Friday, August 28, 2020

NASA Just Snuck Out a Revised Cost Estimate on SLS

Ars Technica space reporter Eric Berger (and stick to space, would ya, Eric?) reports today that  NASA quietly upped the cost estimates on the Senate Space Launch System. 

"Already within my short time on the job, NASA is checking-off key milestones and marching swiftly toward Artemis I," wrote Kathy Lueders, who moved into the job after leading the Commercial Crew program. "That mission, the first uncrewed flight test of our powerful Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft, is just a little more than a year away from launch."

Lueders next discussed preparations for a "Green Run" test of the SLS rocket's core stage this fall, possibly by the end of October. ...

After discussing this and other details, Lueders then rather casually let it slip that, "NASA also aligned the development costs for the SLS and Exploration Ground Systems programs through Artemis I and established new cost commitments." The new development cost for SLS rocket is $9.1 billion, she said, and its budget for the initial ground systems to support the mission is now $2.4 billion.

Back in 2017, the last re-plan said the costs would be $7.17 billion and the first launch would be "December 2019-June 2020."  As of now, the first flight is expected by November of 21.  At the best, that's a 17 month slip from 6/20 to 11/21.  SLS is the gift that just keeps on taking. 

It was only a few weeks ago when we found that each of the four main engines of the SLS would cost $146 Million a piece, or just shy of $600 million for the engines - not counting anything else on the rocket.  These are the same hardware design as the Space Shuttle Main Engines, designed as reusable engines.  At the end of each flight that $600 million will be tossed into the Atlantic.  As I pointed out in that May post, 

SpaceX has set a goal for the next version of the Raptor engine of $250 thousand.  The published thrust in a vacuum of the SSME is 512,000 lbs.  The stated thrust of the Raptor v2 is 250 tons, or 500,000 lbs. 

Not that a Raptor could directly replace an SSME.  It would require redesign of the system. 

What are the chances that the November '21 SLS flight will happen?  It's hard to know.  Certainly the major obstacle to be cleared is the "Green Run" test firing, but there have also been Covid-19 delays.  The Green Run, at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, will be the first test of the entire hardware and "plumbing" system of SLS which will run the system for over eight minutes, the amount of time required for a mission.  

You might say, "What's the big deal?  These are Space Shuttle Main Engines; they're as well known as any engine that has ever flown, if not better.  All that SLS did was design in four instead of three and add some plumbing."  We can be sure both NASA and the contractors have simulated everything that can be simulated.  Unfortunately, that may not be enough.  As Berger points out:

Engineers familiar with testing large, complex systems for the first time say there is a low probability of a perfect test or a major structural failure. However, the highest probability is that NASA and Boeing discover some problems that will at least require several months to address before the core stage is deemed ready for launch.

It's not easy to correlate their simulation vs. reality experiences with the experiences I had in a completely different world.  I suspect the big picture is the same though: by this time, they've ruled out major failures that would blow up the booster on the test stand, but it may still be possible that they need to do design "tweaks" to get the system to work as desired.  If that "highest probability" outcome of having to do some redesign is what happens, the odds of a launch before the end of '21 drop to zero.  

SLS core on the test stand at Stennis Space Center.  NASA photo.



  1. I think that everyone anticipates budget creep. A billion here and a billion there when we're talking about space flight.

    1. "A billion here, a billion there and pretty soon you're talking real money" as Everett Dirksen supposedly said?

      There's this point in the life of a project where the cost just keeps going up and the pressure to cut the project is strong. That caps the amount you get nothing for, but you don't get the working system either. It's a tough decision to stop throwing money into a project, doubly so when throwing that money buys some number of votes. They have to think about the votes they're losing, and that tends to be unknown.

      SLS and Artemis could well be the end of involvement in manned space flight. The commercial guys are outperforming the old "cost plus" system so completely it has to get noticed.

  2. What a waste of money. SpaceX, and their forward thinking, has been a major disruptor in the launch biz, and now manned spaceflight.

    To which I can only say, GO SPACEX!

    1. I really hope the proposals submitted by SX, ULA, NGC, and BO for launch services phase 2 are released for public consumption. It's going to shock a lot of the SX fan bois to learn that the SX proposal had the highest cost.

  3. $600 million for 4 RS-25/SSME? For 4 overly complicated J2 engines from the Saturn years?

    And why are the SSMEs so expensive? Because they're designed to be reused. And NASA is just going to throw them away.

    Cancel it. Cancel it hard. Fire those involved. There is little to no innovation in the whole SLS system.

    Orion is a bloated whale of a space capsule.

    Time to end it. SLS will be man-rated about the time Starship is lifting 100 people at a time.

  4. Even with all of the "successes" of the so called "commercial" space ventures, most people in this country don't understand that taxpayers are STILL footing the development bill. The difference is that any new technologies or systems developed in these "commercial" ventures are no longer the property of NASA or The People, therefore can't be licensed or leveraged to recover ANY of the program costs.

    Until Musk et al STOP getting "progress payments" for milestones met in the contract between the government and the "private" companies, these ventures are just government space programs without all of NASA's bureaucracy.

    True "private" space companies, i.e. companies that make a profit to keep fueling growth and innovation are still 50 to 100 years away IMHO. They may never become a reality if certain political entities have their way.

    Overcoming earth's gravity well safely and efficiently is and will continue to be a huge $ suck not affordable by private enterprise, until some kind of anti-gravity tech is invented, even with so called re-usable launch vehicles.

    Understand, I'm NOT saying that the US shouldn't be a space faring nation. What I am saying is that everyday people need to understand the realities of the current ventures. Every day people are never going to figure out what is really going on with space ventures because, like so much else in our society, it's deliberately being hidden from them by CONgress, NASA and the press.


    1. I think that there's an important nuance that you overlook. The private companies get their "progress payments" for work they're contracted for. They don't get any NASA money if they're not working on NASA contracts. From what I see, SpaceX's paying customers fund most operations. Their Starlink missions will eventually produce a revenue stream, but right now are company R&D. They only use their most highly flown boosters on their own payloads as they learn how often they can be reused. If a booster blows, they take out their own Starlink satellites not a paying customer's (well, there have been some ride share missions).

      The Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy were developed either entirely, or almost entirely, on their own dime, as have the Starship and Starship Heavy which are being developed now. Rocket Lab's Electron booster was done on private money (in New Zealand). I believe Blue Origin does development on money found in Jeff Bezos' sofa cushions. Just kidding on that, but the obvious difference is that SpaceX funded themselves by putting other peoples' payloads into orbit while Blue Origin developed engines and a couple of test vehicles. They may now have other companies' money for engine development, but I don't believe they've ever achieved orbit.

      SpaceX is developing plans for a special version of Starship to land on the moon, on a short term (10 month) NASA contract. SpaceX got the smallest contract NASA put out: $579 million to Blue Origin, $253 m to Dynetics and $125 m to SpaceX.

      The important takeaway being that the private space operations haven't succeeded only by taking gubmint money. Compared to the typical "cost plus" contracts that programs like SLS have been done under, NASA has saved butt loads of money with Commercial Space. In fact, the single worst investment they've made has been Boeing's Starliner.

    2. SpaceX has gotten some development money for various programs, as part of the costs of their systems. But look at what they are charging NASA and other FedGov agencies in comparison to ULA. In the first 10 launches by SpaceX, they've shown to be cheaper even with development money tossed in, than 10 launches with ULA. Since then, you could triple the devmonies and still come out cheaper with SpaceX.


      Where's the Sierra Nevada DreamChaser? That was supposed to be flying and producing 3 years ago in either the Cargo or Crewed versions? Where's the Development monies from that?

      Or LockMart's Orion? Which is so bloated and convoluted I fully expect NASA to chuck it and just go with SpaceX's Starship.

      Then there's all the development money spent on Boeing, as our host pointed out. There have been rumors that NASA is keeping up with Boeing because Congress and future jobs at Boeing may await for ex-NASA personnel.

      Want to save money? Ditch ULA. 100%. Don't fly with them unless and until they can provide launches at 1.5 the cost of SpaceX, preferably cheaper. Ditch Boeing, make them suck it on their dime, until they actually achieve the same goals SpaceX has. Ditch Sierra Nevada until they get their butts in gear. No money without positive results. Want money? Do a good job.

      We can have a COTS program that saves us money and produces. So far only SpaceX is doing it.