and as many as seven times in the 1990s). By contrast, the SLS - if it’s successful on its first mission - won’t fly again until 2024, when it launches Artemis II. SpaceX is sending up craft almost weekly in 2022; RocketLab USA Inc. has already launched six times this year. Who’s really keeping US aerospace skills sharp while advancing aerospace engineering?
Employees weren’t the SLS’s only links to NASA’s past. Rather than develop a new engine for the massive new rocket, SLS’s engineers adopted and adapted the RS-25 engine that powered the space shuttle. The first four launches use modified, surplus shuttle engines that NASA had placed in storage.
Future launches will use new RS-25s manufactured by Rocket Aerojet Rocketdyne at of cost of roughly $3.5 billion for 24 single-use engines, or some $145 million per engine at a time when reusable rockets and engines are the trend across the private space sector. The promised cost savings have yet to appear: NASA’s own auditors recently estimated that a single launch of the rocket will cost $4.1 billion - eight times greater than what the agency estimated in 2013.
Meanwhile, overall costs are tipping $23 billion. That’s a far cry from what NASA promised Congress, and Congress promised the American people, when the program was conceived. “If we can’t do a rocket for $11.5 billion, we ought to close up shop,” said Senator Bill Nelson of Florida in 2010, when he was a major sponsor of the program. These days, he serves as NASA’s administrator.
It’s possible to do better. For example, the fully reusable engines that power SpaceX’s Falcon 9 cost around $1 million. In 2019, SpaceX Chairman and CEO Elon Musk tweeted that he hopes that the company’s Raptor engine, which will power its in-development Starship rocket, will eventually run $250,000. Even if that’s wildly optimistic (as Musk tends to be), it’s worth noting that the RS-25’s redevelopers have never promised cost reductions that approach those discounts, nor has Congress provided incentives for them to do it.
In fact, the successes of the private space industry appear to have caused Congress to dig in its heels on the SLS. Every year between 2012 and 2022, it appropriated more money for SLS than Nasa requested, in spite of the blown deadlines and budgets.
Congress appears to have learned nothing from the backward-looking failure that the SLS represents, and will continue to throw money at it for years to come. This week’s scrubbed launches are the latest reminders of that ongoing, sorry legacy.