Enlarge /. Artist concept of the Space Launch System.
To update: After this story was published, NASA released the following internal study statement Monday at 11 p.m. ET:
NASA is conducting an internal study of the timing and sequence of lunar missions with available resources and under the guidance that SLS and Orion will provide transportation of the crew to the gateway. The backbone for NASA's Moon-Mars plans are the Rocket Space Launch System, the Orion spacecraft, ground systems at the Kennedy Space Center, gateway in lunar orbit, and the human landing system. We are also currently reviewing various elements of our programs to find ways to improve efficiency and reduce costs. This exercise continues. This includes discussions with our industrial partners. Budget forecasting and internal agency reviews are common practice as they help us with long-term planning. The agency assumes that it will be able to take full advantage of the powerful SLS functions. These efforts will improve the current construct associated with executing the development, production, and operations of NASA's Artemis missions.
The original story appears below.
Original story: NASA is conducting an in-house affordability review of the rocket Space Launch System, two sources told Ars Technica.
Given the oversized cost of the program, the NASA transition team appointed by President Joe Biden initiated the study. The analysis is led by Paul McConnaughey, a former deputy director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, and its chief engineer.
The SLS missile program has been administered by Marshall for more than a decade. Critics have derided it as a "job program" designed to keep employees in key centers like Marshall, Alabama, as well as with prime contractors like Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Aerojet Rocketdyne. This criticism was compounded by frequent delays in the schedule – the SLS was originally scheduled to launch in 2016 and the rocket will now launch in 2022 at the earliest – and cost overruns.
Right now, cost appears to be the driving factor behind White House concerns. With a maximum cadence of one take-off per year, the SLS missile is expected to cost more than $ 2 billion per flight. This is on top of the $ 20 billion NASA has already spent developing the vehicle and its ground systems. Some of the incoming officials don't believe the Artemis Moon program is sustainable with such startup costs.
McConnaughey is leading the study for Kathy Lueders, NASA's head of human spaceflight. Even before the study began, McConnaughey had urged that the SLS program be cheaper. One goal of this analysis is to find ways in which NASA's large rocket can effectively compete with privately developed rockets under the agency's Artemis Moon program.
While SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket doesn't have as much lift capacity as the SLS rocket, the advantage of it is that it's already in use and costs about a tenth as much per flight. Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance are also developing heavy-lift missiles designed to bring components of a human landing system into orbit.
Perhaps most importantly, SpaceX is continuing a flight test campaign of its Starship Launch System, which may have its first orbital flight in the next 12 months. This is a launcher that could potentially lift the SLS missile, be reusable, and cost a fraction of the price. If SpaceX succeeds in getting Starship into orbit, there will be little technical justification for continued government subsidization of the less powerful SLS booster, which is expendable and costs much, much more.
Proponents of the SLS missile are not blind to this. Some believe that SpaceX will fail with its Starship program, and in fact myriad technical challenges remain. Others believe NASA could find ways to make the SLS rocket more competitive, and that is a point of this study.
Another reason for the new analysis, however, is to assess whether NASA even needs the SLS rocket as part of the Artemis program. Companies are already planning to deliver the lunar lander to the moon using private rockets. The main task of the SLS rocket is to bring Orion and its crew to the moon. Orion launch can also be done using private rockets, or the crew can simply launch using SpaceX's spaceship, eliminating the need for Orion itself.
Although the Biden administration has pledged to continue the Artemis program launched under President Donald Trump, the space agency has other priorities, particularly stepping up geoscientific activities to better understand climate change. If the Bureau of Administration and Housekeeping no longer has to spend $ 3 billion annually on "developing" the SLS missile and its ground systems, the White House will at least look into the possibility.
A first step may be to slow down or stop work on upgrading the SLS missile. After NASA completes the first iteration of the Space Launch System rocket, there are plans to upgrade it to "Block 1B", the main part of which is an updated second stage. This hardware is called the Exploration Upper Stage. In the fiscal year 2021 budget bill, Congress allocated $ 400 million to help develop this phase.
However, some senior NASA officials would like to at least interrupt work on this upper tier. It is premature for them to work on an improved rocket while the first version of the SLS rocket is not yet proven, especially when Biden space officials discover that the SLS rocket will play only a limited role in future exploration plans. According to a source, the Biden White House may only try a few times to fly SLS, cease work on the Exploration Upper Stage, and plan for Artemis' future using commercial launch vehicles.
All of this remains flowing, however, and the US Congress will have a huge say in the future of NASA's space exploration programs.