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.

  • Tonya

    It’s an opinion piece, I think it’s good for Doug to write these occasionally. He doesn’t use the site to express his views in the way that for example NASAWatch does, but he obviously has views.

    An occasional editorial mixed in with the news stories which remain “just the facts” is a good balance. He should probably tag these as opinion pieces to maintain the separation.

    You’ll find relatively little to no support for the idea of turning NASA over to SpaceX here. If there is a common view of most of this sites readers, it’s a belief in a different way of doing business and greater competition. Simply switching from one dominant provider to another doesn’t fit that model.

    The SLS program has never provided estimates for it’s running costs, which is what this article concerns. We’re smoothly progressing towards an unaffordable rocket.

  • Paul451

    SLS supporters would argue that without SLS, the $3 billion saved would not be given back to NASA anyway,

    NASA’s budget has been pretty constant, as a share of government spending, for decades. About 0.5%. It fluctuates a little. But NASA isn’t going to lose $3b if SLS/Orion is cancelled, any more than it got extra funding to pay for SLS/Orion in the first place.

  • Geoff T

    Surely if the ground integrated truss has proven to take a great deal more EVA time than expected the same would also have been true for the On Orbit assembly?

  • mzungu

    Why I said,….”With luck” 🙂 Maybe the Pentagon will find some use for this Monster Tuck so it’s not a total waste.

  • Snofru Chufu

    What is the problem with hight SLS costs? Why does not FED simple print the required money as it has done in past to large extent for other reasons? In total now 16 trillions dollar.

  • Snofru Chufu

    What is the problem with hight SLS costs? Why does not FED simple print the required money as it has done in past to large extent for other reasons? In total now 16 trillions dollar…

  • windbourne

    Turning our launch over to SpaceX would put us into exactly the same situation (a monopoly), that is a fraction of the costs. While this is very preferable (a fraction of the costs), it is not the right answer.

    Instead, we NEED multiple launch vehicles. We need to have at least 2 launch vehicles of similar class. i.e. I think that once FH flies, I have no doubt that ULA will modify Delta IV to do something similar. That will bump them up to around 28-30 tonnes for about the same costs (but cheaper / tonne to LEO). It is only about 1/2 of the FH for more than 2x the costs, but it will suffice for a time. And it will make it cheaper than atlas.

    What is really needed is to get 2 companies that have SHLV of around 150 tonnes. That is why I keep speaking of a COTS for them.

    Regardless, SLS is NOT the answer. It is an economic disaster. Space is no longer about what is capable, but about what is the costs. And SLS will block our future.

  • JimMcDade

    The first clue that Doug Messler is not a reliable information source is in the opening sentence where he informs thus that his source of information, is “a friend of mine who does numbers crunching on big space program”. So typical of the internet garbage that millions of people read an accept as gospel truth.

  • Douglas Messier

    I wish he would let me quote him by name and title. It would make the post far more credible because he does know what he’s talking about. But, he’s not in a position where that’s allowed.

    I would note that GAO also has serious doubts about NASA’s cost estimates and claims for SLS. Please read and let us know where you think they are wrong. I do enjoy spirited debate on the issues.