The High Cost of SLS

Artist concept of the SLS in flight. (Credit: NASA)
Artist concept of the SLS in flight. (Credit: NASA)

I had a discussion recently with a friend of mine who does numbers crunching on big space program. This was the person’s take on what the Space Launch System (SLS) will actually cost once it gets up and running sometime in the early 2020’s.

NASA really hasn’t made much progress in bringing down operating costs. The annual program cost of the Space Launch System will be about $3 billion. This is:

  • roughly what NASA is spending annually to develop the Space Launch System and its Orion deep-space vehicle;
  • roughly what NASA is spending on station operations
  • approximately what it cost to maintain the space shuttle program when it was operating.

NASA officials are claiming that launches will cost about $500 to $700 million each. That sounds fairly reasonable given the massive payload SLS would be able to place into orbit. And you might think, well, in a good year NASA might be able to launch two of them? Wrong.

The $500 to $700 million figure might be the marginal cost of the launch, not including all the additional fixed costs of the infrastructure and program (the $3 billion per year figure). Just like the shuttle program cost about $3 billion per year whether NASA launched once or five times.

Second, there’s the cost of the actual mission NASA would want to launch with such a large rocket. For anything worth doing (more complex than just sending astronauts in an Orion on a flight test the moon), that’s could cost up to $2 billion. Per launch.

So, NASA will be limited to one SLS launch per year at a total program cost of about $3 billion, not counting the hardware for any sort of complex mission.

In effect, nothing will change. Which is not surprising because SLS is largely built out of adapted space shuttle hardware. The cost of personnel, facilities, construction, operations and launches will be quite high, as it was with shuttle. And it’s designed to be that way to employ a lot of people in key states and districts.

When the Obama Administration canceled the Constellation program four years ago, it proposed a research program designed to develop a heavy-lift capability that would not be based on shuttle technology. The goal was to develop a large booster that would be cheaper to build and launch that would be sized to whatever deep space mission the Administration decided to do.

Congress instead insisted upon building the SLS by adapting shuttle technology, which is not proving to be cheap or easy. And it will leave NASA with a very expensive system to operate without a lot of funds left over for actually doing very much in deep space. And that’s a shame.