Is the SLS rocket really worth the “cost”?

The massive SLS rocket, NASA’s new heavy launch vehicle, will make its maiden flight in a few days (hopefully) as part of the Artemis 1 mission. Other vehicles are also in preparation in the United States. However, the already salty bill continues to weigh, while a more interesting and less expensive interplanetary spacecraft is emerging.

The SLS was due to take off on Monday, August 29, to reach the Moon as part of the first mission of the Artemis program. Controllers eventually canceled the launch due to a major technical issue with the RS_25 #3 engine. A second launch opportunity will open this Friday, September 2nd, but the weather forecast already looks complicated.

These new hiccups are just the latest. And the SLS has been in the papers for a long time.

NASA did indeed begin developing its launcher in 2011 after the cancellation of its Constellation lunar program. At the time, the rocket’s development was budgeted at ten billion dollars, with a maiden voyage expected in late 2016. However, development costs, budget issues, design changes, and other political obstacles delayed the rocket’s first launch. . , 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 and finally 2022.

Meanwhile, the world of space continued to evolve and other players stood out. Examples include the emergence of commercial cargo and commercial crew missions to the ISS, the introduction of reusable rockets by SpaceX, and an exponential accumulation of new private space companies.

We also think of the SpaceX spacecraft.

Credits: NASA

huge potential

Six years ago, Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, actually unveiled the first sketches of his future deep-space transport system: a massive, fully reusable rocket-spacecraft combo.

So far, only a handful of prototypes have taken off, none of which have performed orbital test flights. However, a first orbital flight is actually planned before the end of this year. If successful, SpaceX will have taken its vehicle from the drawing board to space in much less time than it took NASA to do the same with the SLS.

Eventually, SpaceX’s goal will be to build an entire fleet of starships. Each of them can be released for less than a million dollars each.

NASA sees considerable potential in the starship. It is for this reason that the agency is eyeing SpaceX to land its future astronauts on the Moon as part of the Artemis 3 mission. This first lunar landing since the end of the Apollo era will take place. in 2025 or 2026.

On paper, the starship will be able to transport astronauts from Earth to the Moon and then bring them back. However, NASA intends to rely, despite everything, on its SLS rocket and its Orion capsule for its future lunar missions. Specifically, an SLS rocket will launch a capsule towards the Moon. Once in orbit, astronauts will integrate the starship to land on the Moon. The spacecraft will then lift off to bring them back to the capsule, so the astronauts will return to Earth.

super heavy spaceship spacex sls
A starship mounted on its launcher. Credits: Trevor Mahlman

The political factor

Given the potential of this spacecraft, one might wonder why NASA doesn’t want to ditch its massive SLS rocket in favor of the starship alone. A report by NASA’s Office of Inspector General published in November 2021 actually revealed the cost of each SLS launch. According to the report, NASA will end up spending a total of $93 billion for the Artemis program between 2012 and 2025, and each SLS/Orion launch will cost approximately $4.1 billion.

In addition, schedules for building a complete SLS/Orion stack put the NASA rocket at a launch rate of approximately once every two years.

However, it is worth remembering that the development of the SLS will have engaged (and will continue to engage) many different partners in the United States and around the world. Part of the $93 billion Artemis program is therefore distributed to these companies and their thousands of employees. But keeping those jobs in the aerospace industry has become an annual priority for many members of the US Congress in hopes of bolstering their political standing with voters.

This is primarily what allows SLS and the Artemis program to stay in the game. Let it be said, the SLS is not going away anytime soon. Also, launchers for Artemis missions 2 to 4 are already being assembled.

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