Lori Garver Says: NASA Should Dump Space Launch System

Lifting off at 3:45 p.m. from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, a SpaceX Falcon Heavy begins its demonstration flight. (Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett)

Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver has a op-ed in The Hill arguing that NASA should dump the Space Launch System in the wake of the successful maiden flight of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy.

The question to be answered in Washington now is why would Congress continue to spend billions of taxpayer dollars a year on a government-made rocket that is unnecessary and obsolete now that the private sector has shown they can do it for a fraction of the cost?

If lawmakers continue on this path, it will siphon-off even more funds that NASA could otherwise use for science missions, transfer vehicles or landers that will further advance our understanding of the universe — and actually get us somewhere.

NASA has spent more than $15 billion to try and develop their own heavy lift rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), with a first flight planned in roughly two years — assuming all goes according to plan.

Once operational, SLS will cost NASA over $1 billion per launch. The Falcon Heavy, developed at zero cost to the taxpayer, would charge NASA approximately $100M per launch. In other words, NASA could buy 10 Falcon Heavy launches for the coat of one SLS launch — and invest the remainder in truly revolutionary and meaningful missions that advance science and exploration.

Read the full piece.

  • 868686

    Totally indeed!

  • Bulldog

    I am a huge NASA fan however SLS time has come and gone. The program has become indefensible. Poorly conceived, too long in development, too expensive to fly and now so late to the game that it looks like a dinosaur, a giant reminder of the way things used to be done. It’s time for Congress and NASA to swallow their collective pride, cut our collective losses and relegate SLS to the bin.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Should dump SLS and Orion. But won’t and continue to waste tons of taxpayer money and not go anywhere with it.

  • Smokey_the_Bear

    I think politics will keep the SLS alive. But I hope I’m wrong.

  • Ignacio Rockwill

    SLS’s primary purpose is to be a jobs program. Its (distant) secondary purpose is for crewed missions beyond Earth orbit. Since Elon said they’re not pursuing a human rating for FH, it seems still has an argument for being the launch vehicle for crewed missions beyond Earth orbit (I’m definitely not saying it *should* be, that’s the just the argument I can see people making in its defense)

  • windbourne

    actually, I would argue that it was fine as conceived.
    The problem became CONgress got involved and they were doing what the old space told them to do.

    CONgress will NOT swallow pride, because they are on the payrolls of companies like L-Mart, Boeing, etc.
    To change this, really requires several thing:
    1) give SLS/Orion to Boeing, L-Mart, etc. I mean just give it to them.
    2) Now have the gov take bids for 1-2 SHLV launches / year for several years and to be done by 2 or more companies.
    Which ever company has the lowest costs, and most volume, gets the 2 launches / year, while the other company gets 1 launch / year. The SLS team is actually capable of bidding lower, it is just up to them to do so.

  • windbourne

    Just because FH is not getting a manned rating does not mean that SX can not go BEO.
    In particular, FH can send a BA unit to L1, and then F9 sends Dragon to there. If F9 is not strong enough, then a simple tug can do the job.

    However, it makes sense to have 2 or more SHLV available at all times, esp if we are going to the moon/mars.

  • Pete Zaitcev

    That’s what Blue Origin is for, I suppose.

  • Michael Halpern

    Besides which if ELON is saying BFR is coming along faster than expected then it’s probably closer to on time than we think

  • mattmcc80

    As long as Richard Shelby is in office, SLS isn’t going away.

  • Terry Stetler

    More to the point, after the FH demo he reported they plan BF Spaceship hop and flight tests starting in 2019 or so at Boca Chica, and that it’s capable of SSTO. Wired reported a Spaceship factory at San Pedro CA, and NSF reported a KSC BFR factory. That ball is rollin’.

  • delphinus100

    The program has enough inertia for at least two launches…but no bets beyond that.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, scaring Elon Musk from using the FH for a crewed Dragon flight is proof of that, along the sudden MOUs with the ISS partners to build a DSG to give it mission that would make it impossible to kill off.

    Add to it the CSLC Act of 2015 designates it as the legal replacement of the Shuttle exempting from the rule that NASA must use a commercial alternative and it might be around soaking up the NASA budget for decades.

  • ThomasLMatula

    If Elon Musk really wants to reduce cost he should probably consolidate all BSR work in Texas. The transportation costs between the Cape and California, and high costs of doing business in California, will probably make it more BFR more expensive. Yes, California is cool, but the state’s tax structure, strict regulations and high cost of living make it really a bad place to do business.

    Texas would probably pay him to build a BFR factory near Brownsville, or near Houston where it a easy transport by barge down the Innner Coastal Waterway to the Brownsville launch site.

  • Lori seems to have all her great ideas AFTER she’s out of office.

  • windbourne

    not at all.
    She helped keep CCx going, even though the gop were opposed to it.
    And yeah, she DID push SLS, but not this cluster ***k.
    The current situation is due SOLELY to CONgress (yes, both dems and gop) being in the front pockets of these companies.

  • windbourne

    the smart thing would be to give the sls to the companies involved and then use part of the money to do 3 or 5 launches / year with 2 different systems. The reason for odd number is whomever bids lower / launch, gets an extra launch.

  • windbourne

    it will if nothing is done.
    BUT, it can be stopped.

  • windbourne

    So many things wrong here.
    First off, Musk was scared off from man rating the FH? Are you SERIOUS?
    The man wants to focus on BFR which totally makes sense.

    Secondly, I think that the act that you are looking for is called SPACE, not CSLC.


    And then if you look at it sec 11[67] under summary, it speaks about the SLS.
    In particular, it says that if NASA selects it, then NASA must notify CONgress of the mission and why SLS was chosen over private launch.
    NASA will have a difficult time pushing SLS over FH and once BFR is available, it will be impossible.

  • windbourne

    yeah, I am amazed that he is not doing the booster first. If he is really able to make that available CHEAPER than FH, it would seem like the right thing to do.

  • windbourne

    He needs the ability to get good engineers.
    And few good engineers want to live in Texas. Might as well be Mississippi or even Somalia, based on your argument, which is lower costs.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Can you imagine the reorganization at the NASA human spaceflight community if they had to support 10’s of flights a year and something on the order of 50 astronauts flying in the same time period? They could easily do so with people on hand, however job descriptions would have to change. Then, there’s feeding such large payloads to BFR or SLS. BFR and SLS both suffer from a near total lack of payloads. SLS makes more sense to NASA for two main reasons. Low flight rate. No need to change agency ecosystem. NASA is not a flying organization anymore. Thinking back to my student pilot days I can see why. It’s scary, and when you’re learning, it can be terrifying. It’s genuinely risky. I can understand why a large organization would not put it’s focus on flying especially experimental flying. Do you really want to kill SLS and support FH and BFR, create public pressure for NASA to fly. Fly robotic, and fly humans, do them both, and fly fly fly. Fly for the sake of flying.

  • windbourne

    I will hope so, but, that is the LAST thing I would count on. 🙂

  • Michael Halpern

    True, however instead of my prior estimate of 2027 i am putting it a 2024-26

  • ThomasLMatula

    “NASA has spent more than $15 billion to try and develop their own heavy lift rocket”

    $15 billion equals 150 FH launches that could place 9,000 Tons, equivalent to the mass of 18 ISS in orbit. 150 FH launches could also place 1,800 tons on the Moon’s surface. The world has changed, its time NASA and the Congress Critters that fund it wake up.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    I’m pretty confident that Elon will get it done but not in his current rosy timeframe. He should man-rate the rocket he has instead of waiting for his next paper rocket to become a reality.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    I think we agree that Elon is working engineering marvels but he needs a “Scottie” as the person making the time to completion estimates.

  • patb2009

    It seemed to me, Lori helped kill off Ares.
    The Obama team was notably uninterested in Ares.

  • windbourne

    why? F9 will be man-rated. FH does not buy anything other than a loop around the moon.
    OTOH, FH can send up a BA unit, tug/depot, supplies, etc. to go to the moon.

  • windbourne

    Lori was core to killing Constellation off.
    BUT that was only after the study that showed we were going to have issues.

  • Jeff2Space

    So give SLS away while allowing it to compete with launch vehicles which weren’t government funded? How’s that fair? Admittedly, SLS is in such sad shape it might actually be a detriment to use it as a starting point.

  • Michael Halpern

    F9 will be human rated, however by the time FH would be, it will most likely be pointless in 3 to 5 years with BFR

  • Michael Halpern

    More unknowns with BFS, and he would still need a second stage to make it useful, the booster is a scaled up, methalox burning F9 first stage with 31 engines bfs is a vertically landing shuttle with FAR more internal volume and payload capacity both up and down, it also has to be able to SSTO from Mars

  • It’s much easier to cancel SLS if you manage to get most of the same pork to flow to most of the same people. So here’s my proposal:

    1) Keep Orion to get crews to and from LLO, but launch it on Falcon Heavy.

    2) Use ACES as the high-energy transfer stage to get from LEO to LLO–but launch it on FH.

    3) Use XEUS as the lunar lander–but launch it on FH.

    4) Cancel SLS, but:
    a) Make sure that Marshall designs the rest of the lunar architecture.
    b) We’re going to need on-orbit refueling (simple distributed launch, not a full prop depot–yet). Get Boeing to build the tankage at Michoud.

    5) Entice/coerce SpaceX into doing the work necessary to launch ACES (which will require hydrogen fill on the pad, and some payload adapter/fairing/nosecone work) and crew-rate with Orion (which will require different crew access stuff).

    I think this keeps almost everybody happy except for Boeing, and they get tossed multiple bones and get to bank half the profits from ULA selling a buttload of ACES stages. Lockmart should be ecstatic, because this actually gives Orion something useful to do. It keeps SpaceX’s involvement to a minimum, but probably necessitates a year or two of delay to BFR–which should make Lockmart and Boeing happy, as it gives them a bit more time to get their architecture entrenched, and to get their launcher act together.

    This is obviously not optimal. But it’s so much less non-optimal than continuing with SLS that I’d count something like this as a huge win.

  • I remain very skeptical about this SSTO throwaway line of Elon’s. Even with no payload, and even using the vacuum engines at sea level (which he said they could do on one of the AMA’s, but that he wouldn’t recommend it if the engines were to be reused), you’ve got 3 sea level Raptors at 1700 kN, 4 vacs at maybe 1850 kN, and a 1185 tonne vehicle, which gives you a T/W of only 1.08. It has close to enough delta-v (9300 m/s if you charitably assume an average Isp of 360 s), but gravity drag would be horrific at that kind of T/W.

    On the other hand, it makes a perfectly fine SSTO on Mars, where the T/W with just the 4 vacuum Raptors and a 20 tonne payload would be 1.70, and you’d get 8970 m/s of delta-v.

    That said, suborbital hopping is easy: just don’t do a full load-out of propellant. Or, better yet, use a sub-scale system.

    I’m pretty sanguine about the BFB, but the BFS is going to cause no end of trouble. It has vehicle dynamics that have never been tried before. It has a huge heat shield. It has header tanks built into the primary tanks. It has the structural ratio of an ordinary second stage while fulfilling the role of a full-up crewed spacecraft with huge cargo volume. Just because they claim they’re going to do a few hop tests doesn’t even come close to implying that they’re closer than their aspirational schedule.

  • “give SLS/Orion to Boeing, L-Mart, etc. I mean just give it to them.”

    What’s there to give? There’s no interesting intellectual property, and the contractors already have all the tooling. Plus, you’d have to give the Michoud facility to Boeing to make it even slightly useful.

    See my proposal elsewhere on the thread: I think we should use Orion, ACES, and XEUS, but launch them on FHs. Then we toss as much pork as we can at Boeing to make up for cancelling SLS. Given them contracts manufacturing refueling tankage at Michoud, and most of the infrastructure work for the lunar surface. Between that the profits they’ll bank from a high rate of ACES production at ULA, they’ll come out mostly OK. And Lockmart will be ecstatic to have a chance to manufacture more than 4 Orions.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    Is FH not capable of lifting a lander and CSM? I’m afraid that a strategy of waiting on BFR will only cede the man-rated heavy lift field to SLS/Orion.

  • duheagle

    As long we’ve entered a “What to do with SLS” derby, allow me to immodestly make a shameless plug for my newest piece over on The Space Review.

  • duheagle

    That was Ted Stevens’s take on “The Bridge to Nowhere.” Senators have no magical powers. Under suitable circumstances, Shelby can be rolled too.

  • duheagle

    As a rabid progressive, I’m sure you believe all that, but most of it is bigoted nonsense. There are plenty of good engineers in TX. The percentage of such who are aerospace engineers is certainly lower than in CA, but that’s a function of history. SpaceX certainly had no trouble attracting engineers to McGregor – hardly a hipster metropolis. The same will prove true of Brownsville if significant BFR development and production infrastructure is established there, as now seems increasingly certain.

    The idea that TX businesses can’t get good people is risible. People go where jobs are. Roughly half the net new job creation in the entire U.S. over the past decade has taken place in TX. The TX population is rising at over twice the rate of CA’s and has been for roughly the last three decades. Since 1990, CA’s population has increased by 10 million, a 1/3 increase, but TX’s population has increased by 11.7 million, a 69% increase. The TX population in 1990 was 57% of CA’s. The current TX population is 72% of CA’s. TX could well supplant CA as the most populous state by the time of the 2040 census.

    The people flooding into TX don’t seem to find the TX tax system off-putting. There is no state income tax. Sales taxes are higher than the national average, but still lower than in CA. There’s no Prop. 13 in TX so property is taxed at a higher rate than in CA, but housing is also a lot cheaper in TX.

    You’re entirely wrong about TX education. TX has been beating the pants off CA in the National Assessment of Educational Progress for years. In 2013, for example, TX was significantly above the national average in 4th grade math and at the national average in reading, writing and science. It was also significantly above the national average in 8th grade math and science and at the national average in writing. TX was significantly below the national average only in 8th grade reading. CA, in contrast, was significantly below the national average in every 8th grade subject and in three of the 4th grade subjects. CA was at the national average only in 4th grade writing.

  • duheagle


  • duheagle

    My reply to this is in the comments thread for my SLS article over at The Space Review.

  • ThomasLMatula

    You do know that the link you provided leads to the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness (CSLC) Act? So you just proved yourself wrong.

    The Dragon2 was intended to be recovered on land using rockets but the requirements NASA placed on Elon Musk to demonstrate it could were so expensive he switched to water recovery. This makes it much less suitable for commercial flights. So it appears that in disgust at NASA Elon Musk is shifting all resources to the BFR, which is a non-NASA Project. He even appears to be moving it’s launch site to Texas to emphasis it has no links to NASA.

    Without the land recovery of Dragon2, which would have made it suitable for lunar and Mars landings, he appears to no longer see any point in using the FH for Mars or Moon flights unless a customer shows up with a specific spacecraft to launch on it. And it appears Elon Musk no longer sees any point with working in Dragon2 beyond what NASA wants it for. So NASA’s requirements for Commercial Crew have appeared to made Dragon2 unsuitable for commercial use. Score one for NASA 🙂

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, IF NASA really wanted to have a DSG in lunar orbit it could have one in only a couple years using the FH to place a B330 in orbit and then sending the Dragon2 to it. Even with NASA paper work and micromanagement it could probably be done for under $1 billion. But the way NASA works they will probably just spend that amount and time holding endless meetings with ISS partners on it and doing endless studies on its design.

    So it appears the DSG will turn into a jobs program to justify the SLS and replace the ISS jobs program. Be prepared to see billions and billions wasted on it. So with its planned Saturn V clone (SLS) and CSM clone (Orion) it’s why so many folks now see NASA as the No Advances in Space Agency 🙂

  • Tim Helmer

    NO! Boeing got twice as much for their crewd capsule as did SpaceX. Give it someone who has proven they are not on the good ole gravy train.

  • Tim Helmer

    Turn the funding for SLS over to SpaceX for the BFR. Watch shit happen.

  • Tim Helmer

    Give em squat.

  • Tim Helmer

    I’m against funding a heavy lift while a private company builds a better product un-funded. But I think they just have to finish the thing. That said someone really needs to light a fire under their ass. That’s for sure.

  • Tim Helmer

    They said 1-2 launches per year. That’s 1-2 billion out of an almost 20 billion budget. Not the end of the world. Just make damn sure the contractors are nailed to the contract, no cost overruns. If their ass is on the line they might get better at controlling costs.

  • Tim Helmer

    Yes it makes sense to see if they can survive in the natural world. They have tons of free hardware to make a compelling argument that SLS will be useful at least until BFR has ramped up and is flying regularly. We should not forget that SLS and Orion, their mission is deep space and return to Earth. Something the BFR may have problems with. The clock is ticking.