According to a document found by Ars Technica, NASA has asked the industry for ideas on how to go about "maximizing the long-term efficiency and sustainability" of the Space Launch System (SLS) - both the rocket and its ground systems. This was not directed just at prime contractor Boeing, but at any company in the industry.
The request, which appears on the SAM.gov website in the form of a Request For Information (RFI), opens with the following explanation.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) invites industry to submit responses to this Request for Information (RFI) to assist NASA in maximizing the long term efficiency and sustainability of the Exploration Systems Development (ESD) programs, including the Space Launch System (SLS), Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) and Cross-Program Systems Integration (CSI) office by minimizing production, operations, and maintenance costs. NASA will use the information received from this RFI on a non-attribution basis for informing future acquisition(s) to address this challenge.
NASA says it sees itself as the "anchor tenant" of the system, and says they see themselves procuring one manned flight per year, which doesn't strike me as much of a pace of operations. They then say industry will "market" the large launch vehicle to other customers, including the science community and other government and non-government entities.
NASA says it wants to transition ownership of rocket production and ground services to the private industry. In return, this private contractor should build and launch the SLS at a substantial savings of 50 percent or more off of the current industry "baseline per flight cost."
The problem for us observers is that NASA has never published what that baseline cost is. We have seen some figures that imply that the cost would have to be over $1 billion per launch and possibly well over. In May of 2020, we found out that the first stage engines would cost $146 million per engine, so nearly $600 million ($584 m) for just the four engines of the booster core. That doesn't count the solid rocket boosters, the upper stage(s) or anything else. I don't think they could put the rest together for under $1 billion.
Ars asked the NASA communications office on Tuesday for this figure, but as of Wednesday morning there has been no response. In 2019, the White House Office of Management and Budget estimated the cost of one SLS launch a year at "over $2 billion." Subsequently NASA did not deny that figure, but it has not been transparent with taxpayers about the rocket's expected costs.
There's an ironic story here. The SLS was first started as a make-work program in 2011 for companies from the Shuttle era, partly architected and pushed by Florida Senator (at the time) Bill Nelson. He proudly announced the SLS would be delivered on time and under budget.
“This rocket is coming in at the cost of... not only what we estimated in the NASA Authorization act, but less,” Nelson said at the time. “The cost of the rocket over a five- to six-year period in the NASA authorization bill was to be no more than $11.5 billion. This costs $10 billion for the rocket.” Later, he went further, saying, "If we can't do a rocket for $11.5 billion, we ought to close up shop."
As most of you know, a decade latter Bill Nelson is the NASA administrator, he's still pushing the SLS, the rocket still hasn't flown, its first flight has slipped yet again to 2022, and while they've gotten farther in the last year than at any time before now, the cost is over $30 billion so far. If not being able to "do a rocket for $11.5 billion" is a clue for being time to close up shop, not being able to do it for $30 billion should lead to the doors being nailed shut and the shop razed.
It's arguable that the SLS is a relic of the Apollo age; put it all up in one giant stack. It makes me wonder about the prospects of using SLS until 2050 as parts go obsolete and impossible to get. Virtually all of the new space companies are moving in the direction of reusability. SpaceX has obviously led this effort, but other launch companies,
including Blue Origin, United Launch Alliance, Rocket Lab, Relativity
Space, and others, are all working on reusable hardware. The European, Chinese, Japanese, and Russian space industries are
as well. After reusable boosters come refuelable upper stages, tug "boats" in space,
and in-space assembly. All of those can be launched into orbit on
smaller and more affordable rockets.
NASA Artist's Concept of SLS.
NASA will hold a virtual "industry day" on its SLS request on November
10 and desires responses from industry by January 27, 2022.