Chris Kraft: SLS too Expensive to Build, Operate

In the video above, NASA Deputy Associate Administrator Dan Dumbacher lays out the nominal launch schedule for the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS). There will be an unmanned test in 2017, followed by a test with a crew aboard four years later. SLS will then be launched every other year (2023, 2025, etc.). Dumbacher says that NASA is examining whether the system could be launched once a year.

In a separate interview with the Houston Chronicle, former NASA manned space flight director Chris Kraft says that SLS will never become a reliable human-rated booster even if the space agency can manage one launch per year.

Kraft also says that the costs of building and operating SLS, along with the low flight rate, will prevent NASA from actually doing anything in deep space.

“The problem with the SLS is that it’s so big that makes it very expensive. It’s very expensive to design, it’s very expensive to develop. When they actually begin to develop it, the budget is going to go haywire. They’re going to have all kinds of technical and development issues crop up, which will drive the development costs up. Then there are the operating costs of that beast, which will eat NASA alive if they get there. They’re not going to be able to fly it more than once a year, if that, because they don’t have the budget to do it. So what you’ve got is a beast of a rocket, that would give you all of this capability, which you can’t build because you don’t have the money to build it in the first place, and you can’t operate it if you had it.

Kraft suggests using existing, proven boosters such as the Atlas V, Delta IV and Ariane 5 to begin a deep-space exploration earlier.

  • Andy

    As I recall, Kraft sided with Gene Cernan and Neil Armstrong when it came to casting stones towards SpaceX. So while it seems that he’s against a pork project white elephant, he’s all for the status quo of cost-plus, expendable rockets. I would have left Ariane 5 and the Russian launchers out of the conversation. Calling the Russian launchers “very reliable” is debatable and Elon Musk has said the Ariane 5 has no chance of competing with Falcon or Falcon Heavy.

  • Douglas Messier

    Agree on most of your points.

    I think he’s right about the larger issues — SLS’s cost eating massive amounts of NASA’s budget, not having money to actually do much in deep space, and the concerns about how reliable the boosters will be with such a low flight rate. There’s also the possibility of the budget going haywire before anything ever flies.

    To the extent I agree with Kraft on these larger points, the specifics of a deep space exploration plan that doesn’t rely on SLS are negotiable. Falcon Heavy hasn’t flown yet, and Falcon 9 has yet to fly in its upgraded configuration. It will be quite some time before either of them get to a high level of reliability. That’s not a reflection on the quality of SpaceX’s work, simply a comment on the number of flights required to reach that level of reliability.

    I don’t mind paying ULA extra given the reliability of their launchers. Failure is very expensive — particularly in human spaceflight.

  • DaIllogicalVulkan

    Why is SLS so expensive, besides being massive, its all really technology that dates 10-20 or evern 30 years, shouldn’t this be easy by now, and since its mostly shuttle legacy tech, shouldn’t engineers just use the external tank as a base and just copy-paste proven engines on to the thing, and Orion should just be an Apollo capsule with digital displays and computer software?
    *I know its way oversimplistic but yall get the point

  • DaIllogicalVulkan

    According to NASAs project history*, will come late and over-budget, but it will eventually be done (so as with moon base or whatever), but what are the probabilities that A. it will be done on time, on budget, and launch regularly B. Draw away funding from COTS/CCDEV, or C. Be scrapped

  • Andy

    Point taken. A perhaps pedantic fact, but the first RL10 flew in 1962. So when then the Delta Cryogenic Second Stage lights in 2017, that technology will be 55 years old!

    I’m disappointed SLS-1/EM-1 is flying unmanned. We know how the SSMEs work. We know how the Delta Cryogenic Second Stage works. We know how SRBs work. We’ll know how Orion works after EFT-1.

    I don’t know the mission profile, but I assume it’s going into a parking orbit before the translunar injection burn. Perform a checkout in LEO, if stuff isn’t nominal, abort.

    We flew STS-1 with people onboard, what makes SLS-1/EM-1 different?

  • Hug Doug

    the SLS is not a Shuttle-direct derivative. basically the only thing that the SLS re-uses from the Shuttle program is the redesigned SSME engines and solid booster rockets, neither of which would be recovered. most of the rest of the tankage is a clean-sheet design utilizing new materials and construction processes.

    simply because we’ve been doing things for decades doesn’t make it easy. building large rockets is extremely difficult. consider that there are still airplane crashes and we’ve been flying them for over 100 years.

  • Brainard

    Dude, the SLS doesn’t use redesigned shuttle engines, period. It uses shuttle engines. Period. Get your facts straight. Thanks.

  • Tonya

    Another bickering post, which will probably attract another equally blunt one in response.

    For the benefit of everyone else, could both of you stop replying to each others posts. Learn how to express your point of view other than attacking other peoples.

  • Brainard

    Ok, Tonya, let’s talk about single SSME powered 5.5 meter reusable core stages with reusable hydrocarbon boosters, lol.

    I vaguely remember proposing such a vehicle for COTS. Doug on the other hand, who appears to some anime enthusiast, consistently supports an expendable multi-engined 8+ meter SRB powered monstrosity with unlimited budgets but with no actual flights, totally dependent upon either restarting engine production or designing and qualifying an entirely new engine.

    So who ya gonna call when shiite hits the fan, Tonya?

    Quickly now, tens of thousands of jobs are at stake.

  • mattmcc80

    I imagine a much more acute sense of risk aversion than NASA had in the 70s is a factor, if not the majority factor. SLS’s chances of becoming an operational platform are shaky enough without them losing a crew to the first test flight.

  • Eric Thiel

    If an SLS flight would cost the same as a shuttle mission, couldn’t they have multiple flights a year? about average the shuttle had 5 to 6 missions a year.

  • Tonya

    Well that was all over the place. You sound like an angry drunk.

    I’ll be brief, you obviously want to be banned as some badge of honor, and I can’t see any reason why the site owner shouldn’t indulge your wish.

    Please feel free to have the last word, I won’t speak with you again.

  • mfck

    If they had 6 of them built, you mean? By like 2050?

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    The real cost of shuttle flights, including development, manufacture, maintenance and operations was $1.46Billion – the shuttle project total cost was $196Billion. The cost of SLS flights (that’s just the flights not the mission cost) will be about $5Billion at a rate of 1 per year and over $14billion at once every 4 years.
    The cost of generating and maintaining all those Boeing and Lockheed profits/jobs is considerable.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    The “cost” of a manned launch failure, in human terms, should be weighed not only as a function of the track record of the launcher, but also of the launch escape system. Since there are currently no operating, proven and licensed launch escape systems (other than Soyuz) available to NASA, then there are no available launch systems worthy of any consideration either. So stating Delta/Atlas launchers as acceptable for “paying ULA extra given the reliability of their launchers” make no practical sense. By the time there are any, let alone more than one, “licensed by NASA”, manned launch systems available, then F9-R and FH”-R” will have had many more flight opportunities by which we may make a reasonable judgement of their reliability. Also, by that time DragonRider will be operational and we will be able to put the quality of the Orion design (and its cost) into a comparative context.

    If on the other hand you are suggesting SLS should be immediately cancelled (a good idea in almost any scenario) and EELVs used to build deep-space/long-duration mission vehicles for “launch” from LEO, then ULA still makes no sense. With SpaceX’s vastly lower prices, even some launch failures (not that we should necessarily expect them) and loss of cargo could be tolerated and still be cheaper than ULA. And the argument for manned missions and launcher reliability made above, still holds.
    Just in the next 6-12 months we are likely to be able to begin to assess whether or not F9 & FH are able to deliver the promise we all hope for; so again ULA are by no means a default (high cost, but cheaper than SLS) choice.

    If on the other, other hand, you are suggesting that SLS should never have been started and NASA should have used ULA/Arianne/Russia until something better came along, i.e. SpaceX, Blue Origin, etc, then I agree.

    With all the above said, I am not in principle opposed to the development of a wider body heavy lift launcher. Being able to lift Bigelow 2100 habs and the like would be a useful flexibility to possess. However, if the compromise we must accept to achieve such a system is to incur debilitating costs, including an inability to afford to use said HLV, then I see no point in pursuing such a course; and SLS is such a course.

  • Andy

    But they’re not calling it a test flight, they’re calling it an exploration mission! EM-1! (Sorry, Matt. Not yelling at you, just venting my frustration with SLS).

    Frustration aside, I think you’re exactly about creeping risk aversion.

  • Brainard

    Wooosh. People like you make the SLS – MPCV – Constellation.- Ares I/X fiasco perfectly understandable. With your level of intellectual sophistication, I fully expect these kinds of technical follies to continue in the US unabated.

  • Robert Gishubl

    A couple of points, SLS has not flown at all as a system and all rockets start out with a low number of flights. The only way to prove reliability is to have more flights ULA early flights were paid for and not all configurations of Atlas and Delta have had all that many flights.
    The fact that Falcon 9 has 5 from 5 mission success with 1 off nominal performance being recovered indicates sound basis for good reliability. The Falcon Heavy is 3 Falcon 9 cores with the only advanced feature being cross feed for the upper end of the performance envelope meaning Falcon 9 flights provide reasonable assurance on Falcon heavy performance.
    As Falcon flights are $100s million cheaper than ULA flights you can afford a 20% loss rate of Falcons and still be ahead so there is there is every reason to use Falcon 9 and Heavy to boost consumables or vehicles that are in series production. A great use would be to send multiple probes to possible asteroids for survey work. That way you demonstrate reliability and save money while if there is a failure you lose nothing irreplaceable. This allows reusability to be developed in stages and ends up dramatically reducing the cost of space travel and improving reliability as they can recover and examine used engines to work out where improvements are most needed. By the time Dragon rider is ready in 2014 or 2015 the Falcon 1.1 will have flown nearly a dozen times which should be enough to demonstrate reasonable reliability. Especially with proposed LAS testing at Max Q.

    This is what NASA should be doing, developing new technology that will improve the reliability and economics of flight, not spending billions on building a monster rocket with no mission and that has less capability than what has been done before (Saturn V).

  • Robert Gishubl

    It is a product or contracting strategy with NASA oversight and Assurance driving up costs and inefficient work practices aimed at maximizing profits on cost plus type contracts rather than fixed price lean design to maximize output with minimum cost.

  • Douglas Messier

    You kind of dismiss ULA by saying that not all configurations of the Delta IV and Atlas V have had that many flights. Yet, you then say that five flights of the Falcon 9 with one blown engine “indicates sound basis for good reliability.”

    That’s statistically untrue because you need more flights of a rocket to determine reliability. I know people who run those numbers, and that’s what they tell me.

    SpaceX is about to introduce a whole new version of the Falcon 9 with new engines, longer fuel tanks, payload shroud and a handful of other changes. So, how valid are the first five flights to establishing the reliability of the version they’re now starting to fly? Yes, they do count, but exactly how much?

    The 20 percent loss rate you mention is merely the cost of the booster. You’re not taking into account the cost and the payloads lost or what it will take to replace them. If it’s a bunch of cheap asteroid probes, no problem. If it’s anything more, then you’ve got a problem. NASA lost $700 million just from two botched Taurus launches, not including replacement costs.

  • Douglas Messier

    That’s a rather narrow focus on the escape system. You have to look more generally at the record of Atlas V and Delta IV doing what they are designed to do and getting payloads where they need to go. On that, both boosters are very reliable.

    Generally, I think ULA is underrated and under appreciated as a launch provider. Say what you will about their cost and monopoly status, but they are very, very good at what they do.

    I’ve been looking at their launch record and the record of the companies that formed ULA, and you find a very enviable record. They’ve had periodic problems like everyone else, but the last catastrophic launch failures they had were back in the 1990’s. A Delta II exploded in 16 years ago in 1997. The last Atlas rocket to fail completely was in 1993. Twenty years ago. They know what they’re doing.

  • Brainard

    Actually, no Doug, NASA needed launch vehicles of any kind, reliable or not, to deliver cargo to the ISS. NASA, ULA, Boeing and Lockheed, for whatever reasons, declined to consider their vehicles for this job, and so other competitors stepped in. Reliability has NOTHING to do with this. It’s toilet paper. Ice cream. T-shirts. Nobody cares but you.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Rest assured your point is not entirely lost on me. Obviously, the escape system is only a backup (albeit a necessary one) to a reliably safe (crewed) launcher.

    However, given the “medium” lift capability of deltaIV, atlasV and even Falcon Heavy, they only realistically represent an alternative approach to an HLV on the basis of in-orbit “construction” (rendezvous really) for deep space missions. That being the case FH would have to be horrendously unreliable to allow ULA vehicles to be cost competitive for what are essentially “cargo” launches to LEO. Again, quite obviously, the value and replacement cost of the payload also factors into that equation.

    Then, there is the consideration of crew transport to LEO for for mission departure, i.e. manned launches. Since it is unlikely that any sort of crewed mission is to be attempted within the next 2-3 years, then the reliability or not of F9 and FH should become fairly evident. At such time, either SpaceX will be a reliable choice and ULA will be all but dead in the water, on a purely cost basis, OR, SpaceX will not have achieved the hoped for level of reliability, in which case the legacy launch vehicles will be the only choice.

    I don’t think that ULA are necessarily underrated, though perhaps under appreciated is a deserved status. Looking at what SpaceX has achieved and the further advances they are attempting, one might ask why, with all their experience and expertise, ULA are making no attempt to develop cheaper and more reusable launch systems?. Is it because they believe that the pinnacle of rocketry technology has already been reached and no further advancements are possible?. Is it because they believe it is not possible to build a reliable launcher for under $300 million?, Or, is it because they have developed systems that work and are now milking NASA and the USAF for every last penny?. Either way, you are quite correct, they do seem to know what they are doing.

  • delphinus100

    What does ‘licensed’ mean, in this context?

  • delphinus100

    Some of what are being called ‘missions’ here, are simply developmental flights. To me, ‘missions’ implies actually doing the things, whatever they are, that you built the system for…

  • Douglas Messier

    Yes, of course, NASA isn’t going to be too upset if a Dragon or Cygnus fails. Nor would they be really surprised. In fact, it almost happened on the last Dragon flight. You’re dealing with new rockets and spacecraft, so you expect something to go wrong. And, as you say, it’s just cargo. And there are other backup systems in place for that (ATV, HTV, Progress).

    What I was referring to the deep space human missions, where reliability matters quite a bit more and where backups are not readily available.

  • Robert Gishubl

    I may have worded my argument poorly. I did not intend to discount ULA in total and I was not suggesting irriplacable cargos, but consumables and series built probes and the like. For irriplacable objects you need added assurance of reliability so until Falcon have sufficient flights then those go to ULA. But unless you fly Falcon with less vital cargos you will never get that reliability and if all flights go to ULA you end up spending so much on launch costs you get very little to launch.
    The other problem is because the launch cost is so high you do not want to waste the launch cost so you build multi redundant highly expensive craft which means you do not want to launch on an new rocket. It is a self reinforcing loop. The only way to break out is to make a decision to do more individually less capable missions at a lower cost.
    So for consumables and series produced craft a 20% loss would still probably be cheaper than launching only using ULA.
    However SpaceX has a long list of comercial customers (and e very few non COTS government launches) so they will get there in the end. SpaceX at least are working on making space flight more affordable so I am all for there efforts and only wish they had a bit more support so they could progress faster.

  • DaIllogicalVulkan

    The thing about the ULA vs. SpaceX argument, is that the way the industry is set up makes it more complicated than it might seem.
    For the majority of people & businesses, want “more bang for their buck” for say, thus translating into either savings, assets, or profits. However in this industry, customers (public or private) do not really care about things like reuseablitiy and cost effectiveness, but rather reliability and punctuality. Now this might sound counter-intuitive but, their priority list is so because,
    a. the obvious expenses voided if the delivery system fails (eg. explosion or failed trajectory) and
    b. the liability to the company of holding that high-capital payload on stand-by, and,
    c. the profits generated by the payload builder/operator from the end-customer/user out-weigh the launch costs. (keep in mind that average lifetime of satellite is 15 years)

    So form a “commercial” standpoint there is no real reason for the company to spend resources on a launch service to where there is no market. This applies to both “commercial” and public customers, the only difference is that the end-user revenue comes directly from the government.
    Another thing about the ULA vs. SpaceX argument is that SpaceX builds “everything” in-house witch allows it to manipulate different aspects of production to modify the launch system more effectively than say a company like Orbital witch their launch systems are almost entirely built from “pre-fabricated” parts. The reason why non-SpaceX/Blue Origin companies are setup totally different? because they are purposely built to serve different markets. SpaceX/Blue Origin could serve ULA/Oribtal customers (manned or unmanned) however,not the reverse. SpaceX/Blue Origin could benefit form a (rather small but growing) market of private institutions that require low cost delivery (eg. SpaceAdventures, Bigelow, DSI, Planetary Resources).
    That’s why the the ULA vs. SpaceX argument is not as black and white as it might seem, thus whenever there is a direct comparison between the two it makes it subjective like comparing apples to oranges.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    OK, for launching from US soil it might be more accurate to say “licensed by the FAA”. What I meant was something more like “endorsed by NASA”. In general I was referring to crew transportations systems that are or might soon (i.e. next 2-3 years) be available that NASA might reasonably be expected to consider for use for NASA crews. Although, I was more specifically thinking of those systems that are the outcome of the commercial crew program (CCi Cap or CCt CAP or CC? Cap).

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Thankyou for highlighting that important point and in the manner that you have presented it, I do not disagree. I will admit, the specific requirements of high value or time sensitive payload customers is not always at the forefront of my thinking. Effectively, the point you are making is that for, predominently, commercial satellite operators, time is money, and so reliability and thus punctuality, brings rewards in excess of the present unavoidable costs. However, in presenting such an argument there is the implicit assumption that SpaceX will be unable to produce a reliable launcher, and if this turns out to be true then I will probable conceed the argument anyway.

    According to wikipedia, the Delta IV, in various configurations, has had 23 successful flights and 1 partial failure, Atlas V, 38 success, 1 partial failure. If SpaceX stick to their present launch manifest, then by the end of 2014 they will have launched about 25 Falcon 9 cores, 20 of which will Merlin 1D. So when precisely will Spacex change from being apples to being oranges. Yes, Delta II and other pre-ULA vehicles also had good reliability, hinting that it is ULA expertise and operating procedures as much, if not more than the vehicle design, that provides that reliability. But if Spacex can even approach that level of reliability how much will that start to skew the cost equation, for example:

    ULA launch $300m, satellite $100m = $400m
    F9 launch $60m, satellite $100 = $160m – so you can build two or even three satellites as backups to mitigate failure risks and still reach a lower overall cost. And if there are no failures you could launch the “backup” to different orbits and different markets. If an F9 launch were $60 million and an equivalent ULA launch were $65-80million, we would not be having this discussion. What we are taking about is a launch cost differential of $200-300million or more. Choosing SpaceX could save you a Billion dollars over 3 or 4 launches.

    Obviously, if you have a $2billion payload then your launch cost perspective is different than if you have a $50million payload. But this perspective can surely only endure for another 2-3years.

    Also, the original argument was in the context of an a medium lift alternative to SLS. How about an asteroid or lunar mission consisting of an Earth departure propulsion module, an Earth return propulsion module, a BA330 or ISS type module as a hab, a lander/ascent vehicle, and a LEO ferry capsule. Non of these exceeds 45tonnes, so that means 4x$77million Falcon Heavy launches and one F9 launch for the crew capsule at $57million. Thats $365 million fixed price launch costs, or you could choose to have a single ULA launch. At these sort of comparative costs you could even double-up on the Earth departure stage and include an Earth return orbit insertion stage, making a substantial amount of the hardware reusable and cutting costs even further. Now this scenario means several in-orbit automated docking/rendezvous procedures, but how exactly is this sort of scenario more complex or more risky than a single HLV launch. With this sort of order of magnitude savings in launch costs I am at a loss to see how anyone seriously interested in manned deep space missions could even begin to view ULAs prices as justifiable (and that’s before we even begin to entertain how reusable F9 cores might reduce those prices).

    Again, I repeat, all this speculative argument is predicated on SpaceX continuing to have an acceptable launch success rate. And given this assumption of demonstrated reliability, who by the end of 2015 would prefer to use a no engine out capability Atlas 5 ($300million) versus, a designed to be safer F9-R ($60million or less).

  • Hug Doug

    NASA’s already tried the “faster better cheaper” approach, and while there were some really great successes (such as Pathfinder), overall the program only had a 62% success rate (of 16 missions run under FBC, 6 failed), with 4 of 5 missions failing rather spectacularly in 1999, including the famous imperial / metric mixup which led to the failure of the Mars Climate Orbiter.

    NASA currently divides missions by cost, the least expensive being Discovery class, which caps mission costs at $425 million and development to launch time of less than 3 years. it’s a direct descendant of the FBC approach.

  • Travis

    Not discounting arguments either way, but where did you get the pricing for each vehicle. I quick did a wiki search (yes, not exactly the most reliable source, but a start) and it stated that an Atlas 541 was about $232 million, which is almost the largest version of an Atlas vehicle, so I would guess that an Atlas range is more like $150-250 million depending on configuration. Wiki also states for a DIV that it is in the range of $140-170 million for that vehicle – once again wiki pricing so take with a grain of salt. As for SpaceX, I have seen numbers that are more in the range of half or less of what has been stated by ULA for pricing. The only difference between these two comparisons are ULA being based on actual proven flights and SpaceX on speculative future pricing (e.g. still in design, no flight experience vehicles – not exactly a bellwether for firm pricing baselines) . While we all hope SpaceX does what it says it can do (Elon is a master with the press and making big bold statements), it still remains to be seen if the pricing and launch rate can actually hit the mark. From a general business perspective, new companies always make bold statements and tout their products as that is what sells them and gets investors all excited, but it is the actual results which speak for themselves. As of September 2013, ULA has the results and SpaceX is not quite there. To be perfectly honest, I would be very surprised if SpaceX doesn’t increase costs and pricing of their launch vehicles as that is the nature of the space beast….but the real point will be how much it increases as it will continues to creep towards ULA price, but likely still remain under….the question will be how much under.

    One other small item that I noticed, if you are going to compare numbers of cores launched for each vehicle, make sure to check the DIV heavy as that counts for 3 cores and there have been 7 launches of that vehicle alone. In terms of end of year 2014 the numbers might look like about 44 cores for the DIV, 45 cores for Atlas V, and 20 cores for Falcon….if all of these launch schedules hold up anyway.

  • DaIllogicalVulkan

    Thank you for the insight, and yes it is true that SpaceX’s figures are mostly speculative and if they are successful then they will be able to launch payloads with competitive prices, now “Travis” made mention that SpaceX prices at its start might reflect those of ULA, but regardless of how quantitative the delivery savings are to their main customer NASA, they are unable take benefit of purely using private launch providers (both ULA & SpaceX), because they are mandated by the government to build things like SLS,(which you probably already know), but why doesn’t the government jump to the idea of “space for a bargain”? with all their talk about saving money and what-not why aren’t they buying? Not because of some political scheme or whatever but because they just simply cant. The government, NASA, and the Aerospace industry are in a sort of a “deadlock” if you will.
    Politicians just simply cant call off a large project like SLS all of the sudden, or hundreds of jobs will evaporate at once, hurting the industry. So if you kill SLS, you hurt jobs/industry, thus unemployment reflects badly on policymakers. if you continue SLS, it keeps jobs/industry sable, but hurt NASA (and other associated projects other than manned flight), thus costs pile up, and again reflects badly on the lawmakers again. So policymakers would prefer to deal with the criticism of a big bill a couple of years down the road than the instant problems of a cancelled program. Now I don’t think this deadlock was made voluntary because of some political scheme, but rather the product of the mistaken assumption of “the good times will continue to roll” that started back in 07. Now if say Bush’s “science-advisory” was able to peer into the future (today), I think they would’ve most definitely could have opted for the “commercial alternative” as soon as the shuttle program was finished. However even they had to deal with post-shuttle “trauma” for say, and thats not even taking into account the 08 recession. So at the end of the day government/NASA cannot benefit (100%) from “low-cost-commercial-alternatives” nor “new-space-commercial” can benefit (100%) from the government/NASA to develop the industry/technology. That is why I think “new-space” commercial companies can initially benefit from the “old-space” markets (eg. low-cost, on-time, reliable payload deliveries), and transition into a “new-space” market (of tourism, or whatever) as delivery costs are reduced by significant figures, and progressively be less and less dependent on government projects/opinion.
    [sorry for lenthyness, I tried to cover as many parts of your question as to why we are still tied to exploration by conventional means (SLS/ULA)]

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Of course, you are correct, and I am completely sensible to the reality of the situation. The political and socio-economic reality that you speak of sits permanently in my head punching my idealistic hopes and dreams in the face. I admit, alternative scenarios to SLS, at least for the next few years, sit firmly is the “what if, what if” category. That makes forums like all the more valuable as a place to offload some of our aspirational angst.

    However, I make a conscious and deliberate choice to remain optimistic. There is the chance that as SpaceX, and the rest of “New Space”, grows and gains capability that the day may come when politicians may have to yield space flight decision making more back to the space industry and technical merit. We can but hope.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    You may well be correct regarding the one-off commercial prices. I was sort of making up the ULA numbers based on the vaguely calculated average launch price of their government contract; which includes that peculiar $1billion a year “standing costs” levy to compensate them for the low launch rate.

    That said, if we consider the Atlas V, 19 tonnes to LEO (the largest lift configuration flown to date, but theoretically could go to 29 tonnes), or the Delta IV Heavy, max. of 23 tonnes to LEO. It’s likely a bit optimistic to price any of these much below $250million and of course we do not know if ULA are even able, let alone willing, to push those prices lower.

    SpaceX, on the other hand, have published their prices openly and (next year and if there are no significant delays or issues) almost anyone with $77million will be able to purchase a Falcon Heavy flight to place 45 tonnes to LEO.
    The difference is cost/kg to orbit is downright startling.

    As always, the ULA conundrum is what could the launch prices be given a high flight rate contract. Could ULA offer 20 tonnes to LEO for $100million a flight if guaranteed 20-30 flights a year. Presumably, if they could get anywhere close to that advocates of in-orbit construction and re-fuelling would have had a much easier time deflecting the pork belly HLV argument.

    The SpaceX conundrum revolves around loads of promise, but loads of wait and see. As to whether their prices will creep up, again I and seriously doubtful, though I am a confessed optimists on this matter. From the perspective of today, the likelyhood of reusable first stages becoming a reality appears, to me at least, fairly high. I would certainly not bet against it occurring, whereas, ULA and Arianne, appear to be betting heavily against it occurring.

    As for reliability, the point I was trying to make was when does a system become judged as reliable?. If Atlas has 60 successful flights/cores and SpaceX gets to 40, is Atlas still considered more reliable?. What about 1000 versus 999?. Is more successes always going to be considered as “more” reliable, or is there a threshold number that admits you into the reliability ballpark?. Do we really have to wait until Falcon surpasses the successful flights of ULA before it is deemed “as” reliable?.

  • NASA has published the guide they use for their reliability calcs. The math is simple (maybe even simple-minded): more successes is more reliable. The magic numbers to achieve a “low” risk rating from NASA are 3, 6 and 14 depending on how wide you’ll open your kimono. I am not familiar with the details, but it sounds like the Air Force will be using that NASA standard in qualifying new EELV providers too: a few successful launches + engineering reviews = certification.

  • DaIllogicalVulkan

    Indeed, very true indeed, I too share that hope, and sometimes I also do blowoff some angst (unfortunately it ends up being SLS), but I do appreciate the forums and informed commentators such as yourself, as an important resource to have as most of an accurate picture of the industry as possible, and watch the industry continue to grow into something great.