Twelve years after it was first announced, NASA’s massive Space Launch System will finally be making its public debut. The heavy-lift rocket and Orion spacecraft will begin blasting off to the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida Thursday, a long-awaited development for a launch system that has suffered from delays and price hikes.
After Thursday’s launch, which is expected to take 11 hours, NASA will conduct a large number of tests to determine readiness for launch, such as validating software systems and servicing the boosters. Next, NASA will begin a “wet dress rehearsal,” a series of additional pre-launch tests, during which the system will be loaded with its own fuel tanks. Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, Artemis launch director, told reporters during a media call Monday that the wet dress could be done on April 3, if it rolls out as expected.
It’s been a long time coming. Congress directed NASA to develop an SLS to replace the Space Shuttle, the agency’s original backbone of spaceflight, in 2010. The SLS is envisioned as a way to return humans to the Moon as part of NASA’s Artemis program, and possibly further into the Solar System.
But since then, the project has faced frequent setbacks and technical issues. A year ago, NASA’s Office of the Inspector General issued damning report In terms of costs and contracts associated with the SLS program, it found that “incremental costs and delays” pushed the overall project budget beyond the original scope. Arguably the biggest winners from this group are the space primes — notably Boeing, which leads development of the SLS, and Northrop Grumman and Aerojet, whose contracts made up 71% of total funding spent in 2019 on all SLS contracts, according to the inspector. general.
All this adds up to a very expensive project. At the beginning of March, a NASA auditor reported that operating expenses for the first four Artemis missions would be $4.1 billion—each. The cost to build one SLS is about half that, or $2.2 billion. It appears that NASA’s Associate Director of Exploration Systems Development, Tom Whitmaier, is implicitly commenting on the price tag, telling reporters that the project is a “national investment.”
In my view, it is a solid national investment [and] International participation in our economy.
The high price of the SLS is partly due to the fact that neither stage of the SLS can be reused, so each mission will need its own rocket. Unlike the SLS, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk estimated last month that his company’s superheavy, fully reusable rocket, Starship, would cost less than $10 million per launch within the next few years. SpaceX is developing a version of the rocket for NASA as part of the Artemis program, after winning a $2.9 billion contract for that mission last year.
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