Is the SLS rocket really worth the “price”?

The massive SLS rocket, NASA’s new heavy launch vehicle, will (hopefully) make its first flight in a few days as part of the Artemis 1 mission. Other vehicles are also in preparation in the US However, the bill, already salty, continues to weigh it down, while a more attractive and less expensive interplanetary ship emerges.

SLST took off on Monday August 29 to target the Moon as part of the first mission of the Artemis program. Controllers eventually aborted the launch due to a major technical problem with RS_25 engine n°3. A second launch opportunity opens this Friday, September 2, but the weather forecast is already looking grim.

This new hiccup is only recent. And SLS has been in the papers for quite some time.

NASA actually began building its launcher in 2011 after canceling its Constellation lunar program. At the time, the rocket’s development budget was ten billion dollars, with its maiden voyage scheduled for late 2016. However, development costs, budget issues, design changes, and other political obstacles delayed the rocket’s first launch. Rocket in 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 and finally 2022.

Meanwhile, the space world continued to evolve and other players distinguished themselves. Examples include the rise of commercial cargo and commercial crew missions to the ISS, the introduction of reusable rockets by SpaceX, and an exponential accumulation of new private space companies.

We also think of SpaceX’s Starship.

Credit: NASA

Huge potential

Six years ago, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk actually revealed the first sketches of his future deep space transportation system: a giant, fully reusable rocket-spacecraft combo.

So far, only a few prototypes have taken off, none of them performing orbital test flights. However, a first orbital flight is planned before the end of this year. If successful, SpaceX will take its vehicle from the drawing board to space in far less time than it took NASA to do the same with the SLS.

Eventually, SpaceX will aim to build an entire fleet of starships. They can be launched for less than a million dollars each.

NASA sees considerable potential in starships. That’s why the agency has set its sights on SpaceX to land its future astronauts on the moon as part of the Artemis 3 mission. This will be the first lunar landing since the end of the Apollo era. In 2025 or 2026.

On paper, the Starship would be able to transport astronauts from Earth to the Moon and then bring them back. However, NASA intends to rely on its SLS rocket and its Orion capsule for all its future lunar missions. Concretely, an SLS rocket will launch a capsule towards the moon. Once in orbit, the astronauts would integrate the starship to land on the moon. The starship will then take off to bring them back to the capsule, after which the astronauts will return to Earth.

Super Heavy Starship SpaceX SLS
A starship is mounted on its launcher. Credit: Trevor Mahlman

Political factor

Given the potential of this ship, we can wonder why NASA would not want to abandon its massive SLS rocket in favor of a stand-alone starship. A report by NASA’s Office of Inspector General released in November 2021 actually revealed the cost of each SLS launch. According to the report, NASA will eventually spend the total $93 billion for the Artemis program between 2012 and 2025, and each SLS/Orion launch costs approx. $4.1 billion.

Additionally, the timeline for building a complete SLS/Orion stack keeps NASA’s rockets at roughly launch cadence Once every two years.

However, it is important to note that the development of SLS has (and will continue to) involve a variety of partners in the United States and around the world. So is the $93 billion portion of the Artemis program These companies and thousands of their employees distribute. But keeping these jobs in the space industry has become an annual priority for many members of the US Congress, hoping to strengthen their political standing with voters.

This is essentially what allows SLS and the Artemis program to stay in the game. Let’s just say, SLS isn’t going away anytime soon. Furthermore, launchers for the Artemis 2 to 4 missions are already being assembled.

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