After bidding goodbye to the Space Shuttle era, NASA has shifted its attention to next-generation rocketship inspired by the Saturn V era. Its Space Launch System (SLS), poised to emerge as the most powerful rocket ever launched, is hoped to bring humans closer to a return to the lunar surface and a successful landing on Mars.
But is the U.S. space agency bleeding from overhead costs in this ambitious rocket program?
After President George W. Bush announced in 2004, the plan to return to the moon and proceed to Mars, NASA was quick to think of how to best execute the space vision.
Amid the presence of private rocket companies back then, then-NASA administrator Michael Griffin stuck to the goal of having the agency build its own rocket and spacecraft — a platform that eventually evolved into the SLS rocket and the Orion crew vehicle.
The planned maiden flight test is an awe-inducing one: the SLS will be configured for a 70-ton lift capacity, carrying the unmanned Orion beyond low-Earth orbit. In its most potent configuration, the SLS will have a 130-ton lift capacity and work to push missions into the solar system, including the moon, asteroids, and even Mars.
Since the projects’ conception, NASA has spent $19 billion on rockets such as the Ares I and V, revealed a new report from the nonpartisan group Center for A New American Security. In addition, it has shelled out $13.9 billion on the Orion.
If its plan to fly its first manned mission using the new vehicles takes place in 2021, NASA will have spent $43 billion prior to the first flight, as reported by Ars Technica.
These costs are deemed comparable to the entire cost of the Apollo program, which boasted of six crewed lunar landings. Two individual estimates further show that the Apollo cost somewhere from $100 billion and $110 billion in 2010 dollar value, with SLS efforts already close to half of the expenses despite having no actual landing yet.
Should The Plan Go Private?
The report made an argument for turning over the rocket and spacecraft creation to the private industries given these exorbitant costs. It claimed, for instance, that “overhead costs” are worth looking at, as they entail management, administration, and development paid to the agency minus any money going to contractors actually building the hardware.
About 56 percent of Orion’s funding is believed to go to NASA directly instead of its main contractor, Lockheed Martin, and other entities. NASA-related costs for the rocket are estimated to be higher at 72 percent.
It cited that in its commercial space program, NASA is merely acting as a customer that buys rockets and space capsules from companies such as SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital ATK, and the United Launch Alliance (ULA). Future trips to the ISS, for example, will have an upgraded Dragon spacecraft from SpaceX mated with its Falcon 9 rocket.
At first glance, the comparison may seem unfair, since the requirements of SLS and the Commercial program vary significantly.
“Both Ares 5 and SLS are heavy-lift rockets, comparable to the Saturn 5, and designed to lift into orbit payloads that exceed 70 tons,” it noted. “The rockets used by SpaceX, Orbital ATK, and Boeing to lift their crew and cargo and crew capsules into low Earth orbit are much less powerful, generally lifting less than 20 tons.”
SLS appears to be the only one capable of sending spacecraft beyond the planet’s orbit.
The report went on to recommend, however, that the product’s design creation and ownership should be delegated to the private sector, despite NASA personnel’s high skill level. Turning NASA into “a customer like everyone else,” the move is foreseen to increase competition and performance at lower costs.