Eli Dourado

The Space Launch System is part of a swamp that needs to be drained

For my first post at CGO’s Benchmark blog, I chose to write about the Space Launch System, the rocket that Boeing and other military contractors are developing for NASA. I wanted to write an explainer that conveys just how corrupt is Congress’s current practice of using these NASA mega-programs for pork.

2011 also marked the end of the Space Shuttle program, which was already 15 years beyond its planned life. The cancellation of these two programs brought demand for a new program to absorb the newly unemployed engineers. Senators from Alabama, Texas, and Florida pushed to create the Space Launch System using engineering and parts from Constellation and the Space Shuttle. This ensured that jobs in those states could stay there for another decade or more.

The core stage was doled out to Boeing on a cost-plus contract. It is now more than three years late, and costs are about 2x what they were when the contract was first approved. Yet these delays and cost overruns didn’t stop NASA from giving Boeing extra money.

The IG also found that despite multi-year delays in the SLS schedule and ballooning costs, NASA paid Boeing millions of dollars in award fees, which the agency grants based on performance. NASA contract managers subjectively rated Boeing performance as very good to excellent every year from FY2013 to FY2017. This made the company eligible for $234 million in award fees out of a possible total of $262 million.

Yet even when the SLS is developed, it will be too expensive to operate, except when Congress mandates it to create more jobs for Boeing.

“At an estimated cost of over $2 billion per launch for the SLS once development is complete, the use of a commercial launch vehicle would provide over $1.5 billion in cost savings,” wrote OMB.

That $2 billion figure appears to include around a $900 million marginal cost of the rocket plus the facilities needed to produce more than one rocket per year, as the Europa mission would require. As OMB emphasizes, this estimate excludes all development costs. Including development costs, the cost per launch could be $4–5 billion.

The SLS compares unfavorably to SpaceX’s Starship, to say the least.

Even assuming you have to launch two Starships to take advantage of on-orbit refueling, that amounts to a cost of $110 million to take 150 tons of cargo to the moon. This $110 million price tag is less than an eighth of the cost of an SLS launch, while transporting a payload of three times as much mass, a 24-fold improvement in launch efficiency.

The SLS is economically obsolete before it is even completed. Congress’s behavior is absolutely shameful, but they persist because not enough people understand what is going on. This post is my attempt to change that. Please do read and share the whole thing.