NASA considers offering SLS for commercial payloads

Please consider donating to Behind the Black, by giving either a one-time contribution or a regular subscription, as outlined in the tip jar to the right. Your support will allow me to continue covering science and culture as I have for the past twenty years, independent and free from any outside influence.

Squelching the competition: NASA is pushing to redesign its expensive and giant Space Launch System (SLS) rocket so that it can be used to launch commercial, military, and scientific payloads as well as proposed manned exploration missions.

At the moment, SLS has no planned payloads or funded flights past its second test flight in 2021. The system is very expensive, however, and the only way other customers could afford it would be if NASA charges them far less than the actual cost to fly. In such circumstances, NASA would essentially be subsidizing SLS so that it could compete, even undercut, private commercial rockets that actually cost far less.

If NASA does this, they could very well squelch the emerging private commercial launch industry.


  • fred k

    NASA’s manned program is a *huge* waste of money. The linked article discusses a structural element, which is given a mandatory government three letter acronym:

    (The USA is) a separable adapter which provides a structural interface between the EUS and Orion (that) can accommodate co-manifested payloads (significant mission elements such as habitats, communications satellites, in-space telescopes, etc.) and secondary payloads (cubesats or equivalent ‘small’ science or engineering experiments),

    So, we are spending 10s of billions of dollars for some cube sats riding to space on a gov’t dinosaur rocket?

    This is financially insane.

  • David M. Cook

    Just think, we can launch every payload in the country, and save money doing it!

    Wait, I’m getting a huge feeling of Deja Vu, for some strange reason.

  • Edward


    I think you misunderstood. The primary payload would be the major paying customer, someone with a little less than 105 tonnes to put into orbit. The secondary payloads are the smaller satellites that would ride with the primary payload, as is common practice on launchers today. It isn’t as insane as you suggest, but unless the paying customers fully reimburse NASA for costs, then the customers would be subsidized by the US taxpayer, which would make it financially undesirable.

    You are right that our manned space program has been disappointing. The Space Shuttle cost more and flew less than anticipated, so we got less productivity than expected for our tax dollar, and the International Space Station also cost more and carries fewer crew members (and fewer experimental modules, such as the centrifuge) than originally designed, so we are again getting less productivity than expected for our money.

    Once again, we are spending large amounts of money on a launch system which will not even take us back to the moon — the destination of SLS’s predecessor, Constellation. SLS has no actual mission, but Congress dreams that it will eventually put a manned spacecraft on course to Mars, and the president dreams that it will get a crew close to an asteroid or to a boulder from an asteroid.

    Having no mission, SLS is available for any company (or foreign government) that is willing to spend the large sum to put 105 tonnes into orbit. However, whether it will ever be worth the large development cost is a question that only the future can answer (I suspect not, too).

  • Fred Kleindenst

    I do understand. I discount the primary payload as wasteful for the reasons you cite.

    I find it highly ironic that very large scale missions like ISS and SLS seem to be most valued for the opportunities to launch a few Kgs of cubesats.

  • Edward

    I’m confused about what Reasons I cited that make a primary payload wasteful, considering I did not talk about primary payloads as being wasteful. Not only do primary payloads generate a lot of commercial business and improved communications, civil primary payloads have resulted in superior weather forecasting, better hurricane warnings and more timely evacuations.

    What I find wasteful about SLS is that it was backward thinking that designed it. A better way to set requirements for a rocket (as with most designs) is to choose a mission then design the rocket to fit the mission. For example, the Falcons are designed to meet the needs of current satellite operators — and they can take cubesats aloft, too. SLS is designed with a capacity in mind and a hope that missions will come along that requires that capacity. If they do then fine, the primary payload is still valuable, but if they don’t then what was the (expensive) point of the rocket?

    I’m confused about what part of “secondary” — rather than “primary” — makes you think “most valued.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *